Not everything needs to be a learning moment — Sometimes engagement is enough.

Last week I had a conversation with a friend of a friend who runs talk sessions at a major Australian arts venue. The talks are well regarded and attended yet she felt that often the audience wasn’t learning that much. She wanted to know what could be done so people would actually remember much more from the talk.

Through the discussion we came across the unexpected insight: perhaps learning in this setting is not really the goal. Moreover it might be bad business.

So how did we get there?…

Presenting, engagement and learning

A common mistake is to confuse three related yet different processes: presenting, engagement, and learning.

  • Presenting: the transmitting of information or the display of a skill. This could be a teacher delivering a lecture, a chef cooking on YouTube or a politician delivering a speech.

Often when people refer to learning they tend to be referring instead to presenting or engagement. Let’s look at the following common scenarios:

  1. You a sitting through a lecture at university. During the lecture the Professor talks through her slides while writing notes on the blackboard. At the same time you make your own notes.

The first scenario is what is classically referred to as teaching when in fact it is simply presenting (transmitting information).

The second scenario is a combination of presenting and engagement. The podcast presents information to you in an enjoyable audio format. You are likely engaged by the story or the way the host interacts with guests. Because you are interested you likely feel as though you learned a lot — but the inability to recall the information later shows that the learning was limited.

The third scenario focuses on increasing the engagement of the students as a proxy for learning. The teacher actually wants to improve the maths knowledge of his class. To do this he tries to make maths more fun through gamification. This is a common trick our brains play on us, what the behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman calls heuristics — a mental shortcut used to solve problems. Measuring and improving learning directly is hard, so instead, our brains replace learning with engagement. Educational research shows that when constructed carefully, improving student engagement (on learning not just in general) can improve student achievement [see Grattan Institute paper for further reading]. However, while engagement can lead to learning, they are not the same. The teacher still needs to measure whether the students have learned the concepts!

The deck is stacked against effective teaching and learning

Unfortunately, there is an inverse relationship between what we perceive improves learning and what actually does.

People are particularly bad at predicting what will actually improve learning [See Karpicke and Blunt 2011, and Deslaurier et al 2019]. As learners we intuitively believe that passive approaches such as taking notes, listening to lectures or watching videos are more effective than active approaches such as recall and answering questions. Yet the reverse is true.

“There is an inverse relationship between what we perceive improves learning and what actually does.”

Figure 2: People enjoy passive teaching approaches more but they are less effective — Deslaurier et al 2019

Effective learning is effortful in the same way as effective exercise is. Good learning makes your brain tired. Yet effortful learning is frustrating. We assume that since we can’t understand it straight away then we must not be learning. This belief is so strong that even when you present people with the evidence (and even conduct experiments on them for extra effect!) few learners adjust their approaches. It doesn’t fit with what they know to be true.

This then creates a viscous cycle:
Students (wrongly) believe that teachers using active approaches are less effective. Students then rate those teachers poorly (or complain to their parents). Those teachers are then told they are not effective and so revert back to lectures and other passive approaches. Students become happier but learn less. But then we all wonder why results are going backwards.

Not everything needs to be a learning moment

Now this might be confusing statement from someone who is deeply interested in learning but not everything needs to be a learning moment. There are plenty of activities that we do simply for enjoyment and entertainment purposes.

It is OK to watch a movie, listen to podcast or attend a talk series and later forget what they were all about. Just as it is OK to play a game and not care about the outcome once it is over. We do it because we get pleasure out of it.

It depends on the main purpose of the activity. Do you want to retain the knowledge or skill in the future? Do you want to be entertained? Or maybe a bit of both?

For presentations focus on engagement rather than learning

As presenters think of your role as an entertainer rather than that of a teacher. Getting the audience to remember your name and topic would be a win! As shown above, the more you do to actually help the audience learn the less they will think they have learned and the less they will like your presentation!

Focus instead on the perception of learning.
Be engaging. Be entertaining. Be inspiring.

If you can get the audience excited those who are interested will continue research in their own time. Provide enough threads in your talk for them to explore.

But what if I actually want to remember things from that talk/podcast/video?

I’m glad you asked.
If you want to go beyond entertainment value to actually remember then you will need to become an active participant rather than a passive observer. You will need to undertake recall (retrieval practice) and put that newfound knowledge/skill into practice. You will need to be OK with frustration.

Examples of things to do

  • At regular points ask yourself to recall what you remember so far

For example imagine you are trying to learn a skill off YouTube such as a new cooking recipe, woodworking project, or makeup technique. The typical case would be to watch the video (or binge a whole series of them) and at the end feel (falsely) confident that you are now proficient. You are unlikely to bother trying it out since you know how to do it.

Kardas and O’Brien found that people who watched videos 20 times rather than just once (without practising) substantially increased how good they thought they would be without any increase in actual ability. This was consistent across activities such as throwing darts, playing computer games, and dancing.

So instead of just watching, reading or listening to instructions be active and practice. For example, watch a portion, pause it, and try it yourself. If (when) you get it wrong, rewind and try again until you have the hang of it. Then move on to the next bit.

Bring on the frustration! And the learning.

EdTech entrepreneur, passionate about improving education impact through tech and research-driving practice. Former consultant and engineer. Harvard MBA.