Community Gabfest: Engaged Learners

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On October 19, 2023 AlphaPlus hosted our eleventh Community Gabfest.

The theme was Engaged Learners.

We used a Jamboard to guide our conversation: Wayfinders Gabfest 11 Jamboard.

We started with these questions:

  • How do we engage learners?
    • How do we know when they are engaged?
  • How does learner engagement inform our practice?

We had planned for these questions as well but we did not get that far. Maybe we should have a Gabfest about over-prepping 🙂

  • If the learners are engaged, what do you do next?
    • If the learners are not engaged, what do you do?
  • Can technology help with learner engagement?
    • Can technology support flexibility over the pace of learning?
    • Can technology empower learner voice and choice over learning pathways?
    • Can technology support learner choice over the time and place of learning?

Before we got into the nitty gritty we warmed up by introducing ourselves in two words:

Jamboard frame with 10 sticky notes that read embarassed participant; intrigued facilitator; tired instructor; forest lover; inspired educator; weary nature lover; cookbook collector; curious learner; volunteer, cook; and Ellen Laforest, Program Assistant with ALTC Smith Falls, hoping to find tools to help our learners.

Then we thought about our own engagement. What keeps us engaged when we are learning and what can be barriers to engagement.

The things that help us stay engaged are:

Jamboard frame with the questions:  

What is the most effective way for you to stay engaged during a workshop?

What type of engagement activities have you found most enjoyable or effective in past workshops or courses?

The responses are quoted below this image.
  • Relevance, humour, topic of interest and stories.
  • Real-life applications & physical objects to work with, or movement.
  • Give participants play dough to help keep them focused, use as a fidget tool.
  • Being rested up prior to it and subject of interest to what I need.
  • Interesting topics. discussion amongst participants.
  • Breaks, activities, engaging speaker, no lecture, interest in the topic, engaged fellow participants.
  • Discussing connections and examples together.
  • Great discussion prompts; interactive polls; chance to connect with other participants.
  • Chance to create or solve a problem together.
  • Material I can use now.

Somebody asked about the playdough strategy:

  • If I have something to fidget with, it helps me actually listen better because I’m not keeping it all in trying to be still.
  • It works for me because I am a fidgety person and so if I have something to fidget with then I’m not getting antsy. I’m fiddling with something in a more constructive way.
  • I think playdough is quiet versus somebody clicking their pen clicking so the playdough is a good idea.
  • Maybe it gives people permission to play and shows that not everybody has to act the same way all the time. When they’re in the workshop, if they feel like playing with playdough and making little little sculptures or if they want to stand up or if they just need to be acting in a different way, that’s okay. As a facilitator, you’re demonstrating that there’s different ways that people can be in the room. I don’t know if that helps people stay engaged and focused and not feel out of place or that they’re doing something wrong. I feel like that concern about doing something wrong can be a big hindrance to engagement. If people are are scared that they’re going to do the wrong thing, say the wrong thing or or end up being the embarrassed participant it can be a barrier to participation.
  • I also like the idea. When you have a doodler who is drawing on sheets of paper, they are paying attention but their focus is on the paper. Somebody who’s got something in their hand is more likely to be looking at you. And there’s there’s that connection versus looking down at a piece of paper.

The barriers to engagement are:

Jamboard frame with the questions:

What is the biggest challenge you face when trying to stay engaged?

Which external distractions are most likely to affect your engagement (e.g., multitasking, noisy environment)?

The responses are quoted below this image.
  • Stress. Tiredness. Hunger.
  • Going off topic.
  • Participants that are not engaged.
  • Lack of choice (being forced to do something I’m not interested in or not comfortable doing).
  • Boredom – if there is too much repetition of something that is self evident.
  • Online background noises; tech issues that interfere with full participation.
  • External distractions: phone ringing or someone at the door.
  • External distractions: music, conversations in background, troublesome situation on one’s mind.
  • Noisy / distracting environment.
  • Lack of time to focus or fully engage.
  • Lack of time, trying to multitask.
  • It’s hard to stay engaged if enough time is not given for a group activity. Just when you start to gear up together the activity time ends.

We had a conversation about some of the points that resonated with us.

  • I really appreciate the lack of choices comment because sometimes I’ve given a task, especially in breakout rooms, and I’ve heard from learners that they got off topic. I say, “Well, then you should have taken that topic and run with it.” Maybe giving permission to people to just run with what’s really top of mind and reminding people that they can do that is important – so that that one resonated for me.
  • I think knowing what the the agenda is–the hunger one tweaked this–knowing that we’re going to break at 12 o’clock and we will have an hour or knowing that the session is two hours so I need to prepare and have something to eat before or after because that hunger, it totally disrupts people’s learning.
  • Related to that is knowing what the next topic is going to be by the facilitator; knowing where it’s going to lead to or what’s going to happen helps you direct your focus.
  • I agree with that because I am a slower thinker. I feel if the workshop animator is just throwing things at me that I have to try to react to immediately, that’s not where my best ideas come from or where my best thinking comes from. It’s when I have a little bit of time to let things sit and develop in my own mind that I can really contribute well.
  • I know a lot of teachers do this without even realizing it, but they kind of play the game where they ask a question and then require participants to “guess what’s in my head” instead of asking more open-ended, thought-provoking questions.
  • There is also the difficulty of giving enough time for people to actually think. You never want to leave a void.It is like you dread silences, but sometimes the silences are really productive. We’ve all been trained to be scared of silence instead of seeing it as a fruitful thing. It can be hard because you have people thinking and wanting to communicate at different rates, but if you if you have kind of an overall progression and you let everyone know when you’re going to come together and share things it can take some of the pressure off. It’s always trying to balance the individual needs and ways of participating with having still having some kind of group focus.

We moved into break out rooms to discuss the questions:

  • How do we engage learners?
  • How do we know when they are engaged?

And here is what the groups reported back:

Jamboard frame with the questions:

How do we engage learners?
How do we know when they are engaged?

The responses are quoted below this image.

How do we engage learners?

  • If they’re comfortable and connected, they’re going to want to speak.
  • The more options you give people the more engagement you see.
  • Suggesting different ways to do it.
  • Get students to see that goals are obtainable, point out the small wins/small steps they’re taking right now – they’re gaining success.
  • Personal motivation to be there – what is in it for me?
  • Passive vs active approach to learning – how are you going to learn that? – take responsibility for your learning – nobody is going to learn for them.
  • Modelling how we’re making connections – the more as a practitioner I can show them how and be transparent about the why of the activities – why we’re doing this.
  • Knowing the why.
  • Draft a contract – expectations for them and staff.
  • Explain stages of learning: first may feel frustrated, then if persevere will get it and move on.
  • Tracking progress as a group – give them tools to do that.
  • When you can’t predict what’s going to happen, but you try and explore, creative things happen.
  • Throw in a story that we’re all in the same boat – we’re not alone.
  • Affirmations, testimonials from previous students – sharing to encourage people and what can help in their journey.

How do we know when they are engaged?

  • They’re staying on topic – not side chatting; they show up next time.
  • Sometimes we think they might not be engaged, but later we find out how engaged they really were. They are intellectually engaged in ways that we can’t see.
  • They’re engaged when they lose track of time.
  • They’re taking notes and asking valid questions.
  • Engaged when participating and do the work and ask questions.

A variation on the question of engagement arose.

  • Our biggest issue is people sign up, we get them started and then we don’t see them. Life gets in the way–they change careers or jobs or there are family situations. We’re sending out a weekly email, “Remember, we’re here. What can we do to support you?” But it’s the life changes and the question of how do we how do we re-motivate them to come back and get the job done?
  • It’s not that so much the engagement when people in the room with you, but the continuing engagement with the program that we have questions about.

We will think about this as a future Gabfest topic.

Thank you Gabfesters for your engagement :), knowledge, and wisdom.