The Curiosity Effect: Transforming Learner Engagement

Shannon Tipton, Founder and Chief Learning Officer at Learning Rebels discusses the transformative impact that curiosity can have on learner engagement.

Written by Shannon Tipton
Published 07 August 2023
The Curiosity Effect: Transforming Learner Engagement

As L&D professionals, we all understand the vital role that learner engagement plays in the success of training programs. But what if I told you our singular focus on learner engagement is misplaced? The underlying goal must be tapped into a person's natural curiosity and bring intrinsic motivation to the forefront. Nurturing curiosity is the key to unlocking a deeper and more meaningful learning experience.

Learner engagement is more than participants just showing up and going through the motions. It is about capturing their hearts and minds, making them want to participate holistically in the learning process. To truly comprehend learner engagement, we need to debunk two common misconceptions and delve deeper into the significance of curiosity in training settings.

Misconception #1: Engagement equals "busyness"

One misconception is that learner engagement is about keeping learners busy or entertained.

How many of us have added one more item to click or "game" to play, hoping it will spark engagement and keep people moving through the course? When in fact, this type of engagement is extraneous.

Your litmus test for learner engagement should ask, “Is the learning outcome impacted if the so-called engagement activity weren't present? If the overall program creates moments of interest, the feeling of wanting to dig deeper or involves capturing learners' attention, then the byproduct becomes engagement.

We've sparked learner interest and created an environment where actively participating is natural within the learning journey.

Misconception #2: Engagement is the responsibility of the learner

Another misconception is the belief that engagement is solely the responsibility of the learners.

We say that the participants "have to come wanting to learn." While learners' attitudes certainly play a crucial role in engaging with the content, L&D professionals significantly influence fostering engagement - capturing the hearts and minds - through instructional design, delivery methods, and learning experiences.  

We cannot expect people to engage with content that is overly complex, filled with irrelevant information, or cognitively overwhelming. Just as people connect with movie characters because they can relate to them, the same principle applies to learning content. If learners can relate to the material, they are more likely to engage, be more curious about the journey and absorb the information.  

How are we collaborating with people to ensure we create programs that drive people to care?

The Significance of Curiosity in Learner Engagement

In a recent blog post, we (Learning Rebels) discuss the importance of curiosity as a business practice[1] . Curiosity is a powerful yet under-utilized force that drives learning. When learners are genuinely curious, they become more motivated, attentive, and open to exploring new ideas and concepts. Research has shown that curiosity enhances memory retention and deepens understanding.[2] 

"When we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively." – Francesca Gino

Developing training to build curiosity-driven experiences encourages learners to ask questions, seek answers, and engage in critical thinking, leading to more profound and long-lasting knowledge acquisition.

As an industry, we often talk about learner motivation. We know that motivation to learn must come from within, "You can take a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." That said, we can take a horse to water and add some sugar to encourage drinking. The sugar needed in this metaphor is content that tickles the brain, creating a genuine desire to explore and discover new things.

This is the type of learning engagement that L&D should be striving for.

Fostering Curiosity in Training

Curiosity is closely linked to personal and professional relevance. When curious about a topic, learners perceive it as meaningful and connected to their lives and interests. By leveraging this curiosity aspect, L&D professionals can design learning experiences emphasizing real-world applications, problem-solving scenarios, and practical examples. This relevance increases learner engagement by demonstrating the value and utility of the knowledge being acquired.
As L&D professionals, we have the opportunity to cultivate and nurture curiosity within our learning settings. Creating a safe and supportive learning environment is crucial, where learners feel encouraged to ask questions and explore without fear of judgment. Incorporating inquiry-based learning approaches stimulates curiosity by allowing learners to investigate real-world problems and discover solutions independently.

Strategies for Cultivating Curiosity

To foster curiosity, we can incorporate various strategies into learning experiences. We've discussed the importance of relevance and the connection to past experiences, but what does this look like when considering a learning design?

1. Promote "questioning."
Not just allowing people to ask questions but allowing for questioning of any given topic.

Questioning goes beyond simply asking for information; it involves a deeper level of critical thinking and skepticism. When you question something, you seek answers and challenge assumptions, beliefs, or ideas.

Questioning can include examining the validity or reliability of information, analyzing underlying motives or biases, or probing for deeper insights. This takes curiosity about a given topic to a higher level.

2. Offer Independent Research Opportunities.
Encourage active learning. Or create active learning sets to encourage learners to conduct independent research on topics of interest or business challenges related to the training content.

Provide them with resources, tools, and guidance to explore beyond the given materials and foster their curiosity-driven learning.

3. Build collaborative opportunities.
Develop collaborative learning environments where learners can interact and share their knowledge, perspectives, and questions.

Present groups with business challenges that require them to work together to apply their knowledge and problem-solving skills. This approach not only enhances curiosity but also incorporates the practical relevance and applicability of the training content.

Collaborative learning stimulates curiosity by exposing learners to diverse ideas and promoting a sense of exploration and discovery together.

4. Allow for choice.
Giving learners agency over their learning makes their curiosity more likely to be sparked and sustained.

Allow learners to have autonomy and choice in their learning paths by providing different journeys, modules, or topics that learners can choose based on their interests or career goals. Then share the stories that highlight the achievements of individuals that were driven by curiosity.

These stories can inspire learners and provide tangible examples of how curiosity can lead to personal and professional growth.

Overcoming Barriers to Curiosity

Sometimes, learners may face barriers that hinder their curiosity and engagement. One common obstacle is the fear of failure.

Overcoming the fear of failure is vital in fostering curiosity. When learners are afraid of making mistakes or being wrong, their natural curiosity becomes stifled, hindering their willingness to explore new ideas and take risks. Lessing the chances of being engaged.

Organizations and L&D, by extension, can foster a culture of psychological safety where employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and ideas without fear of punishment or ridicule. We can help learners overcome this fear by reframing failure as an opportunity for learning and growth. Actively build opportunities within training programs that encourage reflection on lessons learned from failures. Upon reflection, learners can develop resilience, embrace the next steps, and unleash their full potential.

Another perceived barrier is the lack of time. In fast-paced work environments, people often feel they don't have the time to be curious, to explore new ideas or learn new skills. This can stifle curiosity, hinder innovation and prevent engagement in professional growth.

To help battle this, L&D can lead initiatives to encourage "Learning Minutes.” Dedicated learning minutes can be a powerful tool to foster curiosity and continuous learning in the workplace. This concept involves setting aside a specific amount of time, a few minutes each week, where employees are encouraged to engage in self-directed learning. The key is that the learning is driven by the individual's interests and curiosity, which can lead to increased engagement and motivation.

Both of these strategies, fostering a safe environment and encouraging “Learning Minutes” can help to create a culture of curiosity and continuous learning where employees feel empowered to explore new ideas and approaches. This can lead to increased innovation, improved problem-solving, and, ultimately, a more dynamic and adaptable organization.

To wrap this up

Shifting our paradigms around learner engagement challenges us as L&D professionals to rethink our approach to developing learning programs. Rather than solely focusing on keeping learners busy or relying on their external motivation, the true key lies in fostering curiosity.

We can unlock a profound and meaningful learning experience by tapping into learners' innate curiosity. Nurturing curiosity sparks intrinsic motivation, enhances attention and focus, promotes more profound understanding and retention, and fosters a lifelong love for learning. It is our responsibility to create a learning environment that encourages questions, supports experimentation, and values the process of exploration.

Let us embrace this paradigm shift and unleash the transformative power of curiosity in learner engagement, paving the way for enriched learning experiences and empowered learners.

[1] Tipton, S Curiosity as a Business Practice
[2] Gruber, M.J., Gelman, B.D., & Ranganath, C. (2014). States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron, 84(2), 486-496. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2014.08.060 .

About the author

Shannon Tipton

As an author, international speaker, and workplace learning expert, Shannon Tipton fights for learning that sticks. As founder of Learning Rebels®, she fixes training that’s broken, while delivering business results. Known for her Rebellious Rebuilding™ Framework, Shannon’s approach to learning reinforcement invites curiosity into workplace learning. Join her in the fight for learning that sticks and results that matter at

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