Why aren’t adult learners actively engaged in training?

Guest Author Dr. Rayford Barner, MATD Alumni

Have you ever trained adult learners and noticed that after several minutes that they are looking at you with a blank stare? It is likely that such disengagement is due to overuse of lecturing. While I am not against the technique of lecturing, if used inappropriately, it can impact your audience’s interest, but to facilitate effective training, you need to get your learners involved. That is, you need to get them engaged with the purpose of the training so they can share their experiences and ideas with the other adult learners in the class. Facilitation is a learning process in which an instructor, teacher or trainer—called a facilitator—guides a group or individual toward a particular goal. Furthermore, a facilitator helps people move through a process; he or she is not the seat of wisdom and knowledge. The facilitator is there not to give opinions but to draw out learners’ opinions and ideas. Is this what you do when you provide training? If not, or if you only do it somewhat, don’t fret; I have compiled best practices to aid you in engaging your learners in the purpose of the training. Remember that facilitation focuses on HOW people participate in the process of learning or planning—not just on WHAT is achieved.

Before you get started, I want to introduce a few soft rules to help you with your facilitation:

 Stay on topic and remember the purpose of the training
 Develop and maintain a detailed process to guide your work
 Always remember to demonstrate neutrality

Next, it is important to understand common uses for facilitation. I have provided a few. Can you think of others?

 Brainstorming
 Solving problems
 Building team unity
 Making collective decisions

I previously mentioned that lecturing has limitations. To a certain extent, so does facilitation. I suggest that you evaluate the purpose of your training to determine whether lecture or facilitation—or a blend of both—best support your adult learners’ needs. When evaluating your training, consider the role of the classroom’s configuration. Will your adult learners be seated in traditional rows, a “U” shape, a circle or several pods?

Now that we have gotten preliminary considerations out of the way, let’s talk about five key areas in which you can enhance your ability to facilitate training for adult learners:

 Good practices
 Teaching skills
 Observation skills
 Listening skills
 Asking questions

Good practices

When facilitating training, encourage your adult learners to voice their ideas on the topic of

the training. To do this, skillfully elicit learners’ feelings and incorporate them into a class conversation. Adjust the cadence of your presentation to allow for active learning and self-referencing to occur—especially when the topic of the training may evoke emotion. This practice can instill trust in participants and help them feel that their opinions matter. Preferably, address learners by their first names. Of course, a few participants will be unwilling to get involved in certain aspects of the conversation; however, a good facilitator will notice their nonparticipation and extend an olive branch to get them to contribute. This helps earn the trust of all participants by showing that you as the facilitator are interested in what they have to say.

Teaching skills

A key to facilitating is honing your teaching skills to ensure effective delivery of the training content. Whenever possible, choose a position in the training environment that allows you to face the adult learners. Ensure that, as you speak and move about, you maintain eye contact with your audience. Finally, avoid distracting your audience while facilitating (e.g., by looking at your cell phone, having side conversations with other students, or bringing up personal matters).

Observation skills

Now that training is underway and you are practicing good facilitation techniques, you must use keen observation skills to determine how you should focus your efforts to engage the adult learners. Constantly scan the room and note your audience’s facial expressions, body language, and movements. Do your best to determine the learners’ feelings based on what you have observed. Don’t be afraid make adjustments to your delivery based on your observations.

Listening skills

In addition to teaching and observation skills, you must also develop good listening skills. After listening to a participant’s words, paraphrase those ideas to demonstrate your understanding. By providing such a summary to the entire class, you can ensure clarity and allow the participant to further clarify comments. During this carefully orchestrated demonstration of facilitation, observe the participant’s emotions by politely commenting on the observed behavior related to the topic. Simply put, if a comment evokes a sign, such as an outburst or a nonverbal clue, ask those who demonstrate such behavior to chime in with their opinions. Warning: make sure this solicitation is based on the topic to avoid disrupting the training. Don’t be afraid to table questions that you cannot immediately answer. My suggestion is to tactfully place the comment into the “parking lot” and then address the concern during a break or after class.

Asking questions

Ask open-ended (rather than closed-ended) questions during your training session to engage participants. What is the difference? Closed-ended questions are specific and do not require much explanation beyond what is asked (e.g., “What is your name?” or “How old are you?”). Open-ended questions elicit detailed explanations and cannot be satisfied with a response of “yes” or “no” (e.g., “Why is this important to you?” or “Why did this occur?”). I suggest using Socratic questioning to elicit how your participants think and feel about the topic of discussion. Socratic questioning challenges the accuracy and completeness of learners’ thinking in a way that moves them toward their ultimate realization. Does your training have a goal or desired outcome? Plato and Socrates outlined six types of questioning that can draw out answers from participants.

1. Conceptual clarification: These questions dive deeper into underlying concepts (e.g., “Why are you saying that?” or “What do you mean by that?”).
2. Assumption questioning: These queries challenge presuppositions and unquestioned beliefs (e.g., “What might you be assuming?” or “Can you explain your assumption?”).
3. Rationale probing: These questions challenge weakly supported or poorly thought-out arguments (e.g., “Why is this happening?” or “How did this happen?”).
4. Viewpoint evaluation: These queries attack singular or narrow perspectives (e.g., “Why is this necessary?” or “Who benefits from that?”).
5. Implication probing: These questions challenge arguments’ sensibility and desirability (e.g., “Why is this important?” or “How did this affect you?”).
6. Questioning the question: These queries challenge the nature of questions (e.g., “Why was this question asked?” or “What other question might you ask?”).

Try them and see how they work. Remember, facilitation is a learning process for both you and your participants. By combining these techniques with quality presentation skills and knowledge of the content, your skills should increase tremendously. If you follow this advice, you should notice that participants will lead the class discussions and that you will act as a conductor of a symphony. That is, you will set up conditions that encourage class participation, collaboration and deeper understanding of the topic. I have provided several references to assist you further in understanding facilitation. Good luck!

Question for discussion: Can you think of other questions that elicit class participation?


Gottschalk, K. K. (1994). Facilitating discussion: A brief guide. Ithaca, NY: John S. Knight Writing
Program, Cornell University.

Renner, P. F. (1993). The art of teaching adults: How to become an exceptional instructor &
facilitator. Vancouver: Training Associates.

Socratic questions. (n.d.). Changing Minds. Retrieved from http://changingminds.org/

Ukens, L. L. (2001). What smart trainers know: The secrets of success from the world’s foremost
experts. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.



  • Good ideas. I think I tend to error on the side of lecture, attempting to explain the content better once I start to see to ‘lost look’ float over a few faces. I need to throw more questions out. There are always a few learners who will gleefully answer any question thrown their way. How to you effectively get responses from reluctant students without wasting too much time on those who do not want to participate?

  • How do you propose more facilitation in an environment that is very reliant upon Power Point?

  • This was a great topic with good tips on how to keep the audience engaging when being a facilitator, and also on ways that can be input into making better ways of allowing the audience to give more input and listening skills at the same time, I also believe we need more challenge in facilitating a different kind of audience. because sometimes just knowing what kind of audience you might have may make a big difference in present your information to.

  • This a great article. I think constant engagement through encouragement of ideas and team-building is necessary for adult learners. I also think its important to have an appropriate amount of breaks is also helpful, because it eliminates the need to attempt to respond to email.

  • I appreciate the outline of balancing lecture style training with facilitation that draws out the experiences and perspectives of the learners so the class is working with one another. People enjoy speaking about their experiences and relationships can be formed when learning from one another. Another factor that I think impacts adult learners attention and participation in training, is that their “day job” is still running in the background with tasks piling up for them to complete when they leave for training. For school age students, learning is their “day job”. For adult learners, especially in the workplace, there needs to be more of a partnership between managers and trainers to provide employees with a moratorium to allow for a focused environment in classrooms.

  • I struggle with training employees every day. I’m knowledgeable about the subject and am able to perform tasks quite well but training is a challenge itself. This article has given me tools and ideas on how to actively engage trainee’s vs dumping information. I think this article does a great job of explaining what skills can assist a trainer. This article also does a great job of giving examples that are easily understood and implemented.

  • This article reinforced how important communication skills are for facilitators, and anyone really conducting training – both large and small scale. Active listening, engaging participants, and staying on focus is important for training to be effective. Adults learn differently and if we are to be successful we have to remember these useful tips.

  • This was a great blog it gave me ideas on how to be a facilitator and keep the audience engaging the tips that were used were
    1. Good Practices, Teaching Skills, 3. Observations skills, 4. Listening skills, Asking questions these tips help keep the audience going as well as the facilitator on how to stay on top of the agenda as well as organized and focus on the adult’s learning.

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