Is Your Training Challenging Enough for Your Employees?

Kat Bourgeois
Posted: March 22, 2017

Learning professionals want their training to be challenging for employees. But they also want to attract lots of registrations. It’s easy to see how a passion for engaging employees can cause an instructional designer to unwittingly “dumb down” the format, content, or dynamic of a training opportunity.

Creating more challenging training is not a simple task. It requires familiarity with the audience and a working knowledge of the content.  It also requires thoughtfulness about when and how opportunity for “stretching”can be incorporated into the design.

Employee training should provide value for the amount of time and effort it takes. Make sure your training or curriculum is engaging for your employees and not wasting their time by being too simple.

What are some design elements that will challenge your learners?

Problem-solving and decision-making

Training that requires participants to take one direction or another, move toward or away from something, or select one option from a variety of options engages them and reinforces the cause-and-effect dynamic of problem-solving and decision-making.

Critical or contrarian thinking

Some situations will require employees to go against their first instincts. Thinking critically will help them slow down and look at the whole picture, rather than make a hasty decision.

Hands-on practice

It requires some ingenuity at times, but there is always a way to incorporate hands-on practice.

Multi-sensory experiences

Is there a way for them to learn by touch, sight, hearing, and doing? If so, more learners will be more engaged.

Multiple learning methodologies and modalities

Provide the easy content and difficult content in different ways, refusing to waste time and energy on the obvious or easily referenced.

Approaches that vary from the norm

Move outdoors, immerse the participants in a game or virtual reality from the moment they begin the class, work backward through the content, or have the learners teach.  Move from the class to “the floor” and back while learning, doing and debriefing throughout the day.

Opportunities to view content through a variety of lenses (e.g. eyes of the client, customer, and vendor)

I once held a three-day retreat for my learning team in which the participants wore labels (and fun disguises like glasses or fake beards) representing a role/person (accounting, administrator, president, employee in Greece, etc.). The participants changed labels every four hours and were required to speak solely from the perspective of their label during that time, whether it was an employee role, the CFO, the president, someone from accounting, or the facilitators, etc. Amazing results!

Discovery vs. lecture or reading (alone)

We as humans value what we discover on our own more than what is “spoon-fed” to us.

Individual vs. group work (unless the goal is to learn how to work as a team)

Don’t let anyone hide within a group! Ask who arrived at what conclusions before you reveal the results.

Sharing both the result and thought process with the group

When participants are asked to share how they arrived at a result, they (and the other participants) are challenged to review their method for arriving at solutions.

Opportunities to re-evaluate assumptions and conclusions

Challenge their responses with “What if…?” and “Why not…?” Before you reveal the correct answer, ask the participants if anyone arrived at a different conclusion. Create dialogue at every opportunity.

Probing questions or task assignments from the facilitator

Facilitators are in the best position to evaluate when participants are not adequately challenged and should be able to “flex” the agenda to ensure that they are.


Help them understand how little they know about the topic before they begin and they will be more attentive. This test should be difficult.

Frequent knowledge checks

Knowledge checks enable both learners and facilitators to evaluate progress.  If the facilitator sees that learners are moving quickly, he or she can move more quickly through the content to keep up the momentum.  If the facilitator notes that learners are struggling, he or she can offer additional practice or drills or approach the content from another perspective or methodology.

Final assessment

When learners know that a final assessment is in their future, they have an additional incentive to stay engaged. When instructional designers view the final assessment scores, they may be able to more readily evaluate the level of challenge in the training opportunity.

Post-training assignments

Instruct rotating moderators to post and share responses submitted by each week’s employee panel to a “Challenge of the Week” post on the discussion board. Announce this at the beginning of the class so participants know what will be required of them post-training.

How will you know if your training is challenging?

If your training is genuinely challenging, your best measurement may be the volume of the participants’ moans and groans. Seriously though, if the audience is sitting back casually the whole time, sneaking peeks at their cell phones, and/or whizzing through their in-class assignments, they are telling you they are not being challenged.

On the other hand, if the individuals in the group are attentive and questioning the content or their own ability to perform the task before they test out their new skills, they are telling you that you are on the right track. A little tension and discomfort during training can be a positive thing. It creates engagement.

Of course, there are other more objective measures, such as the feedback from managers post-training, performance enhancements, requests from superiors for additional sessions, and, of course, voluntary registrations.

Can you be challenging and appealing to learners at the same time?

You know the answer. Remember the schoolteacher who was tough, but fair? The teacher who, if you truly wanted to master a subject, could lead you to get the job done, although it may have been hard? He or she is your “gold standard.” Make your training opportunities an obvious and necessary step on the ladder of success even if the climb is a little scary!

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