Active Training

Engaging People With Team Learning

Active Training - Maximizing Engagement in Team Learning

© Veer
Pavel Shlykov

Are you ever disappointed when people don't pay attention during a training session? They might check text messages, look out the window, or simply stare into space. And no matter what you say, you can't get them engaged and excited about the important skills that you're trying to teach them.

Active Training – an approach that involves game playing, role playing and other team activities – can help you out in situations like these. In this article, we'll show you how you can apply it in your training sessions.

Elements of Active Training

Experienced trainers have long known that when participants are actively involved in the learning process, they understand information better and retain the information longer.

Mel Silberman, a leading Active Training expert, and an author of the book "101 Ways to Make Training Active," says that Active Training is "the process of getting participants to do the work." This means getting the group members involved in structured activities and events that support the learning process.

In Active Training, the facilitator gives a short lecture. Then, using games, role playing, or another structured activity, the group puts what they've learned into practice. Because people are actively using the information that they've learned, they'll understand it better, and more able to apply it effectively in a practical setting.

For example, imagine that you need to teach your team how to use your organization's new system for submitting expense reports. Using visuals, you go over the essential "how tos" to using the new system, asking your team to take notes.

You could then make the training active by dividing your team into pairs and assigning each of them to a computer. Each pair then submits a sample expense report on the new system. Once they've gotten the hang of it, you play a game with your team: whichever pair can submit their expense report first, with no errors, wins a prize.

Effective Active Training

For Active Training to be effective, you must do the following:

  • Use clear instructions - Active Training always needs to start out with some kind of instruction from you. As the facilitator, it's up to you to present the necessary information clearly, so that your group has a foundation to learn from.
  • Keep any lectures short – Keep lectures to a minimum, ideally no longer than 10-15 minutes. Think, "less talking, more doing." Keep in mind that most trainers speak at 100-200 words per minute. Your team, however, only comprehends about half of that because they're thinking while you're talking.
  • Create structure – Active Training depends on structure. As the facilitator, you must provide this by forming groups, presenting background information on the topic, and then giving clear instructions. Also, make sure the group stays on task throughout the training session.
  • Set expectations – Your group must know your expectations of the training session. This includes understanding what knowledge and skills you want them to learn.
  • Invite participation – Active learning is all about group dynamics and interdependence between group members. Using this approach, for example, you could assign members different tasks or skills to work on, so that they can, in turn, teach the rest of the group during Active Training activities.
  • Use a variety of training techniques – Everyone has different learning styles. Structure your Active Training so that you address these different styles.

Techniques/Ideas for Active Training

Now that you know the essential elements of Active Training, how do you actually use it? In the "The ASTD Handbook of Training Design and Delivery," Karen Lawson, a training and coaching consultant, recommends several engaging strategies for trainers to use:

Jigsaw design

Active learning allows team members to teach each other new skills and information. When you have content that can be broken up into several sections, you can use jigsaw design to support learning.

  • Start by instructing the group on what they need to know. Remember, keep your lecture to 10-15 minutes or less.
  • Next, break up the information that you presented into chunks.
  • Divide the room into several small study groups, one for each segment of your content. Have each group learn and master their own chunk of information. Supply additional resources or allow them to do further research if required.
  • When the groups are ready, assign one person from each group to the other groups. Each group now has at least one person who has mastered each set of skills.
  • Each new person in each group then teaches his or her skills to the group. The group reciprocates by teaching its skills to the new person.
  • By the end of the session, everyone has been taught all of the new skills or information in detail, and they're ready to apply it to other activities or role-playing scenarios.

Finding This Article Useful?

You can learn another 301 team management skills, like this, by joining the Mind Tools Club.

Join the Mind Tools Club Today!

Information search

  • Divide your team into small groups, and give each group a worksheet with specific questions relating to the training. These should be points you really want them to learn and retain.
  • Tell the groups to find the necessary information and answer the questions on their own. Make sure that you provide appropriate resources.
  • At the end of the exercise, bring the groups together. Have each team report on their findings.
  • To make this fun, time the exercise, or set it up like a "treasure hunt" (which would require teams to leave the room to search for the information they need). Just make sure that everyone uses this "free" time wisely!

Learning tournaments

Friendly competition is a great way to add energy to your group.

  • After a lecture or learning session, divide your group into several smaller groups.
  • Give the teams time to study and discuss what they have just learned, and make sure they have material they can refer to if required.
  • Bring the groups together, and give everyone a quiz that covers what they have just learned. Score each quiz individually, and assign a score to each "study group" to get a team average. Award prizes to the highest-scoring team.
  • As a variation, you could get people to answer in teams, instead of testing and scoring individuals.

Role playing

Role playing is when two or more people act out roles in a particular scenario. You can use role playing to explore how to apply new skills in a scenario relevant to your training.

Many times, role playing doesn't work simply because many people don't like to "act" in front of an audience of familiar faces. So, the key to using role playing successfully is to make it as non-threatening as possible.

  • Start by acting out a "demonstration" role playing scenario. Demonstrating yourself applying the training skill, perhaps with a confident volunteer, is a non-threatening way to get your team involved.
  • You can also divide your team up into several small groups to act out their role playing scenarios. This lessens the pressure for shy team members who don't want to "act" with others watching.


If you use role playing as part of your training, make sure that you plan it well and prepare scripts/outlines in advance.

More Tips for Active Training

  • Circulate and listen – Whenever your team is learning and teaching in groups, walk around the room and listen carefully. Make sure you're visible if someone needs help, but try not to step in and guide a discussion. Unless teams are having a lot of difficulty or are going off topic, let them figure things out on their own.
  • Give "real world" examples – Reinforce how your team members will use the message or information in their work.
  • Spend time analyzing what people have learned – The more your team members discuss the activity, the more they'll understand its purpose and retain important information. Plan on spending at least as much time discussing what people have learned from the activity, as you do actually conducting it. Here are key questions to ask:
    • What was your reaction?
    • What did you learn?
    • What did you feel while doing this activity?
    • What did/didn't you like?
    • How can you apply what you've learned to your job?

Key Benefits of Active Training

There are several benefits to Active Training:

  • Group learning can be fun – Working in a small group is often more fun than sitting and listening to a lecture. When team members work with and teach one another, they're more likely to understand and retain information.
  • People are often more comfortable with peers – Team members can ask questions among themselves. For many, this is less intimidating than asking in front of an entire group, and it increases the likelihood that they'll ask the question in the first place.
  • It's easier for the facilitator – Active Training reduces the strain on you, the trainer. Presenting for an hour or two is often difficult and tiring. When your team has more responsibility for learning and teaching, you can save your energy for troubleshooting and answering questions.

Disadvantages of Active Training

There are also some disadvantages to Active Training which you need to be aware of:

  • Activities may not always be effective – It's easy for facilitators to choose activities that don't necessarily help true learning and understanding. Creating activities just for "something fun" to do is often a poor use of time.
  • Groups may waste time – People can sometimes waste time during their activities by talking socially or not staying focused. This may result from a lack of structure in the session, or from a facilitator who doesn't take control.
  • It takes more time to plan – If you're giving a training session at very short notice, it may be difficult to create activities that are relevant and useful.

Key Points

Active Training gets people engaged in their learning, and can help them learn and retain new information and skills more effectively.

It's important to maintain structure during an Active Training session. Also, keep any additional lectures to 15 minutes or less, and leave time at the end to summarize and answer questions.

Active Training may require more advanced planning than a traditional training session, but, in the right circumstances, you'll see greater benefits in both the short and long term.