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Aurora Institute

Engagement Templates: 6 Ways to Structure Learning Experiences

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Tom Vander Ark

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Students in lecture

This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on September 11, 2015.

How to engage learners? It’s a perpetual question for teachers and trainers. If it’s human development you’re after, engagement isn’t the goal but it is the engine. You won’t achieve your aims without it, especially if the desired learning requires hard sustained work.

We’ve been studying engagement and cataloging templates drawing from traditional research and new technology-enhanced approaches to user experience (UX) and learner experience (LX).

Many instructional designers use Terry Anderson’s interaction framework: learner to content, learner to instructor, and learner to peer learner interaction. These are important constructs but they don’t tell you how to structure a learning experience.

David Merrill provides a bit more guidance in his five principles of instructional design:

  • learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems;
  • learning is promoted when existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge;
  • learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner;
  • learning is promoted when new knowledge is applied by the learner; and
  • learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world.

A designer admitted that “Designing an effective and efficient “instructional transaction” is the great mystery.”

While there are many variations, there appear to be six basic strategies for capturing engagement and initiating a learning cycle:

Engagement Type > Starts With

  • xPository > Lecture, video
  • Prompt > Task, assignment
  • Performance > Quiz, question, survey
  • Problem > Complex or open-ended challenge
  • Personal experience >Field trip, simulation, art, dialog
  • Possibility > Brainstorming, creating

These six engagement templates progress from instructor- and content-centric to learner-centric (i.e., low to high agency). They draw upon 26 impulses that motivate a commitment of time and energy.

Teachers might call these lesson plan templates, but with the expanding array of professional and informal learning this is an attempt to build a broader framework applicable to impact games, meetings, conference sessions, open resources, and professional development.


The most common historical form of teaching is expository.

  • Learn > practice > apply. Common in math teaching, a lesson starts with a verbal concept summary followed by example problems and some homework practice. It can be a useful way to teach procedures but often misses deeper concepts and connections. It relies on compliance and isn’t effective in a non-compulsory environment.
  • Some flipped classroom pedagogy use this approach starting with video content homework with class time focused on problem solving; this offer some improvement over the classroom lecture because students can listen to content several times anywhere anytime and a teacher can focus on tutoring in the problem solving phase.
  • Learn > recall. The old lecture and midterm test style of teaching. Expository instruction is not very effective but it still dominates university campuses and conferences.
    • Compelling stories can be highly engaging and can be more like a personal experience (below).


Launching a learning cycle with an assignment or task followed by a demonstration of learning. There are many variations ranging from simple to elaborate multi-step projects.

  • Read > write. This is the most common literacy learning cycle. Literacy Design Collaborative templates are written in this form: students are asked to read a passage and then write about it. Some Dana Center prompts follow this formula: after reading a text, develop a model to test assertions.
  • Research > write. A prompt may require a research phase in preparation for a writing assignment. Some Dana Center prompts for this formula: after conducting an investigation produce supporting explanation. Science lessons that start with a prescribed experiment fit in this category (if they start with a problem requiring a hypothesis, they fit below).
  • Question > dialog > reflection. John Larmer, Buck Institute suggests initiating engagement with a philosophical question, “When do we grow up?” or “When is war justified?”
  • Project > produce > present. A highly structured project (a multi-step assignment) with a defined topic and deliverable (which may or may not include a presentation) fits here in the moderately low agency category (while open-ended user-defined projects fit below in possibilities).
  • While on the directive end of the scale, a well constructed prompt can could appeal to higher order impulses including contribution, craftsmanship, and consequence.


Starting with a performance assessment can be a great way to capture attention and produce gap awareness (i.e., distance from a goal or standard).

  • Assess > check > apply. The assessment can be a formal (e.g., quiz or diagnostic) or an informal survey. Feedback demonstrates placement on a distribution, distance from a goal, or confirms status. This approach can be useful for getting to know and engage a new audience.
    • Games usually start with a performance challenge and may get progressively harder as mastery is developed.
  • Provocation > initiation. Expeditionary Learning uses powerful models of student work (e.g., local field guides) or adult professional work that are compelling examples of craftsmanship to inspire learners to begin planning work themselves.


Starting with a difficult problem can be engaging, or just overwhelming. More difficult and open ended than a prompt (above), a problem requires the learner or team to develop and test a hypothesis.

  • Problem > proposals > feedback. John Larmer suggests initiation with a real world problem or a design challenge.
  • Hypothesis > test > analyze > conclude. ST Math games require students to develop and test hypothesis; instructional feedback helps them analyze results. Some science lessons require hypothesis development (while others prescribe an experiment).
  • Case study > equip > explore > conclude. Complex case studies introduce the reader to a rich context often exposing many decision variables before posing a core problem. Understanding by Design (UBD) planning templates places a value on placing learning in a larger context, exploring understandings (and misunderstandings) and then revising one’s thinking as deeper understanding is gained.
  • Problem > test > analyze > reflect. Many Japanese lessons start with a problem presented to the class, students attack problems in front of their colleagues and receive feedback on their attempts.

Personal Experience

Launching a learning cycle with a stimulating or emotional experience can be an effective hook launching a powerful learning cycle.  

  • Experience > reflect > apply. Experiences can include field trips, simulations, or exploration of rich content/context. Novelty and variety can spark curiosity. Experiences are followed by some form of reflection and application.


Often launched with brainstorming, this engagement process starts with learner interests before making a choice for inquiry. It is the most learner-centered and least prescriptive and, as a result, outcomes vary; it is the most useful for developing learner vision and fostering creativity and may be the least effective for conveying specific concepts.

  • Organize > act > reflect. Allowing for student-centered approach to a wide-open project or lesson, the learnerdesigns the work and then does the work. It looks like a prompt but is different because it starts with learner interests. Outcome goals may be added (e.g., “Why don’t you write a paper about that?”) but have limited impact on initiation.
  • Most authentic maker experiences fit in this category (e.g., “What can you make from this pile of cardboard?)

Conclusion. The lesson is simple: before starting your next class, meeting, or conference presentation with a 15 minute lecture consider other engagement templates. It’s important to know your audience, be clear about your objective, and choose the engagement type with learner experience in mind.

And, while engagement is key to initiation and persistence, “It is important that teachers and presenters remember that engagement is not the outcome,” said John Larmer. “The tool for engagement should align tightly with what you want the learners to know, do and transfer after the lesson, workshop, or project. When engagement is the outcome we can get low level intellectual challenge.”

Are there other engagement strategies you would add?

See also:

Sydney Schaef, M.BA., M.Ed., is an educator, entrepreneur, and school design consultant. She currently works as a Mastery Learning Designer at reDesign and a design consultant for Building 21. She served at the School District of Philadelphia from 2013-2015 in the Office of New School Models, and prior to that, served as Founder and Executive Director of a 501c3 nonprofit organization that led innovative education and youth development programs in East Africa. Follow Sydney on Twitter at @sydneyschaef.