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Flipping the switch
on your learners' energy
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I cringed recently when I observed a fellow trainer — a guy with normally very high, contagious energy — facing a virtual classroom full of students learning network technology.

I was looking forward to an extremely interactive, energetic session. Dave started in high gear — speaking quickly and enthusiastically about subject matter that others might consider dull. He worked to build rapport, offering questions and giving examples. He asked how learners used the products, what they need, and what they’ve found difficult.

But no one responded. They didn’t seem to relate to his scenarios. Hmm … Could it be they really hadn’t ever experienced what he was talking about?

Deconstructing Dave’s approach

I noticed three things:

  1. Dave asked questions, but they were vague. ”This is something we’ve all experienced, right?” And, “Why does this happen?” Even I didn’t know what kind of answers he was fishing for.

  2. He frequently answered his own questions too quickly — cutting short students’ processing time and letting them off the hook.

  3. He tried coaxing and cajoling; they remained silent. Worse than crickets. Even when Dave presented the software features — which I found exciting and made me want to shout, “Finally!” — no one responded. A tough bunch, these techie guys.

It was clear that, his energy drained, Dave was giving up. He completed the session, but just barely.


Afterward, I met with Dave to discuss his feelings and evaluation results. He was annoyed and disappointed that students didn’t ask questions or participate the way he hoped. He believed they weren’t interested in the material so “checked out” early. He actually resented them for not participating!


I asked Dave:

  • Was he uncomfortable with silence?

  • Was he too impatient to wait while students processed his questions?

  • Did he assume these students would have the same energy he’s experienced with other groups?

  • Was he so committed to his preferred methods for eliciting responses that he hadn’t developed any more creative options?


Dave explained that he was teaching the same way he had in the physical classroom, where live interaction happened on its own. In transitioning to virtual instructor-led training (VILT), Dave knew it would be up to him to intentionally stimulate interaction – but he didn’t know how.


Setting goals for next time

It seemed strange, I mused, to have a virtual classroom full of people and cool technology, but no energy. Dave had brought his, but it didn’t last. Where did it go?

Like electricity in your home, learner energy is something you can plug into. But it needs a direction, and it needs someone to flip the switch.

To avoid falling into the rut that swallowed up Dave, I suggest:

  • Engage learners by creating opportunities for them. Rather than working hard to drag learners up to your energy level, invite them up by making them eager to participate!

  • Rethink the kinds of questions you ask. (See below for designing effective questions.)

  • Allow people to participate differently. Many simply don’t think and speak as rapidly or as willingly as others do. They need additional time to process and question and formulate responses — and even more time to summon the courage to speak.

  • Set expectations at the beginning of the session, and teach learners how to use key tools in the virtual classroom platform you’re running. Tell students that you’ll ask a lot of questions throughout the session and that you’re looking forward to their contributions. Encourage them to speak up anytime (by typing in chat); alert them that sometimes you’ll postpone your responses until later in the course. Get them to agree to this by clicking agree or thumbs up.

  • Reward responses by validating them and thanking each participant. Everyone wants to feel heard; when people know they’re on the right track, both individual and group energy rises.

  • Train yourself to wait — up to 60 seconds if need be. Take that moment to sip your water or tea. Do not convey impatience!

  • Resist the urge to beg or bully. But do remind learners of the agreement made at the beginning of the session.

  • Move on, confident there will be plenty of opportunities to engage again later.

Designing an effective question strategy

When formulating questions, consider exactly what you’re trying to achieve. Different types of questions will send the discussion in different directions, so tailor your strategy carefully. Some possibilities include:

~ Questions that elicit a response from *everyone* and get people used to typing in chat. Present the slide with the question stated clearly on it and say that you’re ready to record a spectrum of answers and experiences. That will increase the energy and encourage everyone to offer at least one response. Once learners are warmed up in this way, they’ll be more willing to continue. Examples of questions (to be followed with the instruction to “Type in chat”) are:


  • “What is your experience with this technology?”

  • “What do you use it for?”

  • “Why do you need it?”

  • “What problems do you see with the current system?”

  • “How would you apply this?”

  • “How would describe this to a colleague?”

~ Questions that will get the specific answers you’re looking for:

  • “By what methods could you come up with the sum 27?”

  • “Which dialog box option here looks like the solution to our issue?”

~ Questions that evaluate or assess whether learners are “getting it” include:

  • “How would you use this?

  • “If you don’t think you’d use it, who in your organization might?”

  • “What would have to be in place before you could do this?”

  • “How is this un/like the old system?

  • “Which of the options in this dialog box look like the best choice?”

Tip: Always be ready with a follow-up. Should a question get no response, try patiently asking again, in a slightly different way: “If you had to guess, which of the options listed in this dialog box looks like the solution to the issue we just discussed?”

And, avoid the ambiguous. Some participants will hear the question “Any questions?” as “Time to move on.” Others will see it as an invitation to myriad inquiries that could waste time and derail the flow of your session.


Remember, it’s easier to co-create energy with a whole group than it is to generate it alone!

If you’re a trainer who has struggled to generate energy as you’ve transitioned from the physical classroom to VILT, you can begin now to reframe your expectations of participants and rethink how you approach questions. I encourage trainers to: confirm that learners know how and when to participate, invite students to join in, and – very important – give them plenty of time to process.

Try making these changes, and watch the learners in your sessions light up!

Eager to brainstorm for new ways to energize your learners? Call me! 585.370.2341.

Updated 6.29.21

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