The term “engagement” is often used when talking about learning. It’s a complex, multi-dimensional and multi-factorial notion that is the subject of a wide variety of theories. For practical purposes, we will focus here on engagement as the personal involvement and perseverance necessary for the learner throughout their journey, and more specifically on the teaching strategies that foster it. Whatever the learning mode, stimulating and sustaining engagement is essential, but in elearning, this factor needs special attention since learners who find themselves alone in front of their screen are more at risk of feeling left to their own devices and becoming demotivated. Drawing on neuroscientific knowledge, here are a few principles and strategies to help learners stay fully engaged from start to finish.

Dive into “active” engagement

Active engagement is the second of the four pillars of learning highlighted by neuropsychologist Stanislas Dehaene, the first pillar being attention, the third being feedback, and the fourth consolidation. For Dehaene (2018), active engagement is about “maximizing curiosity and active prediction.” In active engagement, the learner is an actor in their learning and mobilizes as many of their cognitive skills as possible.

“When active, the child or adult makes predictions, thinks about an answer and anticipates it before it is given. Thus, situations in which the pupil [or student] is surprised by an answer or result that they did not expect are conducive to learning. In addition, when it represents a personal challenge or an emotion, it is easier to inhibit the automatisms (heuristics) that lead to error (Houdé et al., 2001, for a demonstration using brain imaging). Action, trial and error and emotions therefore play important roles in learning,” explains cognitive development and learning specialist Olivier Houdé in his book L’école du cerveau.

Strategies :

  • Stimulate curiosity, for example, by proposing a fun quiz on the subject to be covered, which each learner must answer (via an online platform, for example).
  • Plunge learners into the heart of the matter by presenting them with scenarios in which they can solve problems themselves.
  • Ensure that the learning task is challenging — if possible, a challenge that affects learners personally — and that it is neither too easy (no mistakes) nor too difficult (too many mistakes and not enough success to anchor curiosity and progress).
  • Create a climate conducive to active engagement by giving space for emotional reactions to emerge, encouraging learners to build on their existing knowledge and follow their intuition, while explicitly valuing the right to make mistakes.
  • Give precise, detailed feedback, and correct errors after the exercise so that lessons can be learned. In elearning, program feedback into quizzes, polls and interactive simulations.
  • Foster a dynamic mindset among learners by providing consistent feedback, with the idea that everyone is capable of improvement since the brain is endowed with plasticity. The most promising type of feedback is that which presents success as a process involving both effort and effective study strategies, two factors over which the learner can have control (see Neuroscience: 3 mistakes to avoid when studying and 10 study techniques and their effectiveness).
  • Propose a discussion on the thoughts that the exercise has generated.
  • In elearning, multimedia content (audio, video, and animation) can be particularly stimulating while also being more inclusive since it broadens the accessibility of content. Incorporating game elements such as scoring, levels, and badges makes learning more fun and rewarding, activating the brain’s reward circuits.

Becoming an emotional motivator

Numerous neuroscientific studies have demonstrated the interdependence of emotions and cognition and the importance of emotions in rational thought (Green, Sommerville, Nystrom, Darley, & Cohen, 2001; Haidt, 2001; Immordinao-Yang, 2008). Antonio Damasio, a Luso-American physician and professor of neurology, neuroscience and psychology, is largely credited with clearing this ground (1995, 1999, 2017). At the end of the chapter “The Role of Emotion and Skilled Intuition in Learning” in the book Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, who is Associate Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience, and neuropsychology researcher Matthias Faeth invite us to update our pedagogical approaches in light of this new data:

“[…] much of contemporary educational practice considers emotion as ancillary or even interfering with learning. In this chapter, we discussed the critical role of emotion in learning and showed that students’ accumulation of subtle emotional signals guides their meaningful learning, helping them to build a set of academic “intuitions” about how, when, and why to use their new knowledge. Rather than trying to remove emotions from the learning context, teachers can use this neuroscientific perspective to actively orchestrate an emotional climate in the classroom that is conducive to feeling these subtle emotional signals. As students learn to notice and refine these signals, their learning will become more relevant and meaningful, and ultimately more generalizable and useful in their lives.”

The “intuition” referred to by neuroscience implies the “incorporation of the nonconscious emotional signal into the knowledge being acquired.” These “academic” or “skillful” intuitions incorporate the learner’s emotional reactions into their cognitive processing while integrating what has been learned through experience. As Immordino-Yang and Faeth note, “for emotion to be useful, it has to be an integral part of knowing when and how to use the skill being developed.”


  • It’s essential to create a pleasant environment that fosters safe relationships. Humour and play can be used to this end if handled with care (see 3 tips for integrating humour into teaching and 5 tips for integrating play into higher education).
  • This positive climate must be maintained throughout the course, but the teacher must maintain a balance, as humour and play can induce in learners emotional states unrelated to the task. Distraction, overexcitement or anxiety, for example, are likely to interfere with the ability to sense the emotional signals that guide the development of new knowledge. On the other hand, the more emotional skills learners master, the less necessary it becomes to resort to emotionally irrelevant activities for the task.
  • To foster meaningful learning that integrates emotions, Immordino-Yang and Faeth recommend allowing learners to develop an emotional connection with the learning material. Giving them a choice of topic or involving them in the design of the exercise is one way of encouraging the emergence of a sense of ownership of the material, and helping them to better grasp the purpose of the exercise. It’s also a good idea to opt for a topic or angle that relates to their realities and interests or to propose open-ended problem-solving, which gives maximum space to “their intuitive knowledge regarding relevance, familiarity, creativity, and interest in the process (Albin, 2008)”. Group, project or portfolio work are also good choices, even if they generally require more direction from the teacher.
  • According to Immordino-Yang and Faeth, to promote meaningful learning that integrates emotions, it is also necessary to encourage learners to develop their own skilled intuitions for solving problems or completing proposed activities. To this end, it’s essential to give them the opportunity to experiment and the space to feel these intuitions about how and when to use the academic material. They need to be able to ask themselves, alone and in groups – “Is the use of this mathematical procedure warranted in this instance? “Am I getting closer to the correct solution?”
  • It’s important to realize that in elearning, even when the session involves no human interaction, the learner is likely to interact with their computer in much the same way as they would in any learning context with fellow learners. That’s why it’s vital to rethink online instructional design in the light of the latest discoveries in neuroscience, particularly affective and social neuroscience (see Digital learning from the perspective of affective and social neuroscience).

Fostering the social dimension of learning

No learning takes place in a vacuum; it all takes place in a social and cultural context (Fischer and Bidell, 2006) – including online – and neuroscience is now shedding light on this too, as Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Matthias Faeth point out:

“The message from social and affective neuroscience is clear: no longer can we think of learning as separate from or disrupted by emotion, and no longer can we focus only on the level of the individual student in analyzing good strategies for classroom instruction. Students and teachers are socially interacting and learning from one another in ways that cannot be done justice by examining only the “cold” cognitive aspects of academic skills. Like other forms of learning and interacting, building academic knowledge involves integrating emotion and cognition in a social context. Academic skills are “hot,” not “cold”!!”

Teachers exert a significant influence on their classrooms, not only through their choice of content but also through the way they teach and interact with their learners. You may be familiar with the Pygmalion effect and its counterpart, the Golem effect, which are good examples of the strength of this influence… Helped by neuroscience, some of the fundamental biological mechanisms of social learning have been uncovered (Frith and Frith, 2007; Mitchell, 2008), as has the key role of social emotions. Among other things, we now know that empathy is the mechanism by which the learner is able to decode the teacher’s actions (see Digital learning from the perspective of affective and social neuroscience).

It has also been shown that teaching can benefit from an increase in empathy from a pedagogical perspective (Poirier, 2013; Cooper, 2011; Gribble and Oliver, 1973; Washburn 2008). More specifically, a pedagogy of empathy has shown benefits not only on motivation and engagement in learning but also on feelings of trust, enjoyment of study, the development and strengthening of a bond between teacher and learners, the creation of a positive learning environment, the development of a sense of belonging to the group, the valuing of learning as well as pedagogical success (Poirier, 2013; Fuller, 2012; Fuller, 2012; Holmberg, 1995, 1999, 2003) (see Online training in empathic mode).

Finally, a study (Dikker, 2017), which for the first time measured the brain activity of a group of students in real classroom conditions, demonstrated that the more they appreciated their teacher’s course and pedagogy, the more their brains mobilized the same waves at the same times, that they were synchronous. For Olivier Houdé, this study confirms not only the virtues of group work but also the fact that a teacher who wins over their students is “a true neural conductor.”


  • Be aware of the most common cognitive biases in education (see Cognitive biases in education: the Pygmalion effect and 3 cognitive biases to be aware of in education).
  • Give importance to group work by opting for the most appropriate learning mode (see Collaborative or cooperative learning?). The pedagogical objective of cooperative learning is to ensure that everyone learns a planned, structured and imposed content while improving their collaborative skills. Collaborative learning, on the other hand, aims to help learners achieve a shared common goal and personal objectives, as well as enable them to learn “in their own way” – all by exploring, discovering or developing content or structure. Collaborative learning, which is more flexible and well-suited to adults, requires more autonomy and control on the part of the learner, who makes more decisions and assumes more responsibility. It’s an active approach in which everyone works to build their own knowledge, and one of its collateral benefits is to help develop strong interpersonal skills (for detailed advice, see Collaborative learning: a practical guide).
  • Favoring an empathetic approach to teaching, in listening, but also in action, both in the classroom and online. In action, this means, among other things, checking each learner’s progress throughout the course, encouraging frequent, ongoing exchanges focused on one problem at a time, and giving quick, clear feedback on graded exams and assignments (Poirier, 2013). Feedback must be detailed and personalized. It should aim to explain mistakes to the learner but also to motivate them to work harder, improve and pass the course.


A number of strategies can be deployed to help learners stay engaged throughout their course and achieve their goals. For maximum effectiveness, it’s wise to act on several fronts, and as you’ll have understood, the different levers all converge on the importance of putting action, emotions and the social dimension at the heart of our pedagogical approaches. All that remains is to be open and creative in integrating and adapting them to the context of each training course and then to see the benefits they can have on the personal involvement and perseverance of our learners.


  • Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen; Singh, Vanessa, “The Role of Emotion and Skilled Intuition in Learning”, dans Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience, New York, W.W. Norton & Company Inc., p. 93-105, 2016.
  • Houdé, Olivier, « L’école du cerveau : De Montessori, Freinet et Piaget aux sciences cognitives », Collection Le livre de poche. Document, LE LIVRE DE POCHE, 184 pages, 2021.

Note : Quotations have been freely translated

Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Communication Strategist and Senior Editor @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi

Catherine Meilleur has over 15 years of experience in research and writing. Having worked as a journalist and educational designer, she is interested in everything related to learning: from educational psychology to neuroscience, and the latest innovations that can serve learners, such as virtual and augmented reality. She is also passionate about issues related to the future of education at a time when a real revolution is taking place, propelled by digital technology and artificial intelligence.