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No Couch Potatoes: A Case for Making Training ACTIVE

by , instructional writer/designer | @EllenBJohnson

Ellen Burns

A passive learning experience can feel comfortable, but we don’t want our learners to “veg out” during training.

When stakeholders, SMEs, and instructional designers share a meaningful goal, it generates a lot of excitement in the room. I know we’re on the right track when I hear statements like these: 

  • “We want our employees to enter widget orders in under 5 minutes.”
  • “Associates need to initiate conversations with customers about our ABC gadget.”
  • “Managers must answer employees’ questions about the new customer service initiative.”

To me, these and similar statements indicate a real need for the kind of performance-based training that I love to create.

But I do sometimes encounter questions like these:

  • “Where will the content go?”
  • “These activities are great, but where will learners actually learn about the topic?”
  • “Could we start with a 5-minute video to introduce the content in a really interactive way?”

When I hear these phrases, I know we’ve got a “couch potato problem”. It’s time to talk about passive content for a few minutes.

What do I mean by “passive content”?


We’ve all experienced the guilty pleasure of lying on the couch and watching too much television. You lie there, maybe for hours, just absorbing things.

That’s kind of what passive content feels like—absorption. I use the term “passive content” to describe any part of an instructional experience that isn’t related to the learner doing something. A bit like the idea of learning by osmosis, passive content expects the learner to learn by simply reading, listening, or watching.

Passive content might look like this:

  • A video with talking heads telling people things
  • A series of slides with text for the learner to read
  • A series of slides with text AND a narrator
  • A series of slides with animations AND a narrator AND cool transitions (you get the idea)

Why do we use it?

“Boring is bad,” as Dr. Allen wrote in his seminal book Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning. Passive content is very often boring in training, yet we sometimes encounter a lot of pressure to create it. Dr. Allen has also written in the Guide about why those pressures exist, so I won’t go into detail about them here. But I think that often, the reasons boil down to the fact that taking the passive route is sometimes the path of least resistance on a project. This might relate to differences in how key stakeholders think about scope, budget, and quality. 

Does it work for training?

It can, but only when the following conditions are met.

  1. It works if the learner is paying attention to the content.
  2. It works as training if the learner is actively engaged in the process of figuring out how to act upon the information.
  3. If the goal is not to train, but to educate.

So why is passive content risky?

Take a look at that list of conditions in the previous section. That’s a lot of big “ifs!” Of those three items, only one is really within our control—the goal of the material being produced. So when we design training with passive content, we're taking a big risk. We're making assumptions that the learner is paying attention and is also trying to figure out how the material applies to their role.

The thing is, we simply cannot control learners’ attention, though we CAN design for it. Plus, even if learners are paying attention and trying to figure out how to change their own behavior, they may make the wrong conclusions. If we don't design training to capture learners’ attention and direct them to the right conclusions, then we risk spending a lot of money on material that will result in little or no positive change for the organization.

And how we approach design really does depend on what kind of change we want to bring about. Passive content might work for educating, but not for training. You might be thinking “wait, what's the difference between training and educating?” I like to define training as an instructional experience with the goal of changing a behavior or establishing a new behavior. The key is impact on behavior. I think of educating as establishing a base of knowledge and understanding to be drawn upon later, with no specific behavior in mind.

According to these definitions of the terms, most of what we are asked to do at Allen Interactions is training, not education. There's usually some desire for behavior change involved in all of the material we create.

How do we design to reduce that risk? 

If you’re designing training (not education) with passive content, then there really isn’t much you can do to reduce the risks that learners will tune out. You could invest a lot in making the experience an entertaining one, but if you’re going to take that extra step, why not instead invest that effort in making the experience an ACTIVE one?

When your goal is to train, then you must design to reduce the risks associated with conditions 1 and 2:

  1. The learner has to be paying attention to the content
  2. The learner has to be actively engaged in the process of figuring out how to act upon the information

You can do this by creating an active experience that requires the learner’s attention. Earlier I mentioned how reading, listening, or watching become “active” when they are applied in such a way that the learner must DO something. Here are a few examples from training I’ve helped design:

  • Reading background information on a fictional legal case before deciding whether to appeal
  • Listening for nuances in a recording of a caller’s voice in order to choose the best response in simulated customer service conversation
  • Watching a video to establish context for a problem-solving activity, which draws upon the narrative in the video

In order to successfully navigate the interactions in each of these examples, a learner has to (1) pay attention to the content and (2) figure out how to act upon the information they’re presented with.


Most of the media we encounter today does not require us to do anything more than read, listen, or watch. Sure, we might enjoy taking a more active role. For instance, we can debate the finer points of an opinion piece on Facebook or discuss the plot of a movie over dinner with friends. But, all we’re really expected to do is show up. Beyond the end of the movie or article or podcast, engagement is optional. We can be couch potatoes.

Because we’re so used to reading, listening, and watching, I understand why designing instruction around “doing” can seem risky. Unlike modern consumer media, however, those of us responsible for training within our organizations don’t want couch potatoes. We want learners to do more than just show up. We don’t want engagement beyond the training to be optional—we want people to learn, to practice, and to improve their performance on the job!

So isn’t it riskier to invest in passive content that learners might ignore? Instead, invest in training that really encourages learners take an active role in the experience.

Want to share this post? Here are some ready made tweets:

Click to tweet: "Boring is Bad!" | A Case for Making Training ACTIVE! #boringisbad #elearningdesign

Click to tweet: Passive content is risky! "No Couch Potatoes: A Case for Making Training ACTIVE!" #elearning #corporatetraining

Click to tweet: The thing is, we simply cannot control learners’ attention, though we CAN design for it. #learningdesign #boringisbad

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About Author

Ellen Burns-Johnson
Ellen Burns-Johnson

Ellen Burns-Johnson has over a decade of experience in the education and training industries. She has crafted the instructional strategy and design for dozens of major initiatives across diverse topics, from classroom safety to IT sales. Emphasizing collaboration and playfulness in her approach to creating learning experiences, Ellen’s work has earned multiple industry awards for interactivity and game-based design. Ellen is also a Certified Scrum Master® and strives to bring the principles of Agile to life in the L&D field. Whether a client is a Fortune 100 company or a local nonprofit, she believes that the best learning experiences are created through processes built on transparency between sponsors and developers, empirical processes, and respect for learners. Outside of her LXD work, Ellen plays video games (and sometimes makes them) and runs around the Twin Cities with her two mischievous dogs (ask for pictures).

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