Connecting and Engaging Learners

Most health care professionals are required to get annual continuing education (CE). The total amount of hours and method the learner uses varies widely between professions. However, whether an OT, pharmacist, nurse or physician, the need for lifelong learning, is an exciting part of our career.

Enter in CE providers and the goal of educating hundreds of thousands of professionals each year. We’ll focus on education for pharmacists but many of the components discussed here will translate to other disciplines. While there are clear and measured standards for creating a learning activity, there is also little guidance for how to better connect with your audience.

The following paragraphs offers some guidance on how we can connect more effectively and build more meaningful education.

Three assumptions Providers should move towards:

  • Value-add Marketing replaces Advertising.
  • Action replaces Consumption.
  • Connected, ongoing conversations to improve the healthcare system replaces one-off programs.

Culture and status quo are a huge part of why educational programs have remained stagnant for so long. Our ability to create a renewed structure for how we interact with learners – initial marketing to empowering and application based education to sustained follow up post programs – will set up a new posture for more effective and meaningful education.

If we’re creating programs that merely check off a box, it is no wonder why pharmacists attending our programs are there to do the same.

First, let’s work on Marketing.


The year is 1998.

Marketing is merely advertising for a product. No value-add or storytelling.

Here’s our product — here’s our price.

We’ve come a long way over the last two decades. Just look at the great work of Seth Godin(This is Marketing by Seth Godin is an amazing go-to for educators to start with) and Ramit Sethi. A new era of marketing has replaced this old model and those days are behind us. 

Or are they?

Most continuing education providers haven’t adopted a perspective of storytelling and adding value for free. Week after week, advertising for different education programs are delivered in both email and snail mail. Then radio silence…or more advertising until the next program is offered. 

As a solution, what if we created split email lists that are tailored for specific markets? Providers can send new and free content to each list without advertising for a program. Newsletters are a common tool and should be tailored to the specific audience.

Each provider creates a need assessment for learners which helps define what topics pharmacists are interested in. This could be diabetes, ambulatory care, billing opportunities, and an endless list of options. Once you identify groups of pharmacists that are looking for similar topics, a separate email list is created for those niche groups.

Providers won’t change the process of creating educational content for a specific need. However, now you can market this content to specific learners that are looking for it, instead of ALL learners in the email list.

The next step is showing up consistently, with generosity. Show up with new, innovative and free content related to the specific topic. This builds trust which then allows you to learn what the pain points are for your market.

Application is Indispensable

What do you do with attendees that are apathetic?

The current system of “active learning” is, in part, a valid attempt to solve the lack of engagement. It’s a means to increase participation and identify if attendees understand what is being learned. There are tech savvy ways to do this – like automated response systems (ARS; Poll EverywhereGlisser and many others). ARS is a often used in knowledge based sessions and application based programs, whether at a conference or Live webinar.

What’s meant by active learning is really “interactive learning.” A place for the speaker to engage with the audience/attendees and focus on the main points that are being taught. It is a challenge to maintain this standard is large groups (100+). First, many people won’t raise their hands if they don’t know the answer in fear they might be wrong. Using an ARS can help solve this problem.

Despite using an ARS, we run into two other issues where people aren’t responding with an answer and the answers (data) are not used to enhance engagement with the audience. 

We can use data from ARS to leverage the information we share within our application based sessions. An application based course creates more opportunities for learners to interactive with each other, both improving networking and sharing ideas. Often application based sessions are case based discussions. 

After factoring interactive learning and maximizing participation, there is one other component affecting attendee engagement – the speaker.

The next section will briefly highlight an area where you can take a different perspective and help both the speaker and ultimately the learners in your program(s).

What Sound Does Your Presentation Make?

While attending the U.S. Open, I watched many of the best professional tennis players in the world up close. What stood out was more than what I saw – it was what I heard. The sound of the ball coming off the racquet on a serve just sounds different compared to amateurs. This is similar to what die hard baseball fans say about an elite level baseball player when the ball comes off the bat with a different sound. They are both hitting the ball differently – cleaner with more power and velocity. 

Presenting isn’t any different:

The sound is tone and enthusiasm. 

The velocity is how quickly (or slowly) you’re speaking.

Cleaner and power is the clarity of and authority in the topic being presented.

Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

A great presenter will sound much different than a good speaker. There are thousands of hours of presentations each year that are given to pharmacists but far fewer hours are spent giving constructive feedback to those speakers to help them engage with the audience more effectively. Speakers hear an opinion on an evaluation but lack the analysis for self improvement.

A mentor of mine, Dennis Chapron, a brilliant teacher at the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy for over three decades, has said “most people lose focus after 25 minutes of sitting in a lecture.” There is research (here) backing up this theory. Yet, most conferences have 60–90…or 120 minute sessions.

Within our 60 minute programs (standard CE length), what if we broke up the talk into two sections with a video or other type of medium to draw or pull the audience back in. The better we can connect to our learners and understand what they are hoping to learn, the easier it’ll be for us to earn their attention.

Accountable Learning

If you’ve read 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, you know that number two on the list is “Begin with the end in mind.”

What is the end for a CE provider? Is it to merely provide CE, or a revenue generator, or to improve the skills of pharmacists, or something else?

Commonly, courses have the following details:

A one-off course 

A 90 or 120 minute course 

A PowerPoint presentation with an endless loop of bullet points 

By one-off courses, I mean a one time course/session within a full day program (or webinar) but has no real connection to other sessions in the conference. 

I was talking with a provider a couple of months ago and was told that it is easier to have a large conference with one speaker for 500 people. The thought process isn’t wrong and the volume helps the program scale. But – Is it better? Is it easier?

What happens once the conference is done? Pharmacists fill out the obligatory assessment, checking the boxes and are left to figure out how to use the knowledge on their own.

I see another way. It is Accountable Learning. It is the CE provider that is accountable for pharmacists learning. Using the knowledge and getting support to use it effectively is a missing piece of continuing education. This is more than an application based workshop that is hands-on because it is a longitudinal approach. It will create extra work and effort and this isn’t required by ACPE. However, if your goal is to improve medication use and help pharmacists build skills to be better at their job, accountable learning is a new required step in the process.

A follow up comes in many forms. It can be as simple as sending a summary of key points and takeaways to all attendees or people that took the course online. It could also be a series of educational sessions that are held after the conference for people that want a more in-depth experience. These would be smaller workshops for specific learners.

What is meaningful education?

When we provide the right education to the right person at the right time (sound familiar?) – that is meaningful.

When we lead, connect and create opportunities for health care providers to innovate and improve patient care – that is meaningful.

Change is a result of altering our perspective – a reframing of our current understanding.

“Perspective shift is actually cheap, relative to being smarter than everyone around you.” 

Dr. Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots (CEO of X) 

What perspective shift do you need to create more meaningful education? 

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Originally posted on LinkedIn.

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