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Virtual learning traps & how to avoid them

Virtual learning traps & how to avoid them

addressing 7 biggest traps in virtual learning

Virtual learning brings in many new challenges for trainers, such as less visual feedback from participants, the interaction being more difficult to build up, and motivation being harder to spark.

Read more about the challenges of virtual learning in blog post about11 tips and tricks to make your virtual meetings & workshops great and Tips&Tricks for more engaging virtual workshops


To adapt and create meaningful learning experiences, as trainers we need to rely on new tools and techniques – but most of all, we need to re-think our approach to designing learning experiences in this new space.

The crucial aspect of making virtual work for you is to not fall into the trap of “transferring” your “physical” learning design directly into similar virtual tools. Instead, you need to step back, refocus on the learning goal, and start training design by choosing the best approaches and methods to achieve these learning goals in virtual space. 

Sometimes, that will mean very similar methods and tools that you used for that goal in the “physical” training room. In another case, it will be a totally new and different approach.

Here are

7 common traps I saw trainers doing in virtual training

and ideas on how to avoid them:

Trap 1: Not understanding how to build the personal feeling in virtual space

I often hear comments that people don’t like virtual because it is “less personal” – you see others less and you don’t feel their presence as much. 

The feeling of a group, trust and interest towards others are often crucial for engagement and motivation during the learning process.

As trainers, making participants feel welcomed, connected, and positive towards the learning experience is one of the most essential things to build up.

Two things make all the difference when building trust in virtual space:  first, making people feel SEEN and like they see others; and building depth of interaction gradually but consistently with gradual vulnerability.

The first one is all about creating more visibility into who is on a call, and what are they like. It means using videos for calls when personal connection matters. Also, making them seen by introducing a bit of personal sharing (yes, even in professional contexts) – this is something that is best to introduce already in the check-in of a call, although you might want to choose the depth of the question carefully and consciously. Having fun together can also make people feel closer, or any shared emotion – however, if introducing a fun activity, do make it purposeful as well and related to the workshop topic. 

The second one means that if we wish to build a sense of connection, we need to get to a bit deeper sharing and we need to make it personal. To do that successfully, it is crucial to keep safety in mind! Depth should be built very gradually and in with fairness in how much everyone is sharing. There should be an equal sense of sharing among the participants – we need to start with not-too-deep questions to which everyone shares, and gradually keep building more depth with every question. 

To make it fair while still safe, a good approach is to ask a fairly broad question to which we ask everyone to respond, while allowing them a choice of what exactly (and how deep) they want to share. So, while answering the question is obligatory, they can make their answer short and vague, or deep and extensive, up to them what they are ready for. 

There is also a third important element: trainers’ state and emotion! Read about that one under Trap 8.

Trap 2: Focusing on interaction instead of motivation

Learner learns when (s)he cognitively processes information in an active way and reaches her/his own insights and conclusions. 

For that to happen, we must create learners’ motivation, not just interaction and activity.

Motivation means they care about learning and the topic, and they are interested.

Interaction means that they are talking, clicking and are actively involved through their behaviour. While interaction can be a consequence and symptom of motivation, it can also be a consequence of compliance with a task or just keeping themselves entertained. In the second case, the interaction does not contribute to learning. 

 That is why as trainers we should at all costs avoid “pushing” participants into interaction with techniques such as calling out names, making things mandatory, “chasing” participants to activelly yse tools or using polls just for sake of getting the reaction from the participants.

Instead, we want to “pull” them into learning by creating an inviting atmosphere, giving strong WHY at the beginning of the workshops and each learning block, and creating inner motivation through raising curiosity and interest with engaging questions and meaningful activities.

Trap 3: Trying to create engagement in behavior (clicking or talking) instead of cognitive/mental engagement

Building on top of the previous Trap 2, trainers often ask for “the best tools to use in virtual”.

And I cannot highlight this enough: It’s not about WHAT tool you use…it’s about WHY and HOW you use it!

It’s essential to use the tools in a purposeful, goal-oriented way. 

That means establishing the learning goal or outcome first, both for the workshop and for each learning activity for which you need the tool. Then, focus on building the process the learner will go through. Only in the end, choose the optimal tool for that process and learning. 

To make every interaction meaningful, ask “What do I wanna create through interaction?”. Sometimes it will be for participants to gain new insights and perspectives, other times for participants to think actively and cognitively process the new idea, and sometimes it’s just about building a sense of co-creative space and shared ownership.

Let’s look at this question by looking into examples of using Polls. 

What are some of the wrong reasons to use Polls?

It is to give them the question “to make them a bit awake and interactive”. Or to “check if they are paying attention”. 

By wrong, I mean that these kind of approach distracts from the learning process. That happens when there is no depth to the question in the Poll, and it doesn’t lead participants to really reflect on anything. Also, they might feel like they need to comply and you are giving a negative message about their ownership over their learning process.

What are some of the valid reasons to use Polls?

There could be many positive ways of using polls, and here is a couple of examples:

   – for a trainer to see information about participants interests, backgrounds, knowledge or opinion – that also enables me as a trainer to be flexible in supporting their preferences and needs

   – for participants to see what is overview of the group preferences/interest/background/opinions – are they all on the same page? are their answers/interests/backgrounds quite diverse? – that also gives me a chance as a trainer to give them clarification of why we are covering some topics and activities

   – for them to activelly think about the answer – e.g. to choose what is their priority in terms of the importance of the topics, or what is their opinion about the question 

Every time I use polls as a trainer, I want to know exactly what it is that I am trying to achieve by using it. It could be several reasons at the same time – but the reasons shouldn’t be “to create a bit of interaction.”

Trap 4: Not predicting energy drop early, and managing energy only once it drops already 

Virtual training is more tiring than the live one, both for trainer and participants. Even if we are good with managing energy, we must keep in mind that participants might have had a long day at the laptop, and keep a careful eye on their energy. 

If the workshop we are delivering is longer than 2h, it is important to understand it is likely to have an energy drop after 2h. Sometimes, it might be earlier, and sometimes they might even arrive tired!

While trainer should plan breaks and energy management in advance within training design, it is even more important to observe it and manage it according to what we notice about their energy levels. 

This can sometimes be hard to notice – although video and amount of interaction can help. In case we do not have a good view of participants’ energy, it is best to “measure” it often – e.g. to ask them to share in chat 1-10 what is their current energy level.

The most important thing is to not fall into the trap to stretch no-break time for too long in moments when participants do seem energetic and engaged, and they say they don’t need a break. It is very likely that this will backfire later in the session (if the session is more than 2h long), and the last thing you want to have is to have them drained and with poor energy for the closing.

The three key to energy management are variability, emotion and movement. Think about how can you leverage these three in your training.

Trap 5: Not understanding that participants not being sure what is “the right way” of interacting is preventing interaction 

Sometimes, participants avoid saying sometimes, simply because they are not sure what is the appropriate way to interact. They are hesitant to speak up because they prefer to be silent than to do something “wrong”.  This happens because in virtual space we have less of established norms  of communication than we do in physical workshop, but also because they see others less so it is harder to assess what would be “approapriate” behaviour. 

How can you avoid this trap? Simply by giving quick yet very clear expectations and guidelines on how to interact! E.g. are they invited to speak whenever they have sometimes to share? Or will there be dedicated moments for questions and discussion? Should they raise their “virtual hand”, or their real hand on video, or ask for a word in chat, or simply unmute and speak up? Tell them what ways will work, but also try to give them multiple options – some people feel silly always raising the hand, while others feel shy to speak up without asking for a word.

It is also crucial to be clear about what ways will not work – e.g. “please don’t raise your “real” hand on video, because it is likely that I will not notice that – please use the virtual hand or chat instead to ensure I see it!”

While some trainers always do that, others are not in the habit of giving such obvious guidelines because in “physical” training it can be fairly obvious for participants to understand what is expected – after all, we are all more used to that setting, and it’s easier to notice what others are doing.

Yet in virtual space, this can become an invisible obstacle to interaction – so, if you want interaction, the first step is to make it very easy for participants to interact!

Trap 6: Getting stuck in thinking of tools you are used to using in “physical” training

An example of this would be if a trainer would use a whiteboard or flipchart in training, so they decide to use Miro or Mural in exactly the same way they would use a physical whiteboard.

That way, Miro or Mural become just a “weaker” version of the physical. 

Instead, explore Miro and Mural features and possibilities and think of a whole new way of creating facilitation in these virtual boards! E.g. the ability to zoom in and out, take virtual walks, create surprises you can launch on the board can all be very valuable “tricks” to leverage.

We can apply similar reasoning to any other aspect of “physical” training we are “stuck on” – e.g. energizers and learning activities, brainstorming tools… Don’t think about transferring them directly in the same way to virtual! It will only make it a weaker replacement.

Instead, go back to the goal – what it is that you are trying to achieve with this tool and activity? – and then choose or design the best tool to achieve that goal in this new space.

Trap 7: Not creating enough of the structure for the learner

In virtual, structure often becomes more vague – we cannot leave the agenda on the wall as we might do in physical training room, and somehow the understanding of where we are in the agenda gets more unclear.

It is important that trainer in virtual (even more than in “physical” training) keeps refocusing learners on where we are on the agenda, communicate the structure of the session, often do mini-summary, referr to different parts of the session as we are covering new connected content. This will ensure structure and clarity.

A little trick that can also help with this is to use a bit different slide template for different types of content or for different chapters of the training. 

Bonus – Trap 8: Underestimating the impact of your own emotional state and motivation

Virtual often brings in more emotional stress than physical workshops do, and it can also be more energy draining. Take that moment before the session to re-focus just before the session. Keep on doing check-in of your own emotional state and energy throughout the virtual workshop. Notice what is draining your energy and makes you stressed, and keep on working on managing that (even) better). 


I hope you enjoyed exploring these 8 traps, and the ways of dealing with them, and that you gained some new insights.

Most importantly – I hope you will take a moment to actively reflect on how can you leverage these in your next workshop. 

Moment to reflect: 

Which of these traps do you sometimes “slip into”?  Which are the danger for you when tired or rushing?  How will you improve this in your next workshop?


?Do you want to excel as a trainer online and master the ways to engage, motivate and guide learners? Sign up for Trainers Toolbox Keys to successful and engaging virtual training on-demand online course and discover all the different ways you can do that!

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