Amy Potthast | Instructional Coach & Designer | Learning Design Studios

One key to helping adults learn is getting them connect new information to what they already know.

As educators, our role then is to get our learners to realize what they already know — through written and oral reflection.

We can do this in lots of ways — here are a few:

1) Pre-workshop questionnaires.

Learners can start reflecting on their own prior experience with a topic (and you can whet their appetite for rich content) when you ask them to answer some questions before the workshop.

Using a free online survey site like SurveyMonkey, you can ask learners to respond to prompts such as, “Rate your experience with…”, “How often do you…”, and “Describe how you will use…”. You can also ask them what they plan to get out of the workshop.

These questions get the learners’ juices flowing, and help them reflect on workshop content before they even walk in the door or power up their laptops.

Bonus!: The pre-workshop questionnaire offers another enormous benefit as well. The more you can anticipate the needs of your group, the better you can customize your materials, examples, and pace.

2) Tie the warm up exercise to your content.

Even if your learners work together and know each other, take the time to include an icebreaker or warm up activity that helps them settle into a learning experience together.

My favorite strategy combines networking with a chance to talk and hear about workshop content.

As participants enter the room, I greet them and offer them a Find Someone Who exercise. Find Someone Who…”understands [a key concept from today’s workshop],” “can model [a key skill from today’s workshop],” “knows someone who uses [the key skill] professionally,” etc. Once a learner has found a person with the requisite knowledge or skill, they record their name and email address, and anything else they’d like to remember.

In a single activity, learners grow comfortable in the room, get each others’ contact info (for following up on great conversations and connections later on), consider their own background with the workshop’s topic, and have a chance to teach each other (a great way to learn!).

Bonus!: Icebreakers that start before the workshop does (and catches people as they enter the room) helps you put that awkward dead time to good use, learn each other’s names, and increase the feeling of intimacy in the room.

3) Ask them what they already know

Near the start of your workshop — after the icebreaker & intros — ask your learners what they already know about your topic (“What is [Topic]?”).

Yes, I know you already did this, more or less, in the pre-workshop questionnaire and in the icebreaker — but ask again now. Learners will benefit from hearing more about each other’s experiences.

Bonus!: Use this discussion to launch into what learners still want to know about the topic, as well as to begin to define and describe your topic.

4) Solicit examples

Once you’ve presented the principles, steps, process, etc. you came here to present — ask them if they can think of an example from their own lives.

Sharing examples not only helps learners pull out long-term memories (=knowledge), which helps them frame and structure the new perspectives they’re building in class, BUT ALSO hearing several examples from classmates helps learners identify patterns, increasing retention of the new information.

5) Beg (for) the questions!

In addition to encouraging examples, invite questions.

Of course ask the open-ended “What questions do you have?”

But also create an environment in your workshop that is open and relaxed — that validates both ignorance and risk-taking. For example, be generous when a learner gives you a “wrong” answer to a question. Of course you want to correct misinformation, but save face for your learners when you do so:

“I have tried that strategy, too! … But did you all read recently in the XYZ Journal about new research which highlights the need for a different approach  … I’d be curious what you thought about that article…”

Asking questions are important because they give learners a chance to actively test what they think they’re hearing in class against what they’ve already learned. Where there are contradictions or inconsistencies, you may be able to give meaningful insight to resolve them.


Comments on: "5 ways to help learners discover what they already know" (2)

  1. Tammi W. said:

    The icebreaker activity is always a good idea; however, recording that person’s email address in the “Find Someone Who…” activity is genius! What a great way to get the contact information so you can follow up later with the people who interested you the most. I also loved your face-saving tactics in #5 – very diplomatic. And that’s so important when we’re in a workshop; no one wants to feel stupid when we take a risk and offer up an answer.
    Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Amy Potthast said:

      Thanks, Tammi!

      Both of these ideas came to me from workshops in which I was a learner…a reminder to me about what it’s like to be on the participants’ side of the learning transaction.

      So far no one in workshops I’ve designed or led has felt awkward about sharing email info. But I know that could be a concern, so educators should gauge that one case-by-case.


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