Amy Potthast | Instructional Coach & Designer | Learning Design Studios

Last week, I posted a puzzler of sorts — an acquaintance Deb* had some issues with a two-day training she’d been compelled to attend at work. (Read that post here.)

Here are some ideas about how the instructional designer, the trainer, and the learner herself could have done things a little differently, lowering Deb’s affective filter & increasing her engagement and learning.

First — on role plays in general

I love role plays — as an instructor and designer.

They give learners practice simulating a potentially real-life problem, and allow the facilitator to determine if the learners have achieved in-class objectives.

As a learner, I admit I am more resistant to role plays — out of shyness (not introversion) — but I am happy in the end to have had a chance to practice. I especially prefer role plays that I don’t have to stand and perform.


  • What if my relative comfort with role plays has to do with my natural extroversion? I don’t need time to process mentally. I’m perfectly happy processing orally! Do instructors and designers tend to be extroverted? Are we a self-selected bunch of extroverts who design with ourselves in mind?
  • Must role plays be scripted, or can they simply come with guidelines, rubrics, tips? — like, snippets of language suggestions or prompts? I think in the specific program that Deb attended, the scripts were probably trademarked and therefore meant to be used verbatim. Is it realistic to think she will actually memorize and repeat the scripts in real life?

In line with this last point, my friend and colleague Tracy Schiffmann commented:

Instead of scripts (although examples are always helpful, but perhaps they may have been used as just that, examples), the skills and concepts might have been taught through principles of effective communication.

This could have even been done through a Thiagi type “envelopes” framegrame in which teams study the principles on a handout, then generate relevant scenarios and then use the framegrame (along with the handouts and maybe a scoring guide for the use of the principles) to respond to the scenarios – a different one in each envelope.

A few rounds of this (in which teams write out their response and put it in the envelope without looking at other teams’ responses) with the final round being an evaluation round of all responses in the envelope using a scoring guide, might have been more meaningful for folks.

It also allows for truly owning the communication principles as they are filtered through one’s prior knowledge, culture, personality etc.

So what could have been done differently?

What could the trainer, designer and learner do differently next time?

What could the trainers have done to help Deb?

Given an established curriculum, what could the trainers have done to make Deb feel more comfortable? 

To get more ideas, I consulted with several friends and with my husband —who is an introvert, a teacher, and (therefore) a participant in many work-sponsored in-service trainings. Here were his ideas for what the instructor could do to help Deb out:

  1. Create a safe environment from the get-go. Model a positive attitude, and clarify the reasons participants showed up today. It helps if they create their own goals for learning — especially if they don’t know why their boss made them come.
  2. Time to process. Use a structure like “Think pair share” which offers everyone (including introverts) time to process on their own, time to process again in a chat with someone else, and then the opportunity to share more broadly, if they choose to do so.
  3. Ask learners to volunteer their participation. Don’t insist that every participant take part in a role-play, or have any kind of public speaking role. It’s not that learners have to “get over shyness” — it’s that some learners need more time to think through their responses. Even teachers and public figures who speak regularly love to have time to prepare. If student participation is part of your scoring guide, find alternative ways for assessing participation, such as writing a reflection about the class (ex-post-facto).
  4. Give learners the right to pass. If an activity is structured so that each person in a group does have to speak, allow learners to pass. Circle back to them if they need more time to think of what they’d like to say.
  5. Keep it real. Don’t pressure learners to say something they don’t want to say, or to behave in way that’s not reflective of who they are. A classroom should be a learning laboratory, not a first dinner with the in-laws — or a job interview — where everyone uses their most restrained behavior. Learners need room to struggle and grow — and be authentic.
  6. Listen for, and address, struggles you see in the classroom. Not all learners are going to pull you aside and let you know that they are struggling. Not all learners will resist vocally. Be on the lookout for uncomfortable body language — and listen in on group work to spot people who are having a harder time. Where necessary, take a struggling learner aside and discuss ways to modify the activity to suit their learning needs. Be prepared to listen — and don’t try to be a psychotherapist. Invite them to participate — and accept it if they decline to do so. I admit this kind of side discussion is difficult if you have a large group of learners.
  7. Know thy learners! It’s always a good idea to survey your learners ahead of time, as part of the registration process. My friend and colleague Erin Neff observes:

    “The instructor could have also done a pre-course survey to get a sense of how best the students would learn so the instructor could target certain activities to that class. I assume the instructor does not have the luxury of polling the class in advance so the better option is to have several tricks in the bag and to be able to offer up those tricks to get at the learning objectives.”

What could the instructional designers have done to help learners like Deb?
  1. Leave room for the learner’s experience. When designing role plays, leave open the option for learners to come up with their own scenarios, and to paraphrase any script they’re given. Offer (and define) key words and useful phrases, rather than dictating whole sentences. Tracy Schiffmann says: 

    “The adult learning literature demonstrates that participant-generated scenarios are better for not only engagement but also for transferability of learning to novel situations. Had participants been able to generate their own scenarios, the issue of relevance might have been better met.”

  2. Let learners act on their strengths. When designing any kind of small group activity that includes a teach back or presentation, give the small groups a variety of roles — including roles that need to speak to the big group, and roles that do not (such as small group facilitator, recorder, flip chart writer, etc.)
  3. Offer more options! The course designer/developer might vary the learning activities during the two-day program. Erin Neff says:

    “A better approach would have been to have options so the learners could select a way that would work for them. I also can’t speak to the purpose of this strict script and what were the objectives of the class. Regardless, I am sure there were many people who experienced something similar as did Deb and shut down to learning at some point. No one wins in that case.

    The instructional designer could have made the event more useful by having a variety of activities in which the learners had the opportunity to absorb the information effectively, whether they are introverted, extroverted, learn by doing, seeing, or hearing. It sounds like I expect a utopia but it is not impossible.”

Finally, what can learners do to help themselves?
  1. Communicate your needs ahead of time. Ahead of the training, be in touch with the instructor, if possible, and let them know what your specific needs are. Ask them what type of activities the workshop will rely on, and ask them what the goals and outcomes of the course are. Try to figure out why you are going (if your boss asked you to go), what you’re supposed to get out of the training, and come up with your own personal learning goals. Of course it would be nice if the trainer surveyed you and other participants ahead of time.
  2. Stay upbeat. If at all possible, maintain a positive attitude during the workshop.
  3. Communicate your needs during the training. If necessary, speak to the instructor during the workshop to let them know that you are struggling.  Erin Neff says:

    “Another idea could be to approach the instructor during a break to explain the challenges she was facing and that she was having a hard time learning the material in that environment.”

     Be as specific as possible: “I find that I am so anxious about the role plays, that I am not able to concentrate on the content of our course. Can you give me some options for participating in alternative ways. Can I take notes for my small group, for example, or paraphrase the script in my own words?”

That all said, it might be hard to speak up during a workshop especially if the trainer seems to have a rigid approach. Erin Neff continues:

“Considering that Deb is more introverted, with the need to think things over first before acting, and the fact that the workshop was set up with little flexibility, I am not sure if her speaking out would have made a difference. Perhaps rather than be thrown in to immediately taking a turn reading from the script, she could have watched others do it and then take her turn playing that same role. I get the sense that the instructor was not interested in deviation though so there might not have been time for that.”

*Deb is not her real name. That said, I asked her permission to blog about this issue.


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