Amy Potthast | Instructional Coach & Designer | Learning Design Studios

Archive for the ‘General Instructional Coaching and Design for Adult Learning Environments’ Category

Follow the design process – Get where you want to go

To get where you want to go, process is helpful.

by Katy Terwolbeck, Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Katy Terwolbeck, Flickr Creative Commons

But process requires patience!

Resist the urge to make decisions about content for your upcoming training event — or the activities to include — or the information to list on your slide deck — till you’ve gone through an instructional design process.

Start with roles & outcomes (what learners will do out in the real world after your learning event) …

Based on outcomes, make decisions about:

  • Learning objectives (assessments that allow you to judge the learners’ ability to achieve the outcomes). Robert Mager has written books on writing strong objectives; Blooms’ Taxonomy is also a useful tool here.
  • New knowledge — concepts, skills (the ones that will help learners achieve the outcomes).
  • Activities (opportunities to master the concepts and to practice the skills that support the outcomes) — consider activities that will support learning, not simply fun or “engaging.”  Ruth Colvin Clark has written a half dozen books on learning strategies grounded in cognitive science.

When you are an expert in what you do, it’s really hard to remember what it’s like not to know what you know.  If you don’t first consider learner outcomes, you’ll have a much harder time narrowing down content to include — and you may attempt to over-stuff (but under-serve) your audience.

Over-stuffing your audience with information will make it harder for them to learn, and your attempts to assess them will be clouded — should they be responsible for all the content you’ve delivered?  Will you resent them if they can’t grasp it all based on your many power point slides and your fun activities?

Outcomes focus your assessment strategies to ensure your learners are on the hook for completing course objectives and not memorizing and repeating all the information you’ve imparted (or tried to!).

Good luck and let me know how it goes!!


Serving diverse learners’ needs – Part 2 (Conclusions)

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.

Serving diverse learner needs

Yesterday I had coffee with a new acquaintance. I’ll call her Deb.*

When I explained what I do for a living (design new training programs for adults; coach subject-matter experts to teach and train better; coach writing), Deb told me about a two-day workshop she attended recently. Here are the salient details:

  • The training was a nationally-known program based on a best-selling book, and led in-house by the human resources staff of Deb’s company.
  • The training involved learning scripted conversations, and practicing the scripts during role plays.
  • Deb’s boss arranged for her to attend.
  • Deb’s an introvert — but not shy. She needs to ponder and process her thoughts internally before speaking.
  • Deb’s intelligent, educated (has a masters degree from a U.S. university), and practical.
  • Deb’s from a country in Southeast Asia, and speaks excellent English.

So…Deb really didn’t like the training.

The reasons Deb disliked the training

1. The scenarios she was asked to practice weren’t realistic to her.
For example, one dealt with what she should say to a colleague she suspected of stealing from the company. She said that was not something she would ever address on the job because she’s not in that kind of role.

2. She wasn’t permitted to paraphrase the script.
She was instructed to read directly from the script. And she didn’t think it was (more…)

3 scary mistakes workshop facilitators make

Inspired by Halloween, I thought I’d tackle some frightening things I see in workshops I attend. And some antidotes.

1. Mistake: Leaving chairs & tables in rows, classroom-style

Actually, this is perfectly okay if you are planning to talk the entire time — like a famous author giving a lecture or reading.

If you plan on learners’ talking to each other, choose boardroom-table seating; round tables with no backs to the front of the room; a U-shape; fishbone; rainbow or horse shoe. Check out the Learning Design Studios’ Quick Guide to Seating.

Allow learners to face each other — show that you’re the guide on the side (not the sage on the stage), and set a tone inviting participation.

If possible, arrive early to set up the room the way you’d like it. Alternately, tell your client (the person who’s asked you to speak) specifically how you’d like the room setup. It’s really frustrating to imagine round tables when you’re designing a workshop — only to find rows when you show up in the classroom.

2. Mistake: Ignore participants as they enter the room.

I know, you’re shy! Or you’re busy setting up! Or you’re refilling  your coffee before the workshop begins! Or…or…

Greet participants when they enter! So that you can:

  • Learn their names
  • Introduce yourself
  • Initiate a rapport with them
  • Make sure they are in the right place
  • Answer questions
  • Find out why they came and what they already know
  • Network!

Especially in settings when you haven’t been able to do a pre-workshop survey, it’s crucial to learn where your participants are coming from and where they are headed, and how your workshop fits into their needs. If they’ve been told to attend, do they feel it’s a punishment? (Is it a punishment?) Do you have a range of levels in the room, or do participants skew toward expert or toward beginner?

3. Mistake: Focus on your content, not on their outcomes

You’ve been asked to teach a class on a topic.

What do you do next? If you are like many people, you’ll brainstorm all the content you need to cover in the workshop, then create a PowerPoint with slides that include all the content you brainstormed (organized neatly, of course).

A better reaction would be to ask your client or another expert what learners must be able to do, out in the real world, as a result of your workshop. (You might be the expert!)

Once you have a clear idea of the outcomes, you can create objectives — tasks that learners can do during the workshop that allow you to assess their readiness for achieving the outcomes, after the workshop.

Then once you’ve listed the objectives, you can figure out what concepts & skills they must discover & practice during the workshop — and what prerequisite skills and knowledge they should enter the room with.

Outcomes help you make decisions about what to cover, and allow you to focus the learning experience.

Check out theLearning Design Studios’ ISD Model At a Glance.

Left brain goes offline, Nirvana ensues

Last night I watched Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk from 2008 (seems I am a bit behind the times) and loved it so much.

Taylor suffered a stroke in her late 30s, and because she’s a neuroscientist had a very unique perspective on the experience, even while her (left) brain was still hemorrhaging.

Here’s the talk:

After you watch it, what questions does it bring up for you?

For me, questions arise such as:

Implications for Icebreakers and Energizers?

If it’s the right brain through which we feel most connected to others and most aware in the present moment, and it’s the right brain that governs our kinesthetic experience of the world, what does that mean (more…)

Subject Matter Experts teach, train + present better as a result of working with me

Greetings! I’m Amy Potthast — instructional coach, training program designer, and podcaster.

Amy Potthast and VISTA trainees, Oxbow Park

Amy Potthast

I work with social justice, nonprofit, and philanthropy professionals to:

  • establish workshop or course goals,
  • plan meaningful and novel activities that support evidence-based learning theories,
  • review & evaluate or design teaching materials,
  • set up pilot workshops to test new materials, and
  • give actionable feedback on rehearsal.

Additionally, I design custom training programs on a range of issues by working in tandem with subject matter experts and the client organizations which sponsor the projects.

This is my portfolio, a work in progress. Feel free to poke around. And contact me by emailing amy.potthast [at]

Preliminary investigation leading up to the learning contract

Is there even an answer to the question I have?

First step – research and read to better understand constructivism as an instructional theory or ISD model — versus educational philosophy. For the past several days I have been searching on the OSU library (and ERIC etc.) for articles and books that can orient me to constructivism.

I think I’d like to investigate whether constructivist models of ISD work better with some kinds of learners than others. Like rich/well educated hippie college kids with intrinsic motivation and great work ethic and self discipline and an academic history of inquiry based learning. But I am not finding a huge body of writing on the topic which makes me doubt there is research to look at to answer my question.

Tonight I found a book review for Constructivism and Instructional Technology (book is by Duffy and Jonassen) helpful. The review points out that it’s hard to ask good questions about a topic you don’t know much about (Miyake and Norman, 1979). Ringing very, very true!

Could “scaffolding” be the answer to the problem of learners not knowing enough to ask good questions in constructivism? Clark and Graves 2008 — study on contrasting literature methods in elem classrooms (PDF is on the macbook):

Inherent in the concept of scaffolding is the gradual release of responsibility model (Pearson & Fielding, 1991). In this model, students progress from situations in which the teacher assumes the majority of responsibility for successful completion of a task to situations in which students assume all or most of the responsibility for the task. – page 10

First clue that constructive isd works better with some populations than others. In a comparison of open and directed literature text mediation in fourth and fifth graders, it seems that the fifth graders enjoyed the books better when the approach was more constructivist while the fourth graders enjoyed the books better with the objectivist approach. p. 22 – Mean ratings of interest table.


How I am feeling:
Before I found the book review corroborating George’s take, I was feeling frustrated
Feeling better now, like I am onto something, not sure what
Afraid that this whole process is going to take a long time
Scared about developing an assessment and rubric for myself

One thought to answer my research question (if it is the same one I mention above) is to chat with some professors at Evergreen (to the extent that Evergreen is constructivist in its approach — how will I confirm that?) and see what admissions criteria looks like as far as predicting success in that environment. Also — interview George?

– Chinese faculty member at Evergreen who Maggie knows
– Maggie
– Gail
– George?