Amy Potthast | Instructional Coach & Designer | Learning Design Studios

Archive for the ‘Instructional Advice’ Category

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.


How to listen to (or read) feedback

“If you prick us, do we not bleed?” — Shylock (from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice)

I caught part of a radio interview this afternoon on Q with Gian Gomeshi — the guest was Greg Graffin, the (now middle-aged) front man for the punk band Bad Religion. I know almost nothing about punk, but the guy sounded like a sweet, thoughtful person, doing his music thing, and teaching at Cornell.

What got my attention was that Graffin said he didn’t read reviews of his music, and didn’t read student comments on the faculty evaluations and the end of his courses. He’s afraid of the criticism.


Okay, it’s NOT that I CAN’T relate. Criticism — even private criticism from learners, written on an evaluation survey that only you read — is painful. Worse (obviously) if the learner is trying to be hurtful. And knowing nothing of fame myself, I don’t know how it would feel to read a published review of my work.

All that said, the evaluation comments at the end of a workshop or course aren’t about YOU.

They are about how the learner experienced the event, how the learner interpreted you, and how the learner negotiated meaning from the content, activities, and interaction with other learners.

While some learners might offer vapid griping — Graffin’s fear was a student calling him “boring” — and others might try to be insulting, the most helpful comments you’ll read will come from learners who ask for specific changes, or give you new insights into your teaching, methods, or materials.

Here are a few tips for rethinking post-course evaluations:

Look for patterns

Are many learners, over many trainings, giving you similar feedback about your organization, timing, or tone?

In a pile of friendly, supportive evals, are there one or two grumpy folks who totally didn’t get you? Or missed the point of your training, came for the wrong reasons, or didn’t appreciate your sense of humor?

Read those, but don’t dwell on them more than on the comments from your fans. (Oy, I know — easier said than done!)

Treat feedback as a gift

Learners came to the event to take something away (skills, concepts, new contacts). If they take the time to evaluate the event and your presentation — bonus! Free coaching for you.

Learn something

Find the grain of truth in any comment, and shake off any negative tone you’re picking up. That tone could come from anything — the learner’s fight last night with the boyfriend, a bounced check, a flat tire on the way to the event….

The important thing is, maybe what they are saying is legitimate. Maybe you left some context out of your intro that would have helped, or maybe you need to think about using additional instructional tools, like a scoring guide, or agenda.

It might be you

Have you been leading a longer course? And ignored repeated feedback from the same learners? In that case, you might need to own both the content and tone of negative eval comments. (Sorry to point out the obvious…)

Remember how it feels

The next time you give feedback to a fellow instructor, keep it useful and professional.

Ask for what you need. Praise specific methods and materials.

You might dislike the instructor, but, well, that might be obvious without writing about it in the course eval! Just in case the instructor bleeds when he’s pricked, go ahead and use a butter knife if you have critical feedback.

Have you ever skipped reading your course evaluations? How do you prepare to read them — and process the good, the bad and the ugly?

Event planning basics

Here are some basic guidelines for planning a solid event….and communicating the details to your learners ahead of time.

Photo of clipboards by Schezar, Flickr Creative Commons

By Schezar, Flickr Creative Commons

1. Location

Last minute disasters aside, you should have a venue reserved for your learning event before you open registration. Otherwise, how can you tell folks when, where, and how long the workshop will be? How will you know how many people you can accommodate?

When you advertise the event, include:

  • Location (including full address: host organization name, building name, floor number, and room name or number)
  • Day of the week, and date
  • Start time and end time
  • Event planner’s contact name and phone number

When learners register, they should get an automatic email with these details, as well.

When you close registration — or a week or two ahead of the event — send all registered learners another note reiterating the information, with links to directions, and your contact info (including cell phone number) in case people experience issues, day-of.

2. Food — for longer events

Let learners know whether you are providing a meal, or snacks— or whether they should bring food themselves.

If you plan to provide food, ask folks what their dietary needs are. The easiest way to do that is to ask on the registration form.

If you can’t provide food, plan to provide water if at all possible. My personal preference also includes coffee!!

But skip candy on the tables. Candy doesn’t wake you up…at least not in the long run. It makes you run down. For alert learners, opt instead for stretch breaks and fresh air.

3. Introductions

Name tags or tents are nice, too, but at the very least, allow folks to introduce themselves and explain why they came. This is especially important for longer training events (2+ hours). If it’s a large group, or you are worried about time, at least have learners introduce themselves to the people sitting near them.

4. Written agenda, and preferably, learning objectives

Let people know where you are taking them during the learning event.

Agendas and objectives (what learners will show you they can do, by the end of the workshop) serve as advanced organizers — giving learners a framework with which to organize the information that’s to come.

Also: showing the learners your agenda and objectives also increases the chances you HAVE an agenda and objectives. Don’t think I am kidding!

Throughout the event, refer back to your agenda, and at the end of the event, use the objectives as a prompt to quiz learners about the event’s takeaways.

5. Evaluation

Always ask for feedback. Especially if you offer the learning event regularly, or if this was the first time. Use either pencil-and-paper forms that folks can fill out towards the end of the event, or online surveys they get a link to in their inbox next-day.

You might ask what they took away from the workshop (knowledge and skills) as well as comments on your facilitation, methods, activities, materials, and event logistics. I prefer open-ended questions and space for writing. Some people would rather see Likert rating scales (1 to 5). It’s up to you, and your boss or client how to evaluate the event.

NOTE: the surveys you collect after a learning event are just the tip of the evaluation iceberg.

  • You can also assess what the learners actually learned in more formal ways (tests, essays, reflections, projects).
  • You can find out whether the learners have started using their new skills and knowledge in the real world.
  • You can find out if the learner’s workplace, school, career, or community has benefitted from the learning.

Especially if you offer a high-stakes instructional program with intense social or other implications, you should plan to do some kind of periodic or longitudinal program evaluation. You might not know how to conduct it, which questions to ask, or how to collect accurate data — but someone else will! If you can’t afford an evaluation expert, consider work with a graduate intern.

What’s on your list of must-haves when you are planning a learning event?

Spaced learning and one-off workshops

How to encourage learners to spread out their learning, when you have one shot to teach them.

According to John Medina’s Brain Rules, you’ll learn best through re-exposing yourself to new information at specific intervals.

This kind of learning is called “spaced learning” and is in contrast to cramming, or a study method I call “How I Passed my Freshman Computer Programming Course at CMU”—memorize a lot of code, then type it in the right place on the exam, then go home for winter break and never think about it again, ever.

So, if spaced learning is the ideal, how do you encourage it, when you’ve only got a one-hour workshop or presentation (instead of, say, a semester-long college course)? The following are some ways that I have tried — I’d love to hear what you’ve tried! Leave a comment below.

Close your workshop with a review

If you don’t already, review the workshop content as part of your wrap up. There are lots of ways to do this, depending on how much time you’ve spent together. An easy way is to look back at the objectives for the workshop and quiz participants on how well they’ve met them. Learners will remember the end of the workshop better than the rest of it, so reviewing the content at the end sends them home with the key points fresh in their minds.

Ask learners to explain new ideas to a friend

The best way to learn is to teach. Task your learners with explaining a new concept, teaching a new skill, or discussing a new issue with a friend. Reviewing content orally is a kind of elaborative rehearsal — repeating the content in a relatively complex way that anchors it in long-term memory better.

Give a homework assignment

Clearly optional, homework assignments invite learners to take their interest in your subject one step further. Ask learners to read a specific book from the library, reflect on the topic in writing, interview an expert to learn more, watch a film, create something new.

The homework assignment will allow your learners one more exposure to the new skill or content area, helping them review and revisit what they learned from you during the workshop.

Encourage learners to take & review their notes

Leave space in your handouts for learners to take notes. Encourage them to review their notes during the week following the workshop.


How do you encourage your learners to deepen their knowledge of workshop content?

Workshop pilots – good for learners, good for educators

Next Thursday, Aug. 23, I’ll be piloting a new workshop called What’s Your Story that I designed for a San Francisco-based career services company.

Thanks to Sustainable Sanitation's Flickr stream

Thanks to Sustainable Sanitation’s Flickr stream

I’ve invited job seekers and adult educators in my networks to participate, and in two days we’ve almost filled all 15 workshop seats.

Why pilot a workshop?

Though piloting may be a luxury in terms of money and time, it is incredibly helpful when it’s possible to do it!

Both educators and learners benefit from pilot workshops —

  • Instructional developers test out a new lesson plan, assessing timing and flow, and evaluating holes in content and practice — and then revise the workshop’s design and materials before distributing it!
  • Pilot facilitators get to hear feedback from a friendly audience who have volunteered to give feedback.
  • Pilot participants get to learn for free, network, and hopefully have some fun — plus a chance to influence the final version of the workshop!
  • Future facilitators get to deliver tried and true materials, even when they’re relatively new.
  • Future participants (ideally) experience stronger learning outcomes as a result of workshop revisions!

Finally, just like a comic who tries out new comedic material on audiences in smaller markets, educators who beta testing their instructional materials can risk learning in public (more…)

Revisiting the panel discussion

This spring I’ve had the privilege of taking part in several conferences.

Towards the end of one conference I heard heightened evidence of Panel Fatigue.

I can see why conferences rely on panel discussion — why people propose them, and why conference organizers select them:

  • Panels ask relatively little of the speakers (unlike other speaking or training sessions),
  • Several big names on a panel look great and attract participants, and
  • People like to hear from experts — the more the better.

Why Panel Fatigue?

After listening to a series of experts — and another series of experts — and another series (more…)