Strategies To Create Effective Workshops In Any Mode, Including In-person and Virtual

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Strategies To Create Effective Workshops In Any Mode, Including In-person and Virtual

Written By: Beth Cougler Blom

This past year many people worked very hard to figure out how to do things online that they were used to doing in person. In particular, organizations who were very familiar with holding face-to-face workshops scrambled to quickly gain access to virtual platforms such as Zoom and redesign their sessions so they could continue to offer them to participants online.

The road to converting a workshop from face-to-face to online isn’t always straightforward for the uninitiated, but it’s perhaps not as complicated as people think. Sure, you have to acquire and figure out the technology (and practice, practice, practice!), but the basic principles of good learning design hold true no matter whether we’re creating workshops for in person or online. Here are some tips to stay grounded in what designing effective workshops looks like in any mode.

Plan your session with intention

When creating a workshop for either face-to-face or online, it’s important to identify your purpose. Why are you holding the session and what do you hope will change for your participants by the end of it? Articulating the shift you hope to see in participants’ knowledge or behaviour by the end of the session is commonly known as identifying learning outcomes. It’s a crucial step in learning design and one that’s often missed by people who aren’t formally trained in education.

Why is articulating learning outcomes so important? The answer is that outcomes give participants targets to achieve. If you don’t set targets, how will you know if you’ve helped your participants meet them by the end of your session? To craft measurable learning outcomes, start each one with the stem, By the end of the session, participants will be able to… and follow it with one verb and behaviour statement that you’ll actually be able to see participants doing during the session. For example, riffing off the topic of a recent article here on CharityVillage:

By the end of the session, participants will be able to describe five strategies to hold a successful remote internship at a nonprofit.

Design to engage participants

When people register for either face-to-face or online workshops, they often look forward to – and even expect – an engaging, effective learning experience. But even if participants themselves don’t mind being presented to for long periods of time, we know that just attending a presentation is not going to be as effective for their long-term knowledge retention as participating in one where they’re actively involved.

No matter whether we’re designing face-to-face or online workshops, we need to design for participant engagement. Ask yourself all the way through the time you spend designing the session: What am I going to get participants to do? You’ll likely want to include a mix of individual, pairs and small group work, in activities that are directly related to helping participants achieve the learning outcomes you’ve stated. We have to remember that just because the person leading the session has talked doesn’t mean participants have learned. People learn more effectively when they are invited to participate in opportunities to share, discuss, ponder, speculate, and collaborate, rather than just listen. Lastly, mix up your activities every few minutes – I think people’s attention wanders even more easily in the virtual sphere – and look for ways to pull knowledge and ideas from the group instead of just push a lot of information at them.

Gather feedback from the group

While it’s great to design and facilitate an effective and engaging workshop – either face-to-face or online – we also need to remember to ask participants for feedback after the session so we can make changes to it to be even better next time. This is a step that people sometimes partially complete or might even miss altogether. You not only have to remember to gather feedback from participants you have to set aside time to go back to your session plan and make changes to it as a result of that feedback. Close the design loop soon after your workshop ends so that you’re ready to facilitate the new and improved session for the next group.

Reflect on what you learned

Taking the time to reflect on our workshops and the facilitation skills we employed can be challenging, especially when we’re in the middle of pressing local, national or international issues that can pre-empt our priorities. But there is always something we can do more effectively when facilitating workshops. If it’s important to you that your staff, volunteers or clients – or whomever the participants are in your workshops – actually learn something (and I really hope that it is!), it’s crucial that you make time to reflect on your practice. When you set aside time to reflect on either your face-to-face or online sessions, you step forward in expanding your efficacy as a facilitator of learning.

Planning with intention, designing with a focus on engagement, gathering feedback and reflecting on what we learned are all foundational strategies that we can draw on when creating and facilitating workshops – either face-to-face or online. Remember that even though a global pandemic forced us to change the mode in which we hold workshops, many foundational strategies related to effective workshop facilitation actually never changed at all. 

Beth Cougler Blom, MEd, is a learning designer and facilitator who works with clients across all sectors to help them design and facilitate learning experiences both face-to-face and online. She is the author of the newly-published book, Design to Engage: How to Create and Facilitate a Great Learning Experience for Any Group. Learn more at

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