Workshop Planning (VIII): Developing Exercises

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This article is part of the series on workshop planning. Check out the whole series!

Part VII <<< >>> Part IX

Once you have your interim goals – the milestones of your workshop, so to say – you have to dig into that tricky chapter of what to do during your phases. Before we delve into the development of exercises, let’s learn something about the theory quickly.

Active and Passive Phases

Everything you do during a workshop is an exercise. It’s not just about handing out sheets with numbered questions which your participants need to fill in or answer in a written form. Think of it more like a blueprint of what you’ll do during your phases!

The first distinction you have to make is the one between active and passive phases. During an active time, you ask your participants to produce something, or to develop something. This can be as easy as speaking for themselves, or as complex as developing a new product slogan in a small group. In active phases, the brain is working on full power, creating, rethinking, structuring or transferring knowledge to new and formerly unknown areas. Due to the high level of involvement, active phases are great for every workshop. In fact, try to maximize active phases as much as possible. The more your participants do on their own, the better they’ll learn, and the more they will feel accountable for decisions and agreements taken in a workshop. This is a logical consequence – if I have worked on something actively, instead of someone else talking all the time, I will feel more engaged and responsible for it.

Having a full-power active workshop sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, as much as it is, active phases are exhausting. You might know it from yourself – if you’re fully engaged in something and working on it for hours and hours, your energy will be drained from your body. Your brain will get tired, you will have difficulties concentrating. This is completely normal – the brain needs a break sometimes! This can be a real break from the workshop, as well as a change of the setting. You can also relax partially when you work in a small group (resulting in not listening all the time, leaning back and thinking about lunch maybe), or during a more passive phase: When you’re only supposed to watch and listen, your brain can go back to that thought about lunch simultaneously, without anyone noticing.

As a workshop leader, it’s your responsibility to plan in such a way that everybody can relax at some point. It’s a win-win situation in the end; if you provide times for everyone’s brain to relax, they will stay concentrated and focused and you will gain much better results than with exhausting everyone during the first quarter.

This means that when planning your exercises, check how much of your workshop requires active participation, and whether you have thrown in some passive phases as well. Especially in the beginning, many workshop leaders struggle with active phases and tend to have more passive phases. The reason for this is that active phases can feel like losing control. It’s far easier to plan if you know that you’ll be the one guiding and talking, and everybody just listens. If you let others guide and talk, the possibilities of what might happen are endless, and you’ll have to stay flexible and focused on your goals at the same time. Most often, this sounds much scarier than it is – so it’s definitely worth it to take a leap of faith and just try it.

The Four Skills

Aren’t there more than four skills needed in a workshop? Yeah, you got me. What I will briefly introduce here is the four skills that are needed to master any exercise: Reading, Writing, Talking, and Listening. Your underlying goal in any workshop (or, for that matter, in any meeting and encounter you might have) is that results, learnings or findings are retained by the participants. There is the theory of the learning pyramid. Things that are just read or heard are retained at a much lower rate than things that are actively pursued (in the form of teaching others, holding a presentation, or similar). Although this model is not completely supported by researchers, the core of it makes sense: If I just read a text about something, it will not take long and I will have forgotten what I read. If I have to explain a topic to someone else, I will most probably remember more afterwards. The exact percentages do not matter for our purpose here – let’s just keep it in the back of our minds that actually doing something is much more effective than just listening to someone talking about it.

When you plan your exercises, make sure to involve all four skills. This does not need to be at the same time, of course – change is the keyword here. If you’re coming from reading a text, make sure that the next phase does not involve extensive reading again. If you have just done a large discussion, make sure that the next phase is not again focused on listening only.

Influence Of The Working Form

I have talked extensively about working forms in an earlier blog post already. The topic comes back now! Just as with changing the skill that a phase is focused on, the same accounts for the working form. All have their advantages and disadvantages, and it’s up to you whether you want to have all of them in your workshop or not. But, as before, change is the keyword. Every time you change the setting, your participants’ brains get fresh impressions they need to digest. This means they’re more awake and you avoid your participants to go into a been-there-done-that-coma.

The Triumvirate Of Exercise Types

There is a natural group of three when it comes to any exercises. You might recognize it from your time at school or university:

  1. Repeating or summarizing what you have watched, heard, or read.
  2. Working with your new knowledge and reflecting on it.
  3. Transferring the new knowledge to a formerly unknown area, creating something new out of it, restructuring and reforming it.

The first kind of exercise has the goal to make sure that everybody is on the same page: Has everyone understood the main message? Are there questions? Are there unclear concepts or even words (depending on your topic)?

  • Input for type 1: A text, video, podcast, or a discussion upon a certain topic.
  • Exercise types for type 1: Writing down questions, filling in a mind map, discussing what they have seen or heard.

The second kind of exercise has the goal that each participant reflects on the new knowledge – do they agree or disagree? What does it mean for them personally, or for their work? In general, this type of exercise requires less input, and more active involvement by your participants.

  • Input for type 2: A question to discuss, a concept to compare
  • Exercise types for type 2: Discussions, presentations

The third kind of exercise is the most complex and creative one – this is where you want to arrive! You use the new knowledge to adapt it to your own situation, you are creative with it or restructure it to your needs. Usually, this type of exercise requires a new input. After your participants dealt with one input for the last two phases, their brains are craving something new. This does not mean it has to be an extensive text or video – it can be as simple as a (contradicting?) citation, or you can ask them to use the knowledge on a completely different situation. The core question they’ll have to ask themselves is: How can I connect what I learned to this new setting? The trickier and more apart these two are, the more creative your participants have to work.

  • Input for type 3: Citation, provoking question, contradicting situation
  • Exercise types for type 3: Presentation, product or concept development, finding a slogan or campaign for a new product, finding agreements, rules, or change projects, for the team’s future

You will notice that many online courses, tutorials, or workshops follow that very same pattern. The beauty of it lies in its simplicity. It’s so simple and abstract that it can be adapted easily to anyone’s needs. Still, it’s concrete enough to help you plan your workshop in a logical manner. As the phases naturally point to each other, your participants will get the feeling that the workshop is built upon the knowledge and results they work on – which leaves them with the satisfied feeling that their contributions really matter.

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