Planning a successful workshop

  • Introduction
  • Facilitator role
  • Different factors
  • Learning processes
  • Individuals
  • Reflection
  • Learning communities


This section has been prepared to support the development of dissemination and training workshops that reflect adult education principles and, thus, enhance the impact of the workshops.


  • To appreciate the theory and practice of adult education and training; and
  • To gain knowledge, skills and teaching strategies to design and conduct dissemination and training workshops suitable to local conditions.

Adult Learning

  1. The role of the facilitator
  2. Physical and psychological factors
  3. Experiential and participatory learning processes
  4. Individual differences
  5. Reflection and evaluation
  6. Creating a learning community

The information in these sections has been summarised in a slideshow that could be used as a presentation on adult learning and facilitation skills.


Online bibliography of books on workshop facilitation

Blackmore, J. (1996) Pedagogy: Learning Styles. Telecommunications for Remote Work and Learning.

Imel, S. (1995) Inclusive Adult Learning Environments, ERIC Digest No. 162 ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career and Vocational Education, Columbus, Ohio.

Sharp, P.A. (2000) The ‘Never Evers’ of Workshop Facilitation, National Staff Development Council.


This section was written by Ellen Appleby, Pullenvale Environmental Education Centre; Jo-Anna Crawford, Toohey Forest Environmental Education Centre; and John Fien, Margaret Gooch and Clayton White, Griffith University, Australia.

The Role of the Facilitator

Who are the facilitators

This train-the-trainer guide that has been prepared to facilitate dissemination, adoption and adaptation of Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future for use in locally/nationally relevant ways.

The audience for the Toolbox includes in-service and pre-service teacher education leaders who are recognized as being able to ‘make a difference’ by catalysing colleagues to develop a strong commitment to using Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future themselves and to sharing the benefits of their training with their colleagues.

Workshop facilitators plan, organise, co-ordinate, facilitate, control and structure the workshop. In other words, they are responsible for the whole workshop process. As well as knowing all the techniques needed to support the process, they must also be natural motivators, people who can encourage and influence a group to work towards a common goal.

A crucial factor in any workshop is the personality and style of the facilitator leader. The relationships developed between the facilitator and the participants and the participants themselves are very important. These relationships structure the power dynamics of the learning environment. As a result, they influence the climate for group learning by determining the level of involvement of the participants, which, in turn determines how individuals contribute and participate. Positive and open relationships help participants to assume ownership of a workshop, to create personal meanings, and to move towards self-directed learning.

An effective facilitator seeks to understand participants’ backgrounds and point of view, and has the expertise to balance responding to participants’ needs and moving a workshop forward.

Above all, an effective facilitator conveys genuine enthusiasm.

An Active or Passive Approach?

Teaching approaches in workshops may range from lectures to collaborative approaches where meaning is constructed through participants dialogue and interactions.

Designing a workshop that has a balance between passive and active learning tends to appeal to a wide range of participants because the different forms of learning so encouraged changes the pace of the workshop, thus maintaining interest, and accommodates a wide range of different learning styles.

Skills for a Facilitator

To facilitate a workshop to disseminate the Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future programme, a person should be able:

  • To discuss principles and philosophy of reorienting educational policies, programmes and practices towards a sustainable future.
  • To appreciate the key role of teacher education in building the capacities of teachers to plan, implement and evaluate learning experiences that reflect principles and philosophy for Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future.
  • To be sensitive to the participants backgrounds, work contexts and needs.
  • To create participatory, active and cooperative learning opportunities.
  • To encourage participants to express views and take ‘ownership’ of the Education for Sustainability philosophy.
  • To motivate participants to want to overcome any perceived constraints on reorienting educational policies, programmes and practices towards a sustainable future.

The ‘Never-Evers’

Facilitating a workshop requires practice and experience. To help us there are many guidelines for facilitating professional development workshops.

Peggy Sharp suggests there are a number of things we should try not to do when facilitating a workshop, and proposes 13 ‘Never-Ever’ statements that can be used as reminders of good workshop facilitation.

  • Never ever forget that individuals at the workshop are unique, with needs, interests, and experiences particular to them.
  • Never ever require individuals to participate in an activity.
  • Never ever talk to participants as if they are children.
  • Never ever ridicule participants or their experiences.
  • Never ever neglect the participants’ personal needs.
  • Never ever say that you are going to rush through and compress material in order to complete what is usually a longer workshop in a shorter length of time.
  • Never ever say that you would have brought more materials if it had been possible. Never ever tell participants what you’ve forgotten.
  • Never ever give excuses.
  • Never ever read from a lengthy prepared text.
  • Never ever share illegible handouts. Never ever share a disorganized ‘mishmash’ for a handout.
  • Never ever give participants something to read and then read it to them. Never ever share overhead transparencies that participants cannot see or read.
  • Never ever share with participants a workshop schedule that is impossible to follow. Never ever go past the scheduled time. Never ever forget that you have an audience. Never ever take the workshop so seriously that everyone (including the facilitator) cannot have fun.
  • Never ever plan a workshop without considering this list of never-evers.

Source: Sharp, P.A. (2000) The ‘Never Evers’ of Workshop Facilitation, National Staff Development Council.

The theory and practice behind these ‘Never-Evers’ are the focus of this section

Physical and psychological factors

The Physical Environment

In designing a course for adult learners the comfort of the learning environment and the learning climate that the course leader develops are significant factors in creating a supportive learning environment. Basically, adults learn better if they feel good in their surroundings (even if they may not be perfect), are comfortable with the learning and facilitation processes and can see that their learning needs are being met.

Some of these physical and psychological factors include:

  • Comfortable venue, sufficient lighting and space, suitable for activities (eg computer access), food and drink (if possible).
  • Often physical the conditions are not perfect, and to improve them may be out of the control of the course organiser. However, participants are usually flexible and will adapt, but feel more comfortable if they start with a shared understanding of the problems that need to be worked with.

Adults learn better if they feel at ease in their surroundings. Things to consider include:

  • A comfortable venue
  • Sufficient lighting and space
  • Suitable arrangement of furniture, equipment and other resources
  • Food and drink (if possible)

Psychological Factors

Adults at a workshop like to know that their learning needs are going to being met to the greatest possible extent. Things to consider:

An overview of the objectives and sequence of the programme should be given, and length/times of breaks negotiated where possible.
Adults like to know what is going on, what to expect, and when the coffee/lunch breaks are. Therefore, presenting an overview of the workshop, with times, helps to orientate everyone and add to their comfort.
Feelings of involvement and ownership will be enhanced if these times can be negotiated. Often adults like to shorten lunch breaks and finish early, for example. However the facilitator leader needs to balance this with allowing the participants time to get to know each other and network during breaks.
Always respect each participant as intelligent and experienced adults and encourage, support and value all responses.
Adults can be very vulnerable as learners and do not cope well with failure. A mix of learning activities that include sharing past experiences and focussed dialogue can help build the trust and openness that are prerequisites to engagement and new learning.
Be a co-learner with participants
Facilitators can become a co-learner if they can tap into the wealth of (relevant) knowledge that a group of experienced educators can offer. The participants (and the facilitator) will feel satisfied and rewarded if the workshop takes them on a journey from their current understandings into new territories of knowledge and skills that meets their needs and interests.
Stimulate intellectual freedom and encourage experimentation and creativity where participants feel challenged just beyond their present levels of ability.
A learning environment in which the participants feel safe, intellectually stimulated and able to take intellectual, creative and emotional risks depends on the facilitation style of the workshop leader combined with his/her choices of learning strategies.

Experiential and participatory learning processes

Learning environments that are grounded in the experiences of the participants, and engages them in active rather than passive learning, are generally believed to be most effective for adults. There are a range of learning strategies that draw on prior knowledge and create opportunities for engagement with new knowledge so that personal meaning can be created.

This represents constructivist learning in which participants are given opportunities to practice and enhance their abilities to organise and structure knowledge through reflection on experience and interaction with others

This can be achieved through workshop activities in which:

  • new knowledge/theory is presented:
    • personal experiences in relation to the new knowledge are shared or written down;
    • opportunities are provided to assimilate, synthesise and reflect on new understandings.
  • a practical and useful end product or goal is achieved.

Experiential learning

Experiential learning is often thought of as a learning cycle.

Mouse over the four phases in the experiential learning cycle below to learn more about each one.

In a workshop, experiential learning occurs when:

Facilitators choose techniques that tap participants’ prior experiences and involve them in analysing their experiences.
Sharing or writing personal stories are powerful ways to engage with prior experiences so that problems can be clarified, and dialogue started.
Participants who engage in dialogue with each other can start to critically analyse their experiences in relation to the educational issue or curriculum problem under consideration.
Participants are not passive, but are encouraged to interact and engage in dialogue.
While there is value and economy in presenting mini-lectures during a training course to deliver new information and theory, the passive nature of this learning strategy leaves facilitators with little understanding of the perceptions of the new knowledge that participants are gaining.
It also disadvantages participants as they do not have a chance to synthesise and assimilate the new knowledge.
If the presentation of new information is combined with interactive experiences, then it is more likely to be critically assimilated into the individual meaning systems of participants.

See Module 18 of Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future for a comprehensive introduction to experiential learning.

Learning Styles

People all learn in different ways. Facilitators should cater for as wide a range of individual learning styles as possible.

Learning styles tend to occur on a continuum from concrete involvement, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation to active experimentation.

Individuals also vary in the ways they use different areas of their brains to interpret and understand new concepts and information. For example, some prefer to focus on words (verbal/linguistic); some interpret pictures and symbols well (visual/spatial); others respond well to music (musical/rhythmic); some respond to movement (kinesthetic); some people prefer to work alone( intrapersonal); and still others relate well to social/group situations (interpersonal).

Despite strong preferences to one or more of these, people tend to favour a variety of approaches during workshops. Therefore, whenever possible, facilitators should provide a range of activities to maximise the learning opportunities for participants.

Individual differences


Facilitators should not expect participants to just ‘fit in’. Rather, they should design activities so that diversity among individuals is accepted and celebrated.

Inclusion is fostered in a workshop when participants are accepted as unique and capable individuals, bringing to the group a range of valuable learning experiences. An inclusive learning climate promotes freedom and choice, and a sense of self-esteem.

Generally, this can be achieved through the appropriate selection of activities that refelct the interests and learning styles of participants.

Inclusive facilitation can result in a power shift between facilitators and participants.

Further information about individual differences in adult learning can be obtained from:

Imel, S. (1995) Inclusive Adult Learning Environments, ERIC Digest No. 162, ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career and Vocational Education, Columbus, Ohio.

Reflection and evaluation


Reflection is an essential element of the process of experiential learning. It is part of the debriefing process and can enable participants:

  • To process new information and experiences and make generalisations.
  • To consolidate learning through reflecting on what they have done.
  • To apply what they have learnt in new situations.


Debriefing sessions that enable participants to reflect upon what they have been discusing and to gauge their reactions to the workshop should be scheduled throughout a workshop – not just at the end.

Participants come to workshops with a range of expectations, but not all of these will be met by the objectives of the workshop. It is important to allow participants to think about what they gained, and how this relates back to their expectations and experiences.

They may then be given the opportunity to discuss these expectations and experiences, with a view to incorporating what they have learned into their own training programs.

This process is sometimes referred to as reflective practice. The following questions may help the process of reflection:

  • Did you feel a sense of achievement?
  • Was the learning environment challenging but supportive?
  • Were there a variety of learning opportunities?
  • Were there positive outcomes?
  • Were you happy with the ways in which materials and resources were used in the workshop?
  • Will you be able to develop your own programs based on the CD?
  • Were there opportunities for feedback?
  • Did you enjoy the workshop?

Creating a learning community

Continuing communication after a workshop will provide opportunities for people to talk about their experiences and share ideas about the programme. A learning community can be facilitated in several ways, including:

Follow-up meeting
Initially, you might wish to have one follow-up meeting, say three months after the initial workshop, to bring all participants back together to reflect upon their experiences using Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future.
One way of doing this might be to ask participants, in turn, to provide an example of how they used the programme, and talk about what worked and what could have been done better. Participants could then work in pairs to discuss ways for improvement.
Learning Circles
After the follow-up meeting, it might be possible to suggest to participants that they form a Learning Circle. Learning Circles consist of a series of meetings over a specific time (several weeks or months). They enable people to share concerns and experiences, in an atmosphere of mutual trust.
The group should work towards particular outcomes. The outcomes would be based on particular themes, areas of interest or modules from Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future. There should be opportunities for reflection and evaluation, as well as the gathering of new information to shape future learning.
Click here for more information about Learning Circles.
Computer networking
Forms of on-line communication, such as e-mail discussions and chat rooms, may also be established This type of communication allows participants to share ideas, work through disparate views, and discuss problems and issues as they occur.
There are lots of existing discussion groups on-line. Many of these are maintained by organisations or individuals requiring a password, which must be used if you wish to subscribe to the group.
Some examples include: