Designing Activities that Increase Learning

Oct 10 • Jamie Dixon Article, Presentation Skills • 5713 Views • No Comments on Designing Activities that Increase Learning


ACTIVITIES ARE THE CRUX OF A TRAINING WORKSHOP. They are an opportunity to actually use what is being taught, and to identify and overcome the challenges to implementation. Simply sitting down for a whole day and listening to someone talk doesn’t result in much other than a few memorable stories and probably a nice doodle or two on a piece of paper. Activities bring the training to life and create meaning for each participant. Here’s how you create a great activity:

The Basics

What is it exactly that you want the trainees to be able to do? If you can answer that question, you are halfway to designing your activity. For example, if you want the trainees to be able to present with confidence, then that is what the activity should involve – presenting with confidence. If you want them to write e-mails with clarity, then the activity should involve them writing e-mails with clarity. By determining the end result you now have two key components of your activity: the challenge and the medium.

Key Success Indicators are the behaviours you will be measuring to determine if they did what they were supposed to, if they did it well, and how they can improve.

The final thing step is adding the Key Success Indicators. Key Success Indicators are the behaviours you will be measuring to determine if they did what they were supposed to, if they did it well, and how they can improve. With all of these three factors in place you are ready to start designing your activity. Here is an example:

  • Challenge = Presenting with Confidence.
  • Medium = Presenting to an Audience.
  • Key Success Indicators (KSI) = Confident body language and voice.

The challenge is the key component of your activity, and you must not change this. The medium ideally should stay as true to the context as possible, but in some cases it will not be able to and for the sake of engagement, or sheer practicality it will have to change. The medium of the activity should also aim to be an experience that is as close to the real thing as possible. So for presenting with confidence, an experience would be for the trainee to actually stand up and present to an audience. For writing e-mails with clarity, an experience would be to actually get them to write a complicated e-mail that will be judged by other teams on how clear it is. If you are training someone in product knowledge and how to repair a product, then a great practice activity would be to actually repair the product.

Sometimes though, it is just not practical for an activity to be a real life experience. If you are delivering a problem solving workshop and you want the trainees to use the ‘5 Whys Technique’ to analyse a problem, then having so many different trainees working together may mean they don’t share the same problems in their jobs, and so a real example becomes impractical. Instead you can replace it with a hypothetical scenario or give the trainees a case study to analyse instead. If you are training a group in influencing skills, asking the trainees to use a technique on their classmates won’t work because their classmate will have also learnt the same technique! Instead they may have to discuss in groups how they would use it in a hypothetical situation.

Hypothetical practice activities will tend to be discussion, case study or role play based. They are effective in getting trainees to think through and plan the application of a concept, but they are second to an experience based activity since it is difficult to truly evaluate the key success indicators. Actually having trainees gain experience of using the skill, and gaining first-hand feedback of the results will have much higher learning effectiveness. So aim to stay as true to the medium of the challenge as possible.

Dress it Up

Technical trainings are renowned for being very boring. These rely on memorising a lot of processes and rules which don’t really do much to stimulate the imagination. But stimulating the imagination can actually be done very easily. Add elements of imagination and creativity to the activity. These normally come in the form of themes, stories, characters and roles, and even props. Replace the PPTs with props. Map out an entire process with pieces of paper stuck to the floor. Use metaphors. Demonstrate the difference between a ‘Work Order’ and an ‘Order Detail’ in your ERM system by using different size shoe boxes, or even Russian Nesting Dolls! Get people to act out the different roles, instead of explaining it to them. You can have one trainee playing the role of ‘Administrator’ whilst another plays the role of ‘User’, as they carry out different tasks according to rules imposed on each role.

Case studies bring to life the concepts of your training, be it in technical training or soft skills. But case studies can actually be very challenging to find. You spend hours searching the internet for specific stories that may never exist, or desperately trying to think how to change the details of your favourite case study so that it matches the industry or nature of the company that you are about to train. And yet, the most valuable resources for collecting case studies are the participants themselves.

…the most valuable resources for collecting case studies are the participants themselves.

Before a training you can phone the trainees up and ask them to share examples of the challenges they have encountered. Even during a training, you can elicit case studies from them. I once trained an automotive company in a problem solving workshop. Instead of spending hours preparing a case study that may or may not have related to the trainees’ jobs, I instead created an outline for the case study. I decided that it would be a car dealership that was having problems, and those were the only details I prepared. I then told the trainees this outline, and got them to provide the rest of the details. The trainees decided the problem the dealership was having  was related to sales, and this was due to car prices being too expensive because the dealership didn’t receive financial support from the car manufacturer. They then provided all sorts of extra details about the pressures the dealership’s boss faced, the customer’s perspective, the geographic location of the dealership, the make of the car, the attitude of the suppliers, and then some. By having the trainees provide the details for this case study, they had no problems understanding it, and were able to apply the tools from the training with ease.

You can also get trainees to dress up discussion activities by having them design the discussion questions. For a recent business etiquette training I delivered for a team of consultants, I got each to write down on a piece of paper questions they had about professional appearance. Then I delivered a short presentation on some key rules of dressing professionally. After that, I then had the trainees exchange their questions with each other, and split them into groups so they were discussing the questions others had written. This improved engagement because the trainees knew they were going to get the answers they were looking for, and also because a lot of the questions they wrote were very relevant to each other’s jobs and therefore had a higher level of interest.

As I wrote in my post, ‘Re-Engaging the 3 Types of Learners‘, engagement is all about involvement. Getting trainees to provide the details of a case study is far more engaging for them, and can save you a lot of time as well. Dressing up a training with themes, props, metaphors and even getting trainees to act not only stimulates the imagination, it makes the training more memorable for the trainees. But most importantly of all, dressing it up makes the training more fun for both the trainees, and  for you as the trainer – and fun is a common theme between the best training companies in China and globally.

Make it Competitive

Competition seems to be a part of human nature, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the classroom! Trainees love to compete with each other, and this is a fantastic element to add into training activities.

Competition seems to be a part of human nature, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the classroom!

Competitions are great ways of using the KSIs you set when you map out the basics of an activity. Think of how you are going to score their performance. Are you going to give each trainee points for the number of times they did something? Are you going to see how many times they can do that same thing within a set time limit? Are you going to measure the quality of each trainee’s performance instead of the quantity?

If we want trainees to write e-mails with clarity, then this is a great opportunity for a competition! How are we going to rate the clarity? Well, we could look at how many questions the reader has. So get trainees into groups, and work together to write an e-mail. Then afterwards, have the other groups read through their e-mail with the intention of finding areas that are unclear. At the end of the activity, see which team wrote the e-mail with the least unclear areas! This is actually an activity we run in our business writing workshops, and the trainees get extremely competitive, going to extra effort to find mistakes in other groups’ e-mails, and trying desperately to defend their own e-mails. But not only is this activity fun, the added pressure of being judged by other groups increases awareness of mistakes, an awareness that trainees can take with them back to their jobs after the training.

If you are running a product knowledge workshop and the objective is to teach the participants how to repair a product, then there are lots of things you can do! Split them into teams and present them with a product that has multiple problems. Then give each team a set time limit and see which team can solve the most problems within that time. You could increase the complexity by first getting each team to break the product in the most complicated way possible. Then when they give it to the other team they compete to see who can fix the other team’s problems first!

Quiet Time

No matter how many people are in the classroom, it is still always the individual that learns. Therefore it is important that individuals have a chance to practice by themselves or to reflect on what they’ve learnt. This can be accomplished in several ways.

First of all, split the activity into different steps. If you have an activity that involves discussing the answers to a series of questions, first get the trainees to work on their own to answer the questions. Then for the next step bring each trainee together to share their answers. Having individual reflection time, also solves the problem of unequal participation. Some participants tend to hog the stage during discussion activities, meaning the quieter participants don’t get a chance to share their thoughts. By giving each trainee time to first clarify their thoughts on their own, not only have you given them a chance to think through the question, but you have also increased the chances of the trainees sharing their ideas during the discussion because now they actually do have something to share.

As I talked about in my article ‘Designing Unforgettable Experiences‘, trainees need time to digest their knew knowledge. This can come in the form of an appropriate pace, short breaks throughout the day, and also through scheduled quiet time at the end of an activity. Give trainees guided reflection time at the end of an activity, where the objective is for them to identify on what to improve and/or how to use what they have just learnt. In one presentations workshop I delivered, at the end of each section I would give trainees a ‘Habit Sheet’ to fill out where they had to reflect on how they could turn what they just learnt into a habit, and the next time they could use it. Scheduled quiet time helps reinforce what you’ve just covered, and can help increase retention as it gives trainees a chance to translate their experience into a personal meaning and plan how to apply it in the real world.

Mix it Up

A fun game is not always fun, especially if they have played it repeatedly throughout the day! Try to make each activity you do very different from all previous activities. This may require a lot of creativity, but it is well worth it.

A business writing workshop could get very boring if all that the trainees were doing was writing e-mails all day long. And that’s why you need to mix it up. Sometimes the trainees should be answering questions on their own, other times they should be answering questions as a group. At times each trainee should just write an e-mail, while other times they should be trying to write the best e-mail in the training course. And sometimes the trainees should be responding to sample e-mails provided by the trainer, while other times they should respond to sample e-mails their colleagues provide. These differences may seem minor, but in practice they are very significant, as the slightest change in the nature of the activity can drastically alter the energy of an activity.

As I keep on repeating throughout everything I write, involvement is the key to engagement. Involving more people in the activity, in more ways can greatly increase the energy levels. At the low end of the energy scale is an activity where trainees complete tasks on their own. Slightly higher than that and they are completing tasks as a group. Higher up than that and they are competing with other groups to outperform. Even higher than that and trainees are interacting with other groups by responding to the challenges other groups throw at them.

But we must be careful with the energy levels. If we start a two day workshop with the highest energy level activity, the energy levels are going to drop progressively throughout the day…

But we must be careful with the energy levels. If we start a two day workshop with the highest energy level activity, the energy levels are going to drop progressively throughout the day as trainees come to the dreadful realisation that the rest of the training isn’t going to be as much as it was on the morning of the first day. As I mentioned in my post, Re-Engaging the 3 Types of Learners‘, energy levels should go from low to high. Aim to gradually build the energy up to a high point, and then quickly move on to a break to allow trainees to calm down enough to return to the next section with a clear mind. A gradual build up of energy, as well as finishing on a high just before a break, will guarantee a high level of engagement throughout the whole workshop.

Finish with Feedback

The point of an activity is for trainees to develop their ability in whatever you are training them in. This is why it is vital that your activity ends in an opportunity for trainees to get the feedback they need.

The most convincing feedback comes from the experience itself. Some challenges involve completing a task within a set time limit, such as building a tower out of paper within 15 minutes. The feedback here can come from either completing the task successfully within the time limit, or not. Other times the activity may involve working with people, maybe selling something to people, sending them a message or even giving a presentation to people. Here the feedback can come from the other people involved in the activity, to see if the trainee achieved the desired result or not, and if not then why not.

Peer feedback is highly effective. Trainees already have trusting relationships with their colleagues and so will highly value their opinions, even if they are negative. Furthermore, colleagues know how to communicate with each other, and know how best to provide sensitive feedback to the trainee concerned.

Finally, of course, the trainer can also provide feedback. It’s important to focus on two aspects when providing feedback: improvement and motivation. If you focus too much on telling trainees what they did wrong, then they may become demotivated, so avoid focusing too much on the negative. When trying to motivate trainees to focus on the benefits of your suggested improvement, and highlight the areas in which they already perform well in.

Don’t feel you need to give feedback if it has already been given. Some trainers feel they must chip in with a comment or two at any opportune moment, but the reality is that if the trainee has already got the feedback from elsewhere, and really gets the message, then there is no need for you to add your two cents. Your job is to ensure they get the feedback they need, and it doesn’t matter where it comes from, so long as they get it.


By following this advice, you will not only improve engagement and consequently knowledge uptake within your training, but you, as the trainer, will also have a lot more fun. And after all, isn’t that why we became trainers in the first place?


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