On the Cutting Edge - Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
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Cutting Edge > Leadership > Resources for Workshop Leaders > Workshop Planning and Design > Designing Your Workshop

Designing Your Workshop

Planning an effective workshop is much like planning an effective learning experience for students in the classroom and lab. What goals do you have for the participants? How will the workshop effectively engage participants and ensure that the goals for participants are met? How will you assess whether participant have benefited from the workshop? And for Cutting Edge workshops in particular, what companion Web resources will you and the participants develop that will benefit faculty who could not participate in the workshop?


On the Cutting Edge
has many years of experience in designing successful workshops, and this page provides both requirements and advice for those who are designing Cutting Edge workshops.

Jump down to
Overall Philosophy : Setting Workshop Goals : Pre-workshop Prep and Submissions : Developing the Workshop Program

Requirements of all Cutting Edge workshops

As you are planning your workshop goals and structure, please keep in mind that all Cutting Edge workshops are expected to:

  • be targeted at current or future undergraduate faculty (On the Cutting Edge is funded by NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education).
  • add to the Cutting Edge web resource collection in the topic area(s) of the workshop. See Taking Advantage of the Web Site and the collections linked from the Cutting Edge topical resource index for examples of types of collections.
  • require participants to contribute to the resource collections prior to and/or during the workshop and to make these requirements clear on the workshop application and registration forms.
  • require participants to prepare for the workshop as necessary and to participate fully in the entire workshop.
  • incorporate review of submitted activities, if possible, either prior to the workshop or during the workshop itself.
  • collect demographic data about participants using the standard Cutting Edge categories.
  • participate in On the Cutting Edge evaluation activities.

Overall philosophy of Cutting Edge workshop design

Research on learning shows how important active engagement is to learning. Effective workshops actively engage participants and provide opportunities both for participants to learn from one another and to make progress on applying what they have learned in the workshop to their own teaching situations.

  • Think of your workshop as a shared enterprise among conveners and participants, rather than as an opportunity for workshop participants to listen to a series of experts. The conveners should facilitate the workshop, rather than teach the workshop.
  • Include a diversity of workshop presenters and participants. Multiple viewpoints and approaches are crucial for advancing the collective understanding of effective geoscience education. Workshops are enriched by having participants from a variety of kinds of colleges and universities and from a variety of disciplines within the geosciences.
  • Utilize the participants. Participants bring valuable experience and ideas to workshops. Structured mechanisms for sharing experiences and expertise must be an integral part of every workshop program.
  • Emphasize practical applications. Emphasis on practical applications and strategies is an important aspect of effecting change in teaching practice and forms an important part of all Cutting Edgeworkshops.
  • Use the web site to prepare for the workshop, and use the workshop to build the web collection. You can find useful suggestions and examples at Taking Advantage of the Web Site.

Setting workshop goals

Workshop goals form the underpinning of a workshop and guide both the workshop planning and the evaluation.

  • Set a variety of types of goals, which might include but are not limited to:
    • What you plan to accomplish before and during the workshop (e.g., provide an opportunity for participants to share strategies)
    • What participants will leave the workshop with (e.g., a revised set of course goals plus a detailed outline for a new classroom activity)
    • What will be added to the web collection (e.g., examples of assessment protocols)
    • In what ways you might change participants' level of knowledge or attitudes (e.g., increase participants' knowledge of a variety of classroom strategies, or increase participants' confidence in planning a career timetable).
  • Set workshop goals early in the planning process and use them to plan workshop sessions and pre-workshop activities.
  • Use the workshop goals to plan the workshop evaluation.
  • Don't keep workshop goals to yourself. Be sure that your workshop website clearly states the goals in the workshop overview.
  • Browse goals for previous workshops to get ideas for your own workshop. The easiest way to locate examples of workshop goals is to go to the workshop schedule page, select a workshop, and click on the Overview link in the navigation bar. Here is one example from the affective domain workshop overview.

Pre-workshop preparation and submission of materials

Coming prepared is as important for a workshop as it is for a class. Participants can prepare by submitting assignments/activities and URLs of useful web resources, reflecting on goals for the workshop, developing project ideas for completion at the workshop, assembling materials for sharing (e.g., course syllabi, learning resources, topical papers), and participating in pre-workshop online discussion, essays, surveys, etc.

  • Refer to Taking Advantage of the Web Site for examples of a variety of approaches for preparing participants for a workshop.
  • Set a timely deadline for participants to submit materials before the workshop. Be sure to set the deadline for pre-workshop submission of materials early enough so that submissions can be added to existing online collections or built into new collections before the workshop starts.
  • Don't count on post-workshop submission of materials. In our experience, almost all participants will submit materials before a workshop; after the workshop, faculty members' other responsibilities take priority. Be sure to require participants to submit materials before the workshop.

Developing the workshop program

Whether a workshop is one day long, or one week long, the structure of a workshop is crucial to accomplishing workshop aims. Each workshop on the Cutting Edge web site has a workshop program posted. We have found the following practices for workshop design and delivery to be highly effective.

  • Model effective pedagogy. Participant evaluations tell us that our most successful workshop sessions are those taught with good pedagogy in mind and that our least successful sessions are those where a presenter simply stands up and talks.
    • Be sure to model effective pedagogy both in the overall structure of the workshop and in individual workshop sessions.
    • Bear in mind that, while the conveners might know what they have in mind in terms of good pedagogy, other presenters might not. Providing specific instructions, preferably in writing, will help ensure that you get what you want!
  • Engage participants actively during the workshop. Nothing is deadlier or less effective than a workshop where participants do not participate. Ways of engaging participants include small and large group discussions, short problem-solving tasks, reviewing and/or trying out activities, individual or paired work at the computer, scheduled thinking and writing time, and so forth.
  • Give participants time to interact and share experience/knowledge. Presentations in concurrent or sequential oral sessions, poster sessions, and panels are good ways for participants to share their experiences, knowledge, and strategies. Unstructured social time is equally important and supports the development of networks that will last beyond the workshop.
  • Emphasize how to adapt, rather than adopt. Participants are unlikely to adopt an individual activity or idea wholesale and are more likely to adapt an idea or use the idea as a catalyst for developing something on their own. Ask presenters to emphasize the template character of their examples and to offer ideas for adapting an activity in order to make individual presentations as valuable as possible for participants.
  • Give participants time to reflect and to make progress on adapting workshop content to their own needs. Participants are more likely to make significant progress while their ideas are still fresh and in the context of the workshop. Scheduled time for individual or small group work and consultations with workshop leaders is invaluable. Don't fall into the trap of filling all schedule blocks with activities!
  • Be sure that participants leave the workshop with specific plans for future action. Workshop time devoted to planning next steps is critical. If participants are also required to present their plans either orally or as informal posters, they are more motivated to develop concrete plans that they can use for more effective follow-through after the workshop. Such sessions also provide a mechanism for receiving feedback from other participants.
  • Take the time to do thorough minute-by-minute planning of workshop sessions. Good workshops that appear to flow spontaneously reflect extensive planning by leaders, a clear understanding of the program and its objectives by everyone involved, and realistic planning for how long session activities will really take.
  • Use multiple strategies to evaluate what faculty have learned. The daily "road checks" and "end of workshop" surveys are important. But also consider using a variety of embedded assessments in the workshop program that will help demonstrate competence or mastery of workshop materials. Observations or interviews (i.e., informal conversations) following a pre-defined protocol may help; even consider video-taping small group interactive sessions (but make sure the permission forms have been signed). Materials initially submitted to the workshop (e.g., short essays, posters...) may be revisited during or at the end of the workshop to help measure progress. For other ideas about how to evaluate impacts on faculty, see Planning the Evaluation.
To see how we have successfully implemented these ideas in past workshops, browse the workshop programs available for previous Cutting Edge workshops. The easiest way to locate workshop programs is to go to the workshop schedule page, select a workshop from a previous year (many of the 08-09 workshops do not have programs posted yet), and click on the Program link in the navigation bar. (Examples: Teaching Climate Change with Ice Core Data, Teaching Geophysics, Urban Geology)

For an overview of the role of the development of workshops and webpages in the On the Cutting Edge program, see: Macdonald, R. H., C. A. Manduca, D. W. Mogk and B. J. Tewksbury (2004). On the Cutting Edge: Improving Learning by Enhancing Teaching. In, Invention and Impact: Building Excellence in Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education. Washington, D.C., AAAS: 381.