Initial Publication Date: June 15, 2015

Design your Workshop

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

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-style workshops in particular, what companion web resources will you and the participants develop that will benefit faculty who could not participate in the workshop.

Overall Philosophy of Cutting Edge Workshop Design

All Cutting Edge workshops have been based on the results of research on learning that indicate the importance of actively engaging students in learning (AAAS, 1990; NRC, 1996, 2000; NSF, 1996). The following effective practices form the foundation of workshop design, planning, and delivery. 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. The overall philosophy for Cutting Edge-style workshops is based on the research indicated above and particularly highlights the following tenets:

  • 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 and beyond 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 Edge workshops.
  • Use the website to prepare for the workshop, and use the workshop to build the web collection. You can find useful suggestions and examples on the Utilize the Website and Tools page.

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 Website 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.
  • Provide robust examples. Encourage workshop leaders to submit their own pre-workshop materials, such as activities, course descriptions, or essays. Providing materials that model strong, easy to read, and complete examples not only shows that the leaders are also engaged participants contributing to community collections, but also provides a model for the level of quality that participants can strive for as they create and submit their materials.
  • 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 website 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.
  • Provide materials and examples. Examples of how the workshop topics can be applied in the classroom and field have been particularly valuable resources for participants. An emphasis on practical applications and strategies is an important aspect of effecting change in teaching practice. Workshop participants frequently comment on the value of examples of what works and what doesn't.
  • 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. This can be effectively supported during the workshop by providing opportunities for participants to work one-on-one or in small groups with workshop leaders. Include scheduled work and reflection time for participants within the program and don't fall into the trap of filling all schedule blocks with activities!
  • Schedule in breaks. Following on the idea above, it is important to allow time for participants to digest the information they take in during the workshop. Breaks help to cut down on the 'overwhelming' feeling of content overload, allow participants to get up to stretch, allow for discussion and networking, and can be a time for participants to use the washroom, grab coffee or snacks, or use the time as they please.
  • 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. Be sure to account for the time it takes for participants to move to break out rooms or re-convene for whole group activities and plan some buffer time for unexpected events or presentations running long.
  • Use multiple strategies to evaluate what faculty have learned. Formative assessments through daily "road checks" and overall event evaluation through "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, and click on the Program link in the navigation bar. (Examples: Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems | Teaching Oceanography | Getting the Most Out of you Introductory Courses virtual workshop)

For an overview of the role of the development of workshops and web pages 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.