©Marva A. Barnett

How to Conduct an Interactive Workshop
Marva A. Barnett, Founding Director and Professor, Teaching Resource Center, University of Virginia
Faculty, Department of French

An information sheet designed to help faculty and TAs present the most effective workshops.

What is an interactive workshop?

An interactive workshop engages the participants actively in learning new information or techniques. The workshop facilitator makes it possible for audience members to participate actively:

  • Participants might help set the agenda
  • Participants have chances to apply new information to their teaching
  • Participants can analyze problems or difficulties in order to figure out solutions
  • Participants often share their experiences and ideas.

Thus you facilitate learning by the participants rather than giving them all the answers.

Why should you present an interactive workshop?

Experience and research show that people generally learn more and remember better when they think about new material, figure out solutions, and apply new knowledge to their own lives and needs. Such a surmise is born out by participants in U.Va. Teaching Resource Center workshops who repeatedly praise interactive workshops and recommend that we take advantage of the expertise in the audience. Effective workshop leaders recognize and take advantage of the combined wisdom and experience of the faculty and TAs who attend (see below for details). Such a workshop is sometimes called "process-oriented" because the participants productively work through a process rather than simply receiving the product (your techniques).

How do you prepare an interactive workshop?

  • Know your audience.

Almost any U.Va. TRC workshop audience contains a number of people experienced in teaching and/or counseling students and colleagues. Plan to treat the audience members as colleagues.
Our two large teaching conferences occur in August and January, just before classes begin. The August Teaching Workshop is targeted toward TAs and faculty who are new to teaching at the University of Virginia. Many of these "new" people, however, have taught elsewhere and some have taught at U.Va. but are interested in polishing their skills. Almost all who attend the January Teaching Workshop have already taught at U.Va., with periods of time ranging from one semester to decades.

Although 80%-90% of the Teaching Workshop participants are TAs, please remember that you probably also have faculty members in your audience. Some TA and faculty needs are similar; some are different. Both TAs and faculty members lead discussions, for instance. But TAs most often teach a discussion section that grows from a lecture class taught by a professor, while faculty teach their own course with discussion as at least part of the methodology. Thus the facilitator of a discussion-leading workshop for a mixed audience needs to spend the most time on techniques of beginning and leading a discussion that are useful in both situations. Only a small part of the workshop should deal with coordinating discussions with lectures and other such TA matters.

  • Analyze your material / information.

How can you engage your audience in pinpointing difficulties and possible solutions? In a workshop on teaching problem-solving strategies, for example, you might ask the audience to brainstorm the skills needed to solve problems. Or you could present some possibilities and ask participants to supplement them. Or you could ask for anecdotes or ideas about unsuccessful attempts to teach problem-solving, from which you construct a list of pitfalls to avoid. After the audience is actively thinking about possible problems and solutions, you introduce your techniques to teach problem-solving.

The techniques segment of the workshop usually works best if participants practice at least one of the techniques with each other. Small groups can be particularly effective when one group member is the teacher, the second the student, and the third an observer, who analyzes the interaction with the help of a questionnaire (or guidelines) that you provide. Remember, too, to model during your workshop the techniques you are recommending (for instance, no lectures about leading discussions!).

To prepare a workshop in which participants figure out some of what you already know, look analytically at your topic. TRC staff members are happy to help you with this process.

  • Prepare practical techniques and tips.

In post-workshop evaluations, participants always praise workshops offering practical, hands-on ideas with understandable examples. It is important to choose your examples from different disciplines and apply your techniques to different situations when your workshop includes participants from a variety of departments. A "workshop" by definition gives participants something they can use.

Think about and research your topic enough to provide workshop participants with ideas beyond simply what you do in your teaching (unless you have a wide variety of techniques). The most useful and impressive workshops give participants various perspectives and recognizes different needs and styles. Go beyond personal anecdotes about what happened to you.

  • Use interactive techniques such as the following:
    • brainstorming solutions
    • working from participants' questions or issues raised
    • having participants work on problems or answer questions in small groups, sharing solutions with the entire group
    • having participants get involved physically, if only to move into and out of groups.

  • Consider working with a colleague or including students.

Depending on your workshop topic, having involving students can be very effective:

    • All workshops or panels dealing with ethical issues such as race or gender in the classroom benefit from intelligent student comments and stories of personal experiences. Teacher participants have a chance to see the other side of the picture. But be careful, of course, not to single out individual students to represent an entire race or gender.
    • Students who have experienced your techniques (e.g., cooperative learning, interactive lectures, teaching problem-solving) can comment on it lucidly and persuasively.
    • Modelling teaching techniques with students can be enlightening to the audience.

  • Prepare a handout.

If your workshop involves the audience in determining problems, discovering solutions, and making decisions, they will be too busy and engaged to take lots of notes. But they want to remember what they learned two months later when they have an immediate need for the information. So note your main points and describe useful techniques well enough for someone to make sense of them sometime in the future. We also make handouts available to those who could not attend a session, and they are very helpful to someone watching a videotape of your session.

Decide ahead of time whether you will distribute your handout during your workshop or at the end. Each technique has different advantages. Some participants find it useful to take notes on a handout, completing it as the workshop progresses. Other types of handouts summarize main points and can be distracting to participants who need to focus on the process of the workshop.

NOTE: Please give an original of your handout to the Teaching Resource Center at least a day before your workshop. If you want us to make copies for you, we need the original at least ten days before your workshop.

How do you conduct an interactive workshop?

  • Meet your audience.

Come early, if possible, and introduce yourself to individuals in the audience. Both they and you will be more comfortable if you feel any personal connection. If you are able to call on even two people by name during the workshop, other participants will feel closer to you and thus more willing to participate and accept your ideas. Participants in many TRC workshops, including the large ones in August and January, receive name tags.

Find out who in your audience is a TA and who a faculty member and what disciplines they teach. Depending on your topic and your preparation, you may need to clarify how your workshop will or will not respond to different situations.

  • Announce the interactive nature of the workshop.

Use your own words and style to let the audience members know early on that their experiences and expertise matter to you and to the others and that you plan to engage them in discussion and exchange of ideas.

  • Finish on time.

During a Teaching Workshop with concurrent sessions, participants need to complete one workshop in order to arrive on time at the next. In any case, any presentation that runs beyond its allotted time looks disorganized to the audience. Plan your time carefully, and watch it during the workshop. You may need to respond to some individual questions after the workshop officially ends.

  • Ask for feedback.

If you are doing a workshop for the Teaching Resource Center, we will ask participants for comments on what aspects of the workshop were most useful and how future workshops might be improved. If you are doing a workshop on your own, create a form that asks participants for similar information.