15 Ways to Make Your Courses and Workshops More Engaging

After over 25 years working in training and development, I've experienced hundreds of different techniques applied in teaching, training, and facilitation. I've experimented with dozens myself and over time have come to learn some key methods for ensuring our workshops are engaging, effective, enjoyable and repeatedly deliver their learning objectives

So to celebrate St Crispins Day (the date we ran our first Customer's Shoes event) I've compiled a list of 15 essential approaches for delivering an engaging workshop. 

How many of these do you experience in the courses delivered by your training providers?

1. Relate the Lessons To Real-Life Scenarios

Often using an example outside of the industry participants work in, helps to illustrate a point just as well as when it relates to their own field. The key, however, is in making it relevant to the real-life scenario in which their learning can be applied. The easier it is for participants to connect the points you are making to their situation, the easier it is for them to learn and the more engaged they will be.

Design ways that make that connection for them easier.

2. Accommodate Different Learning Styles

One popular theory about our individual learning styles is the VARK model. It identifies four primary types of learners: visualauditoryreading/writing, and kinesthetic.

Another one uses seven styles of learning covering the following:

  1. Visual (spatial): You prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding.
  2. Aural (auditory-musical): You prefer using sound and music.
  3. Verbal (linguistic): You prefer using words, both in speech and writing.
  4. Physical (kinesthetic): You prefer using your body, hands, and sense of touch.
  5. Logical (mathematical): You prefer using logic, reasoning, and systems.
  6. Social (interpersonal): You prefer to learn in groups or with other people.
  7. Solitary (intrapersonal): You prefer to work alone and use self-study.

Whether you follow one or the other doesn't make a huge difference. The key point is to ensure that your training courses, workshops, and online programs appeal to the different learning styles and therefore aim to incorporate a mixture.

Why? Because if you have a style of a workshop that is highly oriented toward a more interpersonal way of learning for example, and yet your audience primarily prefers to work alone and use self-study, then you run the risk of limiting the effectiveness of your workshops and therefore reduce the ROI.

By knowing your audience you can design accordingly. This doesn't mean catering to every individual's needs but offering a mixture of activities and teaching styles that will resonate with as many people as possible.

3. Change The Room Layout

Don't be afraid to experiment with room layout and to match it according to the needs of the event, the style of the trainer and the shape of the room. Training room layout should not just be set by the number of participants, but by the purpose of the event. What is it that you are looking to achieve? For room layout advantages/disadvantages check this post.

4. Tell Stories Or Use Metaphors And Anecdotes

I've met people who attended courses I have run a year or more before and many times I have had individuals say they still remember a story I told on the course all that time before.

Stories are powerful ways to communicate messages. They have been part of human interaction since man first started cave paintings.

An effective story can keep people on the edge of their seats and turn your lesson into an engaging and educational experience at any point.

5. Play Music

Not only does music help learning abilities, but it increases focus in listeners, according to a Stanford University study.

Incorporating music into a classroom environment can create a positive learning experience and improve memory while increasing attention. Chris Boyd Brewer explains in his book Music and Learning:

"In active learning experiences [in which music is played while studying or learning a new concept] music creates a soundtrack for a learning activity. The soundtrack increases interest and activates the information mentally, physically or emotionally. Music can also create a highly focused learning state in which vocabulary and reading material is absorbed at a great rate. When information is put to rhythm and rhyme these musical elements will provide a hook for recall."

It's also a great tool to boost energy when you need to raise the mood of the room or to use slower soothing music to calm a group down.

6. Take the Workshop Outside

When the weather lets you, take a lesson or two outside especially those that involve team activities and problem-solving where space is at a premium inside. The extra space outside, the fresh air and the novelty factor all contribute to a better learner experience.

Remember how you felt when your teacher at school said your lesson was going to be outside?

It triggers the same feeling all these years later in adults when you offer the same opportunity. It's fun and adds variation to the course.

7. Make the Lessons Interactive

Building an interactive workshop doesn't happen by chance. It takes skill, expertise, creativity, and deliberate design approaches. Rid your course of boring lectures and endless PowerPoint inputs or lectures by the trainer. Design them to be interactive between participants, teams and the trainer or facilitator. This means balancing activities between working in groups, pairs, whole class discussions, working on pinboards. moving around the room, discussions, Q&A sessions, debates etc.

8. Make it Visual

Typically what I see with most trainers is writing on flipcharts that are poorly presented, lack of colour variation and often with markers that are running low on ink. Carefully prepared flipcharts, with deliberate use of colour and wide tip pens, make all the difference to the appearance of your classroom and lesson.

Make sure you always post your flipcharts around the room to display lesson activity output. Better still purchase an A1 plotter such as the HP 520 Inkjet and print posters.

During our lessons, we will use flipcharts, initially as needed to take down key messages, summarise points, explain models etc, and then periodically during the lesson swap these for printed posters that contain the same output but with additional graphics.

These printed flipcharts deliver a higher quality of visual than even the best trainer's hand can. The net result by the end of a course is a room full of the key content from the course presented on stunning posters to help embed the messages from the course.

And of course, our favourite tools always come from the home of facilitation kits, Neuland, seen below.

9. Use Props in Your Courses

The good use of a visual tool is one of the best techniques for adding interest, humour, and variety to your presentations, training, or public speaking gigs. Having something to pass around to participants is a great way for them to interact with content.

Having a 3D item that can be passed around brings a point to life. Sometimes it can be used as a metaphor, sometimes to demonstrate a specific feature you are talking about bringing the topic alive.

For example, a builder's hard hat could be used as a visual aid when talking about things such as building (compiling information, assembling facts, evidence, etc), safety, being properly prepared and equipped for the job. You don't have to be talking about the building industry or construction to only use a builder's hat.

10. Use Games

There are several reasons why we use training games in our courses. These are:

  • To provide social interaction.
  • To energise participants.
  • To reinforce learning.
  • To add a challenge to their learning.
  • To make it more enjoyable.
  • To turn what might otherwise be a dull topic into one which is more engaging.

Designed well, a simple and relevant training game can enhance your traditional training methods. They help create a relaxed and comfortable learning environment where course participants remain energised and giving them a chance to safely apply their learning and experiment with new approaches.

11. Keep Topics Short

You've experienced this yourself I'm sure and that's your mind can only take in so much information at any one time before it needs some form of a break. So deliver your theory content in blocks of approximately 20 minutes.

Each block should then be followed by group problem solving, open discussion, individual or pairs activities or games.

Chunking of the course material in this way increases knowledge retention and keeps attention spans higher. Participants learn more, they engage more and time flies.

12. Use Something that Inspires You

When the trainer is inspired it flows into their work, their materials, the learning environment and ultimately the learner experience. We are always on the lookout for inspiring things that catch our attention and then ask how could we use this approach in our courses.

For example, we like the opening of events at conferences and business meetings where there's usually some form of audiovisual experience to open the event. These often trigger an emotional reaction in the audience and set the scene for the theme of the event.

Inspired by these we look to integrate some element of an emotional experience at the beginning of each of our courses to connect the opening and the welcome to the theme of the day.

This helps to set the scene, create the appropriate mood we are looking for and engages participants.

13. Use Technology

There is no shortage of opportunities to use technology in your training from simple QR codes to apps and the use of tablets and Smartphones. The key is to ensure they add value to the learner experience and encourage learning not hinder it.

Here are three to kick-start your interest.

  1. TED-Ed provides everything you need to spark and celebrate your students' ideas.
  2. FLIPGRID is an app where someone, usually a teacher, poses a question or prompt, and students respond to it with short videos. Once they’ve finished their video, they can leave responses to other students’ videos.

  3. InsertLearning allows you to basically take any page on the Internet and turn it into a lesson. For example, let's say you find a great article from the BBC that you’d like students to read, but you’d also like to ask them a few questions about it, add a bit of commentary of your own, and insert a related video. With InsertLearning you can do all of that right on the article itself.

14. Provide Recognition And Reward

Everyone likes recognition for achievement and effort involved.

Finding novel, simple and inexpensive ways to recognise effort and reward for it and success is a great way to engage adult learners.

I remember well the sense of pride that teams of commercial managers from an international construction company had when they won a miniature plastic gold trophy in recognition for winning a team business game at the end of a course.

Often it's the simplest things that can have the most impact. After all, it's not the prize item itself but the recognition it carries.

15. Keep Your Trainer's at the Top of Their Game

It's easy for trainers that repeatedly deliver the same content over and over again to become jaded and to begin operating on automatic pilot. They get in a rut by always training the same topic and by always using the same training methods.

It's important therefore to:

  • Rotate trainers onto different topics.
  • Encourage using a variety of training methods.
  • Encourage and provide for ongoing training and career development for trainers.
  • Ask management to personally encourage trainers and show the results their courses have on the business.
  • Reward your trainers and recognise their efforts.
  • Encourage and provide for ongoing training and career development for trainers especially in the use of technology and facilitation techniques, materials and tools.
  • Provide trainers with language-appropriate materials and cross-cultural information to support their course participants and improve communication skills.
  • Arrange for trainers to visit the operations in which they train on a regular basis to keep current on new methods, terminology and general operations awareness.

Post main image courtesy of Neuland.

Now you have 15 essential course design tips that can help you improve your courses. We hope this post helps.

How many of these do you experience in the courses delivered by your training providers?

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