Tips for designing an effective workshop session

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Our journey learning about effective workshop session design began in the mid-90’s, when we were helping activists and community organisers in the United States understand how to harnass the potential of the Internet. What we’ve learned about session design has largely been achieved through a combination of trial and error (evaluating our own workshops), comparing notes with other facilitators, and getting a deeper understanding of how adults learn. In terms of our own facilitation skills, we are particularly grateful for the mentoring, guidance and opportunities to collaborate with Allen Gunn (Gunner) and the team at Aspiration. We are appreciative of the feedback on this post from Sarah Allen & Ericka Drushka from the Mozilla Festival, along with colleagues, Tom Longley and Mariel Garcia.

This blog post is specifically aimed at people who are either: a) new to facilitation and find themselves in the position of developing a workshop for the first time, or b) already have facilitation experience but are still on a quest to perfect their facilitation techniques. In this post we explore how adults learn, the role of the facilitator, example session designs and facilitation best practices.

We have drawn heavily on two resources to create this document:

How Adults Learn

Deepening our understanding of how adults learn have been critical to the evolution of our own workshops. We have spent a lot of time asking ourselves, ‘how did we learn that?’ before we start designing a workshop. Thanks to LevelUp we stumbled upon the research of Malcolm S. Knowles who has helped shape approaches to adult learning. His research found that adults learn best when they take responsibility for their own learning. As noted in LevelUp’s Approach to Adult Learning:

Five statements that summarise Knowles’ theory:

  • Adults need to understand and accept the reason for learning a specific skill.

  • Experience (including error) provides a strong basis for learning activities.

  • Adults need to be involved in both the planning and evaluation of their learning.

  • Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

  • Most people are interested in learning what has immediate relevance to their professional and social lives.

There is a need for participation and interactivity to be driving elements in any session, but this also applies to the session design itself. It’s critical participants feel in control of what they are doing, and can engage in peer to peer exchange where experience can be shared and reflected upon.

The Facilitator’s Role

To paraphrase the words of John F Kennedy: ‘ask not what you can do for your participants, but ask what your participants can do for you…’ and, more importantly, each other’. This is not about what the participants will learn from the Facilitator. Instead, we invite would-be facilitators to think about what they can learn from the participants. A workshop session is an opportunity to surface the unique set of knowledge and experience from the individuals that you have gathered for the session.

As Gunner notes in Aspiration’s Session Design Guidlines:

The role of a facilitator is to enable peer sharing of knowledge. It is not to “deliver” a session or present a lot of content in any form. Overall, the primary role of a facilitator is to keep discussions fruitful and focused. Sessions should be designed to be flexible and to serve the needs of the participants. A good workshop session will be:

Participatory: Engaging and activating participants from the beginning and getting them making and doing, rather than listening and watching.

Purposeful: Working on meaningful activities toward meaningful outputs

Productive: Well-scoped so that concrete outcomes are achieved in the allotted time, and participants feel time was well spent.

Session Design

When you start designing your session, you should be able to describe:

  • An outcome or purpose: what is your session is trying to achieve or produce? How will participants benefit from attending?
  • Who can and should participate: who exactly will benefit from attending the workshop?
  • A plan for working towards your stated outcome: how will you allocate time in your session, what steps move you toward productive results, and how are your participants contributing to the same?

For example in a session entitled “Best practices for achieving data literacy” your description may read: In this session participants will have an opportunity to share notes and techniques on achieving data literacy and contribute to list of a best practices. This session is for anyone who has tried to engage individuals in using data to solve problems in their communities.

The plan for this session might look like this:

• 3 minutes: State the frame and goals for the session to the group

• 5 minutes: Go round to invite each participant to say IN ONE SENTENCE what they want to get out of the session

• 10 minutes: Have participants break into pairs or groups of three, and brainstorm the best practices and the questions they have about data literacy, putting each item on a separate sticky note.

• 10 minutes: Collect the sticky notes on a wall and ask participants to group the practices and questions on the sticky notes into related clusters and ask participants to identify the themes or hot spots. Have a large group discussion about what is on the sticky notes and any aha’s they have as a result of looking at them.

• Remainder of session until wrap-up: Use your judgement as to whether you want to assign groups to work on specific themes or hot spots.

• 5 minutes: Ask working groups to report back on significant best practices in a pop-corn format, compile these on flip chart paper

• Last 3 minutes: Summarise the session, review the steps they went through and identify any next steps.

See Aspiration’s Session Design Guidelines for further suggestions

Using ADIDS as a session design format

If the above sample session design is too basic or prescriptive for you, then you may want to consider ADIDS which was developed taking Malcom S. Knowles research into account: ADIDS stands for Activity-Discussion-Input-Deepening-Synthesis.

Activity: The session begins with an activity that is connected to the topic of the session. The activity should introduce the topic to the participants that is informed by their own contexts and experiences. Small group exercises that allow for deeper interaction and exchange will work best.

Discussion: In this part of your session, everyone talks about what they thought of the activity they just completed. The discussion should aim to unearth reflections based on the activity and distill learnings based on the participant’s own experiences. The trainer / facilitator should prepare questions to guide the discussion which can happen in a large group.

Input: The facilitator presents on issues, sub-topics and more advanced concepts related to focus of the session. This is where content related to the facilitator’s own experience and learning can be introduced.

Deepening: In technical training, this is usually the hands-on segment of a session. This is where the participants will get to put what they are learning to use.

Synthesis: A good training habit is to always summarise the session. Talk about what happened in the session, some of the results of the discussion, what issues were discussed, what solutions were made, and give some more time for participants to ask more questions before the session is closed.

For more on ADIDS see: Preparing Sessions Using ADIDS


Here are some sample activities that may inspire you, and can further drive dialogue, sharing knowledge and participation:

  • Brainstorming and Organising – ask participants to break into small groups to discuss the topic more deeply. Ask them to capture main points in complete understandable sentences on post-it notes. After enough time to generate a good number of post-it notes, use a wall to gather the notes and ask participants to organise the post-its and identify main themes or topics.
  • Ordering – Print the title of each step on a sheet of paper and ask for volunteers to hold the signs. After each volunteer says the title of the sign, ask participants to put the steps in order – as they do so, ask why they have chosen that order.
  • Ranking – ask participants to break into pairs and discuss a list of techniques and ask them to determine most effective to least effective.
  • Gallery – put examples or case studies around the room and get participants to review each one as if they are in an art gallery. Give them questions to answer as they review each examples (i.e., for data visualisations ask: what is the message and who is it for?)
  • Spectrogram – draw a line down the centre of the room. At each end of the line write the words agree and disagree. Then read controversial statements related to the session topic and ask participants to stand along the line in relation to how much they agree or disagree.
  • Scenario – create scenarios based on real-life problems that address the topic. Break participants up into small groups to review the scenarios and discuss how they would solve the problem.
  • Hands-on – give participants an opportunity to work directly with a tool.
  • Drawing – get participants to visualise something. Perhaps an organisational practice, workflow, or even the outcomes or impact of their work.

Session Design Best Practices

  • Design your session to be flexible and adaptable to the questions, interests and actual needs of the participants who attend; it is less productive to “just follow the script”.
  • It is more than okay to engage participants in a challenge you are facing in the topic. Think about how you can benefit in your own work by engaging the brains that are in the session.
  • Divide into small groups early and often in the session. Smaller groups mean more opportunity for participants to be engaged and also give input.
  • “Less is more”: try to do a small number of things well in your session, rather than cramming too many elements into what you work on. Too much preparation is not a good thing; just have a clear plan for how you want to spend the time, and be ready to adapt as participants get engaged.

Session Facilitation Best Practices

  • State the goals for each discussion at the outset, check along the way that you are progressing towards those goals, and review the goals at the end of the session. Gunner refers to this as the “tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them” model.
  • Strive to include everyone in the discussion. Some participants will want to talk too much, others will refrain from speaking. Try to move the dialog to the latter camp, and don’t be shy about politely calling out those who monopolise the airwaves. Politely invite anyone who dominates the conversation or monologues to allow others to have a chance to contribute.
  • Ensure the conversation is sticking to its stated topic and purpose and keeps progressing. Watch for tangents that de-focus the topic at hand; gently rope in those who digress or veer off topic. Similarly, don’t let participants get too fixated on one point.
  • Identify and document any next steps or action items that have come out of the discussion.


The suggestions above are meant as a starting point for understanding how to provide an effective session. As you gain more experience as a workshop facilitator and learn more about what works and what doesn’t for your participants, your session design will likely evolve. Never, ever stop asking: how can I make my workshop session design better?

And GET IN TOUCH, we are passionate about workshop design and if you would like a free consultation to talk about your session, send an email to info (at)

Additional Resources:

You can also find more sample curriculum, exercises and tips in The FabToolkit, including:

Or get a training on session and event design from FabRiders, see:

Also see: