Mixing Up Your Methods – Individual Work in Seminars and Workshops

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Professional Development

Although the structure and delivery methods of most training and development seminars and workshops have improved dramatically over the last several decades, a valid criticism can be made regarding the proportion of group activity to individual work.

In the early 1950s, American psychologist Kurt Lewin and others began to experiment with group functioning. Their work led to the T-Group (training group) movement that became immensely influential and popular into the 1960s and beyond.

As a result, the notion of individual work in organisational training and development workshops and seminars began to drop off the radar screens of many course designers and developers. Group discussion was in and individual study and reflection was out.

However, even in those early days, there were organisational psychologists who maintained the need for properly placed individual work. If you are familiar with the work of Robert R. Blake and Jane S. Mouton – the originators of the managerial grid theory – you know they saw the need for individual prework prior to group discussion as vital.

Now there is another voice in the field reminding us of the need for individual work – brain-based learning researchers. The explosion in digital imaging technology over the last few decades has opened the mind to scientists who want to know how the brain learns.

They have uncovered many interesting things about how the brain operates when learning. If you search the Internet to explore some of these findings you will find repeated references to the need for allowing time for individual reflection.

This notion goes along with the overall conclusion that the brain learns in bite-size chunks and needs time to process and rest before moving on. This suggests that a seminar or workshop with constant group discussion without any time set aside for individualised activities where learners can reflect on what they have learned may overload the brain.

This is yet another example of the dilemma confronting teachers and seminar leaders interested in active learning. In theory, individualised reflection either before or after group discussions seems like an optimum mix of learning methodologies.

In practice, however, individual activities can be time-consuming and actually serve to slow down quicker learners. There are few things more de-motivating to fast-paced learners than waiting around for everyone in the seminar or workshop to complete the individual task.

There are a number of practical ways to deal with this recurring dilemma. The most obvious is to assign individualised tasks as homework. Another is to schedule the tasks right before lunch or any other break period. This allows slower participants to work into the break to complete the assignment.

Finally, you can structure your individual assignments with a required Part 1 and an optional Part 2. In this way, faster learners have something to do should they complete Part 1 in less than the allotted time.

A creative teacher could employ many approaches. The key is first to expand your strategic thinking to recognise the need for individual work in seminars and workshops. The practical tactics or method you use follows the realisation that individual work should be an integral part of any active learning approach utilising the principles of brain-based education.

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