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How to Organize a Workshop to Study College Subjects

Workshops are an efficient way to enhance your study skills but organising the workshop can be like trying to herd cats – and everyone knows how uncooperative cats can be – so setting up workshops requires a certain amount of structure and energy. However, arranging workshops has some major plus points:

  • It looks marvellous on your curriculum vitae.

  • You impress your tutors (you can invite them along to relevant workshops and encourage them to participate).

  • You develop a lot of people management, time management and organisational skills in the process.

  • You contribute to the learning on your course and make it more fun.

To organise a workshop effectively, you need to be a good facilitator. The main points to bear in mind when organising a workshop are the following:

  • Find days and times that work for everyone: Sometimes 5.00–6.00 p.m. or thereabouts – followed by a pizza or drink in the pub or a swim – works quite well because it uses ‘dead’ time creatively and productively without intruding into the evening.

  • Rotate partnerships in the sub-groups: This makes each workshop a new experience for each student, with new partners.

  • Plan collectively the tasks you want to do together and the goals you want to achieve: Ideally, do this some weeks ahead, but with flexibility, as new concerns are likely to crop up as the term goes on. Collective planning encourages both cooperation and taking individual as well as group responsibility. It also discourages any negative traits.

  • Make sure that the goals set are achievable within the time frame: You may have to subdivide workshops over two or more sessions or focus on a particular aspect so that goals and tasks are clear and can be understood.

  • Stick to the time you’ve allocated for completing the tasks set – in groups and collectively: Timing means that a chair or facilitator needs a watch. It’s very tempting to allow what seems to be interesting to go past its allocated time but in workshops, achieving set goals within a time frame takes precedence, which sometimes means moving on.

    The group feedback mustn’t be ignored. It’s the cohesion for the workshop, when everyone finds out what the others did or thought – the pay-off for their investment. If a group has very interesting things to say, it may continue outside the workshop, perhaps raising points in a seminar.

    In this sense the workshop is the prime mover, the starting off point for new ideas, but you need to maintain the structure of the workshop so that everyone feels a sense of momentum and that targets set have been met.

  • Encourage participants to keep learning diaries: This ensures that they have notes of any pre-workshop preparation, their collective group notes and information from the workshop itself. To encourage future participation it’s important that everyone gets a sense of learning and achievement.

  • Be sure to inform people in good time of any housekeeping: Notify any changes to the time or place of the workshop well in advance. You need to remind everyone of the topic for discussion and ask for any new sources of information they’ve discovered.

    Once the workshop format has been firmed up and works well for everyone, give yourself a break and rotate the role of facilitator, so that everyone has experience of that as well.

Use email to keep in touch with the group. Emailing is informal and uses the same forms as spoken dialogue. One email copied to the group takes a lot less time than a series of phone calls and you don’t have to worry about when to send them whereas phone calls at the wrong time can be disturbing.

The online communication can turn into a chat room or discussion forum, but can’t replicate the multiple face-to-face interaction of the workshop, so although it can be an extra learning support, it can’t substitute for the live workshop.

Workshops are the most democratic form of learning because all the participants put in more or less the same work and time, so each person is equally important and valuable. Each participant takes responsibility for her own learning and for that of the group – learning from others and informing others.

Workshops offer highly practical hands-on learning by doing and learning by discovery within a structure and time frame that intensifies the learning process. The practical nature of a workshop also means that learning is quite measurable and explicit, which gives participants confidence in themselves and in what can be achieved.

If you can’t find a workshop to join or are wary of starting one, the closest activity is to join a debating society or perhaps a political group. You’re not joining for the information (or if you are, that’s a bonus) but to experience the methodology and organisation, the problems and pitfalls and to see how much better you can do in organising a workshop.

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