Why a "three minute exercise" actually requires 10-15 minutes

Even if your exercises themselves are brilliant, it’s what you do afterwards that really integrates them into the rest of your workshop as a powerful learning experience.

Many people end up spending this amount of time on short exercises, but for all the wrong reasons. For example, they lose a few minutes on awkward group formation, and then another one or two when they have to re-explain a poorly written exercise prompt. Then, afterwards, more time disappears when they aren’t able to quickly and effectively bring an active crowd back to full attention. These sorts of “facilitation friction” delays are bad news, hurting your energy levels and tempo without giving anything back in return.

You should work to ruthlessly eliminate all sources of facilitation friction, and then put the recovered time toward its proper purposes: stand-and-share (where a subset of students share their thinking) and follow-up discussion (where you add relevant commentary and corrections).

These activities both sound simple, and you may already be doing some version of them. But I’ve seen countless facilitators mess up the details and massively undermine the purpose of what they’re trying to achieve.

Stand-and-share has a couple important requirements:

  • The sharer must be standing, since that signals to everyone else that they’re supposed to be listening

  • The sharer must turn to speak to his or her peers—the rest of the audience—and never reply directly to you

  • (Optionally) The sharer should be rewarded with a quick bit of applause

This means that your first “volunteer” isn’t going to be a volunteer at all. Rather, you should single someone out who you know is happy to be the center of attention, and then you’re going to (gently) throw them under the bus by interrupting them and using them as a facilitation example. It sounds like this:

You: “You guys back there seemed to have a lively discussion. Susan, would you mind summarising some of the stuff you were talking about for us?

Student (probably still sitting in her chair, and in a normal speaking voice, answering your question): “Sure. We were saying that—”

You: “Wait wait. Could you please stand up where you’re at, so we can all see you? And turn to the class—you’re sharing it with them, not me. Perfect. So what did you discuss?”

Susan continues sharing. If she slips back into speaking to you, redirect her back toward the class. If other students are still distracted, you now have the moral authority to cut them off without seeming harsh, since they’re now ignoring a peer. Once she’s done,lead a quick round of applause, say thanks, let her sit down, and then chip in your own commentary, if desired.

Too often, teachers will allow a student to answer directly back to them, which degrades the “class discussion” into a 1-on-1 conversation. This is low value for everyone else in the room, and gives them permission (or at least a strong temptation) to zone out, check their phone, or continue talking to their group.

By using firm facilitation corrections on a first “volunteer” who you know can handle it, you set a precedent for everyone else to do the same. And you show them that contributions are rewarded. You also make audience contributions a centerpoint of the workshop (since you’ve “given them the stage”), as opposed to a marginal side-discussion.

Instead of having every group present (which gets extremely tedious), you should simply grab volunteers (or “volunteers”) as needed until you feel that the major talking points have been exhausted. If you did your job of walking the room and listening during the exercise itself, you can hand-select groups who you know were working on the sorts of things you want to touch on during discussion. This ensures that the after-exercise discussion is high-value and keeps to the Learning Outcomes that you’re intending to deliver. Over the course of the workshop, ensure you’ve asked every group to present at least once, so nobody feels left out.

If you want to hear from a particularly shy participant, you can make it easier for them by priming them about what to say:

“I heard the group over there saying something interesting about the drawbacks of digital tools. Jeremy, would you mind standing up and talking us through why your group wasn’t so sure whether X is all it’s hyped up to be?”

The more constrained you can make your prompt, the easier it will be for someone to give you a sharp answer. Or, if you’re talking about something personal and sensitive, you can ask folks to anonymously share what they overheard, as opposed to sharing their own thoughts:

“Who overheard something in their group that was interesting or different? (A few hands go up. You single someone out.) You don’t need to tell us who said it, but can you tell us a bit about what it was, and why it stood out to you?”

If you aren’t sure who to call on next, you might follow the advice of the facilitator of UX workshops, Sophia Exintaris:

“Encourage anyone too quiet, but active with their eyes, to speak.”

Once you’ve started hearing the students’ thoughts, it’s easy to chip in your own. This makes your contributions feel less like a lecture, and more like a back-and-forth conversation. And as a (huge) bonus, this all works to identify folks who are stuck on an unknown-unknown or a confidently held false belief.

Exercises should never consume extra time due to weak facilitation, prompt design, or crowd control. As with everything, even the simple steps need to be facilitated properly in order to work. Once you’re doing it right, your post-exercise stand-and-shares are a goldmine of great discussion, and are a splendid use of those extra minutes. This post-exercise discussion is your chance to solidify and spread the learning. It’s how you extract the value from your exercises. It’s super important, and great fun once you see how well it can work.