By Tris Utschig
Facilitation sits at the nexus between course design and the learning tasks students are asked to perform within that design. It embodies the concept of the “guide on the side” (as opposed to the sage on the stage) who is managing learning activity within a course as students strive to achieve the intended course learning outcomes. Thus, the facilitator helps students navigate various learning processes occurring within a learning environment as they complete learning tasks built into the course design. At the same time, a facilitator uses their knowledge of learning principles (Ambrose et al, 2010) to monitor how students are engaging with the course content and to adapt as needed for optimal learning performance. In sum, “facilitation involves a mindset of helping others perform better by creating growth opportunities and by providing coaching that allows others to take on more ownership and control of their performance” (Smith, 2007).
Goals of facilitation
Effective facilitation is driven by the goal of helping students actively perform the work needed to achieve intended learning outcomes. It is a process oriented approach where the facilitator orchestrates the alignment of three major pedagogical considerations underpinning student learning outcomes: instructional design, learner culture, and assessment (Jain and Utschig, 2016). First, the facilitator manages the implementation of learning activities or tasks that students do. These learning tasks are defined during the instructional design phase of a course, and they serve as the primary means by which students engage with the course content to achieve the learning outcomes. Second, facilitators utilize a mindful approach to learner culture so as to capitalize on assets of the culture in helping students to achieve the intended learning outcomes. Third, facilitators conduct ongoing formative assessment to continuously measure the degree to which learners are meeting the intended learning outcomes and then adapt the learning process as needed.
Principles of facilitation
Smith (2007) outlines 13 principles an effective facilitator should follow in order to optimize learner performance. Some of these principles can be grouped together.
First, several of the principles describe the facilitator-student relationship. Facilitation is a community-level activity involving contributions to the dialogue from both the facilitator and student. Four principles of facilitation fall into this category:
- Establish shared expectations – outcomes agree upon by both participants and facilitator
- Shift ownership of process to learners – outcomes valued by the participants produce results
- Connect with each participant – ensure participants know they are valued in the learning process
- Make the process rewarding – balance support and challenge to keep learning process enjoyable
The next set of facilitation principles relate to the role the facilitator plays in managing learning activities, from the planning stage through to the end of a learning task. These principles are:
- Use a facilitation plan
- Intervene on process rather than content
- Foster documentation of learning
- Bring closure to activities
Finally, a third set of facilitation principles relates to collecting data about where students are in the learning process. Two principles reside in this category:
- Avoid assumptions
- Continuously assess
By keeping these principles in mind, facilitators naturally begin to foster a learning environment that is growth oriented and learning centered, is focused on achieving student learning outcomes, and revolves around what students are doing as learners to engage with the content rather than simply ensuring content is covered.
How to facilitate
Facilitation is a purposeful, structured process involving continuous, careful observation and reflection about the learning process students are experiencing. Smith and Apple (2007) have produced a methodology for facilitation that describes the complete process and can be practiced to improve one’s skills as a facilitator. In particular, the methodology incorporates important steps for three major components of the learning process which arise from the process of course design advocated by Wiggins and McTighe in their well-known book Understanding by Design (2005). These three components of facilitation include conducting formative assessment of student performance, constructively intervening with a focus on student learning process rather than on content, and on providing feedback on how to improve performance after learning activities are completed. These components of the facilitation methodology highlight the fact that facilitation a process that requires thinking well beyond traditional lecture and PowerPoint presentations.
The Facilitation methodology
The purpose of the facilitation methodology is to help you create a facilitation plan (see Minderhout, 2007), carry out the facilitation process, and then follow-up on what occurred during the facilitation.
Pre-class preparation - The first steps in the facilitation methodology are preparatory and are completed prior to class. This work is addressed in more detail in the course design article, but the basic steps in this part of the methodology are:
- Select Intended outcomes
- Choose and design activities to best address outcomes
- Create materials needed and ensure access to any tools needed
A note on logistics/timing – for those who have traditionally taught in the “sage on the stage” modality, the shift to facilitating learning as a “guide on the side” can be challenging. Implementing learning activities often takes significantly longer than expected, and physically setting up the activity with clear instructions for students often requires a surprising amount of pre-planning. For short activities or learning tasks it may be wise to make an initial plan and then be prepared to accommodate nearly double that amount of time when actually implementing the activity. If it goes as planned, you can always spend additional time extending what has been learned.
Conducting the facilitation – when planning for a learning activity during class, it is easy to be surprised at how quickly one runs out of time in guiding students through to completion of the activity. One reason for this is that three major parts of conducting the learning activity need to be planned for. These are the setup, the activity itself, and the closing. The tendency to rigorously plan the activity itself while forgetting to adequately plan for the setup and closure is a common pitfall when facilitating active learning during a class. Carrying out each of the following steps in the complete facilitation methodology help facilitators guide students towards maximum achievement in learning.
- Setting up the learning activity – are your students ready?
- Pre-assess – determine the extent of students’ prior knowledge from student preparatory work, a short quiz, or other methods, and then help them activate that knowledge while they learn about what they will do during the activity.
- Logistics – ensure that students know why they are doing the activity, what they are expected to do during the activity, what outcomes they are expected to achieve, and what resources they should be using to help them complete the activity. Depending on the activity, arrangement of physical space, setting up of roles students will be playing as part of a team, and distribution of materials may also be important.
- Engaging in the learning activity – are your students learning?
- Monitoring performance – gather information about student performance in the learning process by listening, observing dynamics between individuals, and any written documentation students may be producing.
- Constructively intervening – when (and only when) students need help, or when they are straying too far from the goals of the learning activity, intervene to help students be able to move ahead to next level and most effective direction in the learning process. Be careful to avoid simply providing answers, and also avoid doing things that participants could do themselves.
- Bringing closure to the learning activity – gather teams or individuals attention as one large group again.
Following up after the learning activity – what have students learned?
- In-class debrief - allow a few students or groups to share with the rest of the class what important learning discoveries they have made. Direct this sharing to include information others can benefit from rather than simply summarizing what the students as a whole now already know. Challenge students to share information that is beyond simple facts and information.
- Assess the session – determine how well the learning activity went by extracting strengths that made the session as good as it was, areas for improvement that could make it work even better, and insights about learning related to the content of the activity. Asking yourself questions like these can help with this process: what critical learning was neglected or missed? How well did students employ the proper skills and resources necessary to learn effectively during the activity? What was the hardest thing for the students during the session?
- Follow-up communication or documentation – during the next class period, or after an appropriate amount of time, share the most important results of the session with students. You might post exemplary work online for students to review, or you might correct any lingering content-related misconceptions you noted, or you might address with students how to use particular learning skills or learning resources more effectively if you will be doing another similar learning activity using those skills or resources at a later data.
Issues to consider when facilitating
Facilitation is a process oriented approach to helping students learn. Although learning itself will always be focused on particular content, the process by which that content is addressed becomes equally important when learning is appropriately facilitated. Important instructional issues that arise from a facilitator’s mindset include the role of formative assessment, addressing common challenges arising in the learning environment, and inclusion or equity for all students in the learning process. Formative Assessment informs facilitation. The more data you have about how students are learning, the more effectively you can facilitate that learning. In terms of addressing common challenges we face in the classroom such as incivility and lack of student preparation, facilitation skills help keep students engaged, on task, and motivated, thus helping to prevent some of these situations from arising. In addition, when these challenges do arise, the facilitation methodology provides opportunities to deal with them while students are engaging in the learning activity without disrupting the rest of the class. Finally, opportunities for fostering inclusion arise quite naturally when applying the facilitation methodology. Well designed and well facilitated learning activities create great opportunity to ensure that all students voices can be heard.
In conclusion, it is important to note that facilitation skills fit well within many different Instructional models. Some instructional models naturally lend themselves to a facilitated learning approach. These include Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL), Team-Based Learning, and the SCALE-UP learning model, to name a few. In addition, many high impact practices (HIPs) such as collaborative learning, service learning, capstone experiences, etc. by their very nature require a facilitated learning process using the steps outlined here. Finally, many of these instructional models come with example materials easily available on the web to help instructors create quality facilitation plans.
S.A. Ambrose, M.W. Bridges, M. DiPietro, M.C. Lovett, and M.K. Norman, How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Jossey-Bass, 2010.
C.R. Jain and T.T. Utschig, Leveraging Elements of Process Education to Extend Biggs’ Model of Constructive Alignment for Increasing Learning Achievement, International Journal of Process Education, Vol 8 (2), September 2016.
V. Minderhout, Creating a Facilitation Plan, in Faculty Guidebook: A Comprehensive Tool for Faculty Performance, 4th ed., Pacific Crest, 2007.
P. Smith and D. Apple, Facilitation Methodology, in Faculty Guidebook: A Comprehensive Tool for Faculty Performance, 4th ed., Pacific Crest, 2007.
P. Smith, Overview of Facilitation, in Faculty Guidebook: A Comprehensive Tool for Faculty Performance, 4th ed., Pacific Crest, 2007.
G. Wiggins and J. McTighe, Understanding by Design, 2nd Ed., Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.