25 instructional strategies guaranteed to refresh your signature programs

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: People are busy these days. They’re also moving at a faster pace and have limited dollars to spend on professional development. Period. Combine this competition for time and resources with the endless access to information and content available online and you have a long list of continuing education providers competing for market share. (Not to mention the countless organizations now offering education opportunities at competitive rates—even free!)

That’s why we – the collective association community – need to up our game when it comes to the instructional strategies we employ at each of our signature education programs. The number one question I’m asked by association staff, subject matter experts and the media has to do with innovative, engaging and creative instructional strategies. So, here are 25 I’ve collected and curated (and, in some cases, facilitated) within the last year.

Note: I could never credit every individual or organization that’s had a hand in developing and shaping these instructional strategies. I will, however, say that this list has been influenced by the likes of ASAE, MSAE, NACE, Segar Consulting, TSAE and Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. Of course, some are also my own creations.

1. Behind the Scenes

Attendees have the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at how the host venue delivers exceptional customer service. Stops during the tour may include the kitchen, sales, housekeeping, A/V and more. At each stop, attendees meet and interact with key personnel, have the ability to ask questions and walk away with a new-found appreciation for hotel/conference center operations.

2. Conversations That Matter

Participate in engaging, facilitated conversations that explore industry questions/issues that truly matter. Conversations may be tailored to any member segments/topics.

3. Deep Dive Sessions

These are interactive education sessions on a given topic that span approximately three hours or longer. Content is more detailed than what can typically be covered in a traditional 75-minute breakout session and engaging learning activities tend to necessitate the additional time.

4. Executive Learning Experience for CEOs

This intensive workshop (half-day, full-day or longer) will cater to CEOs (and sometimes other top staff leaders) who are serious about a specific subject affecting their industry. Often, these individuals find that the safe space (apart from their staffs) allows them to effectively leverage the collective wisdom of their peers and work through possible solutions.

5. Fish Bowl

Attendees, armed with questions and concerns based on a predetermined issue, stand facing each other in two concentric circles. Those in the outer circle pose a question to their counterparts in the inner circle, who then provide feedback based on their personal experiences. After five minutes, the two circles shift to the right or left and the process repeats.

6. Flash Learning Room

When attendees don’t see the content they’re looking for on the program agenda, allow them to claim a specified meeting room onsite and conduct a session of their choosing. It will be their responsibility to promote the session through the various social media channels available during the conference.

7. Game Changer Sessions

Get a compelling look into the minds of today’s most influential leaders in business, innovation and finance. See how these “game changers” redefined their industry and, at times, the world through engaging lectures, stories and real-world examples.

8. General Sessions

Traditional plenary sessions focused on topics of interest to a majority of conference attendees. Often, these may be combined with brief interludes of association business, speeches, entertainment or multimedia presentations – or are facilitated in an engaging way (e.g., talk show-style).

9. Genius Bars

These are modeled after the Genius Bars found in Apple stores. They may be set up between education sessions and during longer break times. “Geniuses” have extensive knowledge about the industry, and they work with you face-to-face to provide technical support and troubleshoot any problems you may be experiencing.

10. Idea Swaps

One predetermined topic is assigned per table and each table is assigned a facilitator who poses questions, synthesizes discussions and encourages participation. Each idea swap lasts 20-30 minutes. Participants have the opportunity to visit three to four different idea swaps throughout the allotted time.

11. Ignite

Presenters are given just five minutes to speak about their ideas and personal or professional passions, accompanied by 20 slides. Each slide is displayed for just 15 seconds, and slides are automatically advanced. The presentations are meant to generate awareness and to stimulate thought and action on the subjects presented.

12. Jam Sessions

A jam session is typically scheduled at the end of each day and members are grouped by area of expertise. Initially, attendees sit in rounds with a discussion initiated by a facilitator who provides leading questions to help reinforce key concepts and recurring themes. Participants are then regrouped based on their biggest takeaway, allowing them to engage in highly targeted conversations specific to their priorities.

13. Keynote Alternative

The organization identifies four to five industry trends and selects volunteer/industry speakers to develop mini-presentations (one for each hot topic). Each individual is then allotted a maximum of 10 minutes to share the most relevant information about his/her trend. Time for questions and answers – or interaction among the experts – adds additional dynamics.

14. Learning Groups

A learning group functions in 15-20 minute sessions held several times throughout the day. Attendees are assigned to groups of three, tailored to their levels of experience and areas of expertise. For the duration of the conference, members disperse for sessions then reconvene at prearranged times, bringing with them questions, concerns and potential topics of interest for further discussion.

15. Learning Labs

Take part in these 75-minute learning labs for tried and true education led by your peers.  Sessions may focus on every functional area of your industry – and are the closest to a traditional breakout session. Often, these are well-received by the Boomer and Silent generations.

16. Lunch for 6

Each table for six (a distinction that’s important for meaningful dialogue) has on it both a tent card indicating a broad topic and several index cards listing various question prompts or challenges related to the table’s theme. Participants roam the room, identify a topic they are interested in, sit at that table and informally converse with others also interested in that topic over lunch.

17. Mobile Playground

This showcase of mobile-driven sessions immerses participants in activities and experiences designed to maximize their productivity. From an App Boutique featuring an App Mixologist, to hands-on iPad training, there’s sure to be something for everyone.

18. Open-space Technology

This approach is most distinctive for its initial lack of an agenda. As participants create the agenda, they post issues in bulletin board-style. Each individual “convener” of a breakout session then takes responsibility for naming the issue, posting it on the bulletin board, assigning it a space and time to meet, and then later showing up at that space and time, kicking off the conversation, and taking notes.

19. Rolestorming

Participants take on another identity during the brainstorming process, viewing an identified industry problem or challenge from a very different perspective. By using an assumed identity, unusual or radical ideas are not only welcomed and encouraged, but serve as the foundation for real-world solutions. 

20. Self-directed Learning

According to Malcolm Knowles, self-directed learning describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.

21. Smart Talks

High-energy, fast-paced events that combine 20-minute presentations with 40-minute interactive group discussions. 

22. Solution Room

This innovative learning concept provides conference participants with an opportunity to unpack and make meaning out of information presented during a general session. Small teams identify personal opportunities for change and brainstorm a variety of strategies for growth. Each attendee then commits to an actionable objective to be completed within a specified period of time.

23. Story Slam/Coaching Jam

Explore the art of good storytelling in a fun and exciting format. Each presenter has five minutes to tell a story based on a theme. Presentations are not predetermined. Participants are selected onsite and receive immediate feedback on how to make their story more engaging.

24. Wisdom While You Walk

Who would’ve thought you could actually learn something outside of a meeting room? In this exploratory learning format, attendees pair off with a colleague and go for a short walk while examining a predetermined topic. Findings are then shared and debriefed with the rest of the group.

25. World Café

The process begins with a brief introduction and leading question about an industry problem.  Attendees, seated at tables of four to encourage an informal café-style meeting, are asked to discuss the topic for 20 minutes. Once time is up, three participants from each table move to a different table and repeat the process. One participant at each table stays put to function as “table host” and reviews what concepts were discussed during the previous rounds.

So, my question to you is this: Which of these instructional strategies have you tried? Were they successful in meeting program objectives/learner outcomes? What could have been improved? Also, what innovative, engaging and creative instructional strategies not on this list would you add?

2 Responses to “25 instructional strategies guaranteed to refresh your signature programs”

  1. 1 rickgriggs
    December 18, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    Aaron, glad you included my “Rolestorming” creativity tool as #19 in your list. I created it years ago but it’s now getting a bit of exposure. We used it in Silicon Valley as a great way to wake people up from the traditional brainstorming sessions. Lots more to share on the details of the tool. Rick (RE) Griggs

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meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

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