Tip #261: Helping SMEs Value Participatory Activities

Why do SMEs immediately latch on to lecture as their instructional method of choice? Well, first of all, lecture is still the predominant method in most higher educational settings. (Of course, we know that many if not most professors are in front of the class because of their research and publishing, not because of their teaching skills.)

Second, since the SMEs are the recognized experts, they believe that it is their job to present information to the learners.

Third, they are afraid to lose control of the class. If you lecture, you control both the content and the pace of the instruction.

There are other reasons, of course, but we’ll work with these for now.

Our challenge is to help SMEs: (1) recognize the value of participatory learning activities; (2) become open to the idea of actually using participatory activities; (3) see that participatory activities are not necessarily difficult to design; (4) learn how to select appropriate activities; and (5) become comfortable with facilitating participatory activities.

Today’s Tip will focus on the first challenge, and subsequent Tips will address each challenge in turn.

How do we help SMEs recognize the value of participatory learning activities? Based on my real world experience with this challenge, I propose the following action steps:

1. Ask them if they are satisfied at the end of their lectures. If the SMEs talk about being frustrated because they can’t tell if the audience learned anything, we can suggest some interactive ways to check the learners’ comprehension.

2. Review participant evaluations to see if there are any comments about the lack of interaction. This is a tricky one, because in my experience, participants often admire the SMEs and so give them positive ratings. Keep in mind that the participants are also used to lecture and are probably not aware of adult learning principles or different learning styles.

Even if steps 1 and 2 do not elicit information we can use to press our case in favor of greater participation, don’t lose heart. These last three steps typically do the trick!

3. Show them the building blocks of learning (Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives). Start by asking them if they want their participants to know something, but not understand it. They will probably say that isn’t sufficient. Then ask if that means they want them to know it and understand it. They will probably agree. Finally ask if they are teaching skills that they want the participants to use when they leave the classroom. If they say “yes,” then indicate their desired learning level is application.

4. Explain that the desired level of learning drives the decision regarding the learning activity. Lecture is only appropriate for achieving knowledge. If they are aiming for comprehension, application, or higher, then they need to use participant-centered learning activities.

5. Ask them if they want the participants to retain what they learned. I would be very surprised if they said “no!” Show them Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience and Learning to reinforce the impact of active learner engagement on retention. (By the way, although questions have been raised about Edgar Dale’s authorship and the percentages assigned to the Cone, I still see it as a very effective graphic in just-in-time learning sessions such as the one we’re discussing.)

These steps will typically bring SMEs to a (perhaps grudging) recognition that participatory learning activities might be of value to them and to their participants.

Next week, we will discuss how to meet the second challenge: helping SMEs become open to the idea of actually using participatory activities.


This week, we continue a discussion regarding how to teach subject matter experts (SMEs) to incorporate participatory learning activities into their technical curriculum and to become comfortable facilitating this interaction.

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