Facilitating Large Group Discussions and Activities: Make Numbers Count

by Kelly Tait

An important function of judicial branch educators is to draw out the resources in the classroom—to build in interaction so everyone can learn from the different perspectives, experiences, and ideas of the participants. Facilitation skills are vital for encouraging the high level of participation that leads to deeper learning in adult education. Unfortunately, when the class size is large, many instructors hesitate to use activities that could be quite productive even—or sometimes especially—in large groups. They tend to over-rely on lecture and to count on a Q & A session or large class discussion for interaction, when in reality only a small percentage of people actually get to participate in those when the class is large.

It can be challenging to involve everyone in a large group (often considered 50 or more people), but if you put planning and effort into it, you can draw on all of the tools you have available as an instructor–large and small group discussions, debates, case studies, learning games, role plays, problem-solving, etc., in addition to lecture. This article will discuss general approaches to creating productive interaction in large classes as well as specific tips on how to do it.

Judge Jess Clanton facilitates a large class discussion at The National Judicial College

Judge Jess Clanton facilitates a large class discussion at The National Judicial College

GENERAL APPROACHES
It is less overwhelming deciding how to get a large number of people to interact meaningfully and within time limits in your session if you think of participation on every level, from individuals to pairs, small groups, and the entire class. For instance, providing time for individuals to reflect on an issue or idea and then having them share it with a partner (“think-pair-share”) builds in a couple of types of learning and gets everyone in the room actively engaged, even if the class members number in the hundreds. It also only needs to take a couple of minutes.

Going one step further–to small groups of three or four people–is quite manageable in large classes in virtually any setting, and it doesn’t need to take a lot of time if the reason for and task of the group are well-conceived and the instructions are well-communicated. This number of learners in a small group allows varied perspectives while limiting the time necessary for group processing and also keeping the logistics fairly simple (members don’t need to move, are still able to hear each other, etc.). Too many instructors of large classes allow participants to lose the added perspectives as well the in-depth level of processing and practice that small groups can allow.

Don’t just use small groups for discussions—almost any activity that connects to the learning objectives can be worthwhile if participants are clear on what they’re supposed to do … and why. This might mean you explain the instructions for the activity as well as having them in writing, you model the behavior, then you have them work in small groups while you and some assistants circulate to answer questions. It also means including a strong debrief of the activity. (See below for more specific tips on this and other recommendations.)

Larger small groups, those with more than 4 or 5 people, generally require more time and planning to make sure everyone is involved, but there are things you can do to minimize the time issue. Some rooms can be set up to streamline the process of grouping – for instance, having table rounds with 5-8 people and having handouts/instructions already on the table. Use the number of people in a large class as an advantage—think of the resources in the room!—by having report-backs from the groups on one or two of their best ideas.

Some instructors avoid group activities with report backs because they know they won’t have time to hear from every group. This should NOT stop you—groups with a task that might be made public (such as in a report-back) often work harder toward the goal, and there are options that will allow acknowledgement of everyone’s contributions without taking an inordinate amount of time. For instance, have a limited number of groups do a brief report-back to the class but have all groups turn in a list that is then compiled and distributed. Of course, this takes follow-up, but it’s worth the time both to the instructor, who gets a lot of good ideas for future sessions, and to the participants, who get their ideas acknowledged and have a concrete take-away from the session.

That being said, there are many activities where no report-backs are necessary—you can incorporate a few observations you made as you circulated through the class during the activity on what took place in the groups and how it connects to the overall purpose of the session as a way to wrap up the activity.

Here are some specific tips on handling the complexities of interaction in large groups so that it’s a more productive experience for everyone:

TIP #1 – GIVE CLEAR INSTRUCTIONS – IN WRITING
This step is important for all classes but is VITAL for large groups in particular. Even a relatively straightforward class discussion can be enhanced by having a clearly stated and clearly visible discussion question. Having the discussion question on a visual makes it more likely that people will stay on track and will reflect on the topic even when they’re not actively participating.

The clarity of the instructions can make or break an activity. Before you use them with a large group, I strongly recommend trying out your activity instructions and your activity on a volunteer or two similar to the anticipated participants. This allows you to adjust the instructions (and the activity, if necessary) so that you don’t have hundreds of eyes staring at you in confusion with the clock ticking.

If participants will work in small groups, give the instructions for the activity BEFORE you have them break into groups. The physical noise and mental engagement of grouping can override anything that’s being said. Also have the instructions in writing! There’s no bigger waste of time than people spending time trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing, and in a large group it can mean that people are off-task (and often quite irritated) for a chunk of time. The written instructions might be on a PowerPoint slide–if they can fit on one slide in 36 point font–or they might be on handouts.

Handouts can be in the binder (note the divider and page number before class), they could be distributed on the tables ahead of time (some possibilities: face down, on a different color of paper for ease of reference, in an envelope in the middle of the table), or they could have been counted into piles based on the highest number of people that will be at any one table/group and then be quickly distributed by assistants at the beginning of the activity.

When a large group is broken into small groups, there’s a high probability that some of the small groups will finish the primary task well before other groups. To make sure that those groups stay focused on the topic and use the time productively, I often have instructions that include additional tasks that build on the initial one. For instance, I might have instructions for the group to “Spend 5-7 minutes brainstorming at least 10 ideas for solving (problem). If you have time left, discuss the pros and cons of each idea. Then prioritize the ideas from most practical (#1) to least practical (#10).”

Consider including these types of information in your instructions:

  • Topic
  • Purpose of exercise (except in the few instances when you don’t want this announced up front)
  • Task(s) to be accomplished
  • Amount of time to be used
  • If using small groups: how to form groups including size of groups
  • Reinforce the goal of everyone contributing
  • Any product, such as report-back; if there is a report-back, tell them to choose a spokesperson
  • What to do if they finish the primary task early

For example, if you’re having groups analyze a case study, you could have the information listed above at the top of the handout, followed by the case study. In addition, especially if you’re going to discuss the case study as a whole class, it’s often helpful to have a bullet list of the salient points of the case to use in explaining the case and to refer to during the discussion.

If you plan an activity that some learners might be resistant to because it’s outside of their comfort zones (for instance, role-playing and learning games), be sure to include in the instructions/explanation a clear purpose and rationale for the activity—make the connection to concrete learning objectives obvious.

Consider having some basic groundrules for discussions: share the air, disagree without being disagreeable, no war stories, etc. It’s easier to follow the rules if you know what they are. If groundrules are established early, it’s also easier to respectfully redirect inappropriate behavior by calling back to the groundrules.

Also give oral time cues during activities to keep the process efficient: “We’re about halfway through.” “Two minutes left – don’t forget to choose a spokesperson.”

TIP #2 – HAVE ASSISTANTS
Effectively facilitating large group discussions and activities that are interactive depends in part on making sure you have a couple of people who can assist you. These can be other faculty members, event organizers, colleagues, or even participants if necessary. The larger the class, the more assistants you need. At the very least have someone stationed at the back of the room who can help keep participants on track and can draw your attention to issues that need to be addressed.

Let your assistants know what your expectations are, for instance: taking microphones around the room for comments/questions, lowering the front lights for video clips, helping people get into appropriate-sized groups, circulating during activities to answer questions, etc. In particular, make sure they’re familiar with any activities you plan to use (instructions, purpose, time limits). When people are working in small groups in a large class, you won’t be able to check in with every group. Assistants can help make sure everyone is clear on what they’re supposed to do and can let you know how groups are progressing.

TIP #3 – PROPERLY DESIGN AND USE AUDIO-VISUALS
Check the sound and lighting in the room—make sure you and an assistant know how to run the controls. Check line of sight for all visuals. Be especially aware of placement of screens, lighting directly over the screen (turn it off if possible), and placement of flip charts. Be cautious about darkening the entire room for any length of time—try to adjust the lighting so that visuals are easily visible but so are you and the participants.
Lettering on any visual aids needs to be large enough to be read in the most distant part of the room. Use a sans serif font (e.g., Ariel or Helvetica) and don’t use smaller than 36 point font for projected visuals such as PowerPoint. Use lettering at least 2” high when writing on white boards or flip charts. Test it in advance – see how it looks from the back of the room.

Request a lavaliere microphone (and test it ahead of time — are you noticing a theme here?). If one isn’t available, ask for a cordless handheld microphone. Have at least two other cordless microphones (or more, depending on the size of the group) along with assistants to move them around the room so participants’ comments can be heard by everyone. Keep in mind that there still might be times when you need to repeat a question or comment for the whole group.

If you have an audience response system available to you (with each participant getting a response pad, responses tracked and tabulated on the computer, and results graphed), determine if it would be useful for your topic. These systems can get everyone in a large class involved quickly and are great for quizzes, surveys, and anything where anonymity is a factor (for instance, ethics issues). However, I STRONGLY recommend having someone who is very familiar with the system run it during your session. You do not want to be the one who has to run it, troubleshoot it if necessary, and facilitate discussion of the results. Carefully construct the questions and do a test run of the equipment as well as of the wording ahead of time. Clear questions are much more difficult to write than we usually anticipate—try them out on someone.

With any equipment, if there are too many technical difficulties you will lose the class. Always have a back-up plan in case technology fails. What will you do if the video clip won’t play, the LCD projector dies, the Responder system won’t work? Think your options through before a problem arises so it’s more likely you can adapt quickly if (when) one does.

TIP #4 – SET UP THE ROOM FOR OPTIMAL PARTICIPATION
If you want to run small group discussions and activities during the session (which, as mentioned, is an excellent way to involve everyone) and you have some choice of room set up, decide what will best fit your needs and help achieve the learning objectives. Round tables are good for groups of 4-8 people, and the room is automatically separated into groups. Keep in mind that it’s better if round tables are filled to just three quarters capacity so some people don’t have their backs to the front of the room. Also remember that larger small groups (approximately 6-14 people) require more time, and there’s more possibility that some people won’t participate. In these groups consider designating a discussion leader for each table. Ideally brief these folks ahead of time on expectations, activity guidelines and goals, etc. Also make sure you’ve made accommodations for anyone with special needs.

If you’re in a room with fixed tables and/or chairs, it’s still relatively easy to have people work in groups of 2-4. Pairing up is the easiest, quickest way to get everyone involved, but it’s also easy to have one or two people interact with people at the table in front of or behind them. Be very clear about how to form groups: “Form groups of three or four—no more than four—by joining with people right next to you or in front of or behind you.” Again, you can also include this as part of the written instructions.

KEY—be sure you and assistants circulate through the room after telling people to break into groups to make sure everyone is part of a group and that there aren’t any extra-large groups—these can often be separated into two smaller groups so that everyone can hear and everyone gets a chance to talk. Remember that it’s easy for individuals to be left out when you have people pair up, so actively look for and pair up those individuals.

If you’re not sure how many people will be attending and you don’t want participants sparsely scattered around the room or clustered at the back, have enough seats for the highest number anticipated but put “Reserved” signs on the tables at the back of the room. Another option is having an open area at the back of the room with stacks of chairs that can be distributed if necessary. Make sure someone (not you) is in charge of monitoring seating needs, for instance, removing “Reserved” signs or distributing more chairs.

If you will be calling on table groups to share ideas with the class, consider having a centerpiece with the number (or letter) of the group highly visible to make it easier to refer to a particular table: Group 1, Group A, etc.

Tip #5 – PLAN HOW TO RECONVENE ON TIME
If you’re conducting a session that has a break in it, ask organizers how participants will be informed that it’s time to return to class. If someone isn’t already delegated–or even if someone is–ask your assistants to help herd participants back into the room as breaks end so time isn’t wasted. I bring a (pleasant sounding) bell to assist in getting people back from breaks, and also to regain their attention when a small group discussion/activity is wrapping up.

Other techniques for getting people back from a break include: –Have some kind of reward for being back on time, such as cartoons showing at the exact time they’re supposed to be in their seats; –Synchronize watches, and don’t just say how long the break is, also say the exact time the break will end. (“It’s a 15 minute break, so be back by 10:15.”) –Underline the time to be back with your voice and write it large on the board or a chart.

Tip # 6 – WRAP-UP/ DEBRIEF ACTIVITIES AND DISCUSSIONS
As mentioned, you should give time cues when nearing the point where an activity or discussion needs to be wrapped up. If there are report-backs planned, this could mean the “two minute warning” for when the small group portion ends and the report-backs begin as well as an idea of how long the report-back portion will last. You can signal the impending end of any activity, discussion, or Q & A segment by announcing “There’s time for just one more….”

Have a plan in mind for what to do if you feel there are more ideas/questions than can be handled during the session. For instance: –Let the learners know that you are collecting and will compile and distribute lists from groups; –Offer to answer questions following the presentation; –Have a chart near the entrance to the room where ideas and questions can be written to be addressed in later sessions; etc.

DON’T FORGET to clarify how the activity or discussion that’s wrapping up ties into the overall purpose of the session–help the participants process, generalize, and apply the information/lessons. It’s especially important to do this for any activities that are likely to be outside of some of the participants’ comfort zones. In general, debriefs should include a brief summary of what happened during the activity or discussion, why it might have happened that way, and what it means—how it connects to the session objectives and the bigger picture.

TIP #7 – HONE YOUR FACILITATION SKILLS
While all of the foregoing tips tap into elements of your facilitation skills, it never hurts to remember one of the most basic attributes of a good facilitator: have some latitude in your attitude. We all need to remind ourselves that being adaptable is fundamental to working well with large groups of people.

When you plan activities and discussions, analyze how you think they will turn out – and consider what you will do if the actual results differ from your expectations. For instance, if you give a quiz and participants do much better than you anticipated on it, you need to be able to draw conclusions and move them forward from that point, not just from the point you expected.

Use not only your words but also your nonverbal behaviors to facilitate interaction. Remember that a bigger room often requires bigger gestures if you want the impact to reach all the way to the back of the room. When you open it up for responses, physically open it up—invite responses by opening your arms wide, slightly raising your eyebrows, slowly sweeping the room with eye contact, and pausing long enough.

To make sure your pauses are long enough, count to yourself—wait 7-10 seconds to allow participants time enough to process the request, formulate a question or comment, and get your attention. If no one responds, reword it and wait again. If you’re pretty sure there are questions or comments but that people are hesitant to speak up (and you’ve invited the questions and paused for responses), start it off yourself: “A question people often ask is_________.”

It also can be very effective to ask the class to think about a question or issue for a minute or two and jot down their ideas about it before you ask for their responses. This gives people with a more reflective learning style the chance to formulate their ideas, and having the chance to write something down first provides a “safety net” for less confident participants. This technique makes it more likely that you’ll get a wider range of responses from a wider range of people.

Be sure to call on participants in different areas of the room and from all different groups (gender, age, ethnicity, etc.). If you keep getting the same few people raising their hands, physically move to a new part of the room or at least turn toward a different section of the class, and verbally invite more responses: “I haven’t heard from anyone on this side of the room for a while….”

Don’t feel you have to be funny but do remember that appropriate humor can create positive connections. Much of the best humor arises from the group—be ready to laugh, but also be on guard that it actually is appropriate humor. You are the frontline for making sure the learning environment is a positive, safe place for everyone. This obviously connects to the earlier discussion of groundrules, and the bottom line of all groundrules is respect.

If there is a comment that is clearly over the line (“humorous” or not), of course it’s your responsibility to say so—respectfully but firmly. The more difficult situation is when someone makes a comment that is close to the line … do you say something or not? Deciding what level of response you should have to these “teachable moments” is a true test of your facilitating skills. What I have found personally is that it’s when I didn’t respond at all (because I was taken by surprise, I wasn’t sure if it was over the line, etc.) that I regretted my actions—and the lack thereof.

When dealing with these kinds of issues, keep in mind that people who are behaving inappropriately often don’t realize or intend it—they want to be involved but don’t realize that they’re dominating the conversation, they want to lighten the mood with humor but they don’t realize some people are offended, etc. Give them the benefit of the doubt while respectfully redirecting them. If they push back, stand firm and reinforce the value of seeing from others’ perspectives.

Respect the many voices in the room and create situations where everyone can learn from each other—that’s what facilitating is all about. It’s an area where we all can be lifelong learners.

Do you have additional tips for facilitating large group discussions and activities? We invite you to share them! Share your comments below this article.

SOME ONLINE RESOURCES

  1. “Facilitation Skills: Developing Facilitative Leadership” – Discusses suggestions for facilitation, communication skills, group process techniques, and diversity-related tips. http://www.ilj.org/publications/docs/Facilitation_Skills_Developing_Facilitative_Leadership.pdf
  2. “Group Facilitation Skills: A Toolbox for Effective Meetings” – Specific activities for audience participation. Most of the activities involve using pairs and small groups within a large group. https://engineering.purdue.edu/~iwla/iwla/resources/Academy/Group_Facilitation_Strategies.pdf
  3. The IAF Methods Database – Hundreds of activities from the International Association of Facilitators http://www.iaf-methods.org/methods

Kelly Tait is communication consultant with nine years of experience in judicial branch education and fifteen years of experience teaching college-level communication classes. Her areas of expertise include facilitation skills, planning and delivering effective presentations, courtroom communication skills, communicating with non-legally trained court participants, diversity issues and perceptions of procedural fairness, etc.