How to do a Workshop on Practically Anything 


1. To prepare: Make a list of important items/topics to go over. Or advice to give, points to make, etc. Don't worry (much) about order or importance. Ask your colleagues for things to put on the list. You don’t need a list in order, because you will work these issues into the discussion as they come up, not lecture on them.

      If you wish, you can prepare a handout or booklet with major topics and/or advice you want to pass on. You can hand it out during the workshop and refer to it as you go along, although there is always the risk that the participants will read it instead of listening to you. (Alternatively, you can hand it out at the end so they can take it home for reference.)


2. Set up: If possible, sit around a conference style table and have participants make name cards. 5 X 7 cards work well; fold in half the long way and write names with marker on both sides. (Why write on the back? So the person next to you can see your name.)  Be sure names are large enough to be read from across the table. Take paper or more cards for participants to write on. A poster or board for recording responses is nice but dispensable. (Just in case, it is a good idea to take chalk, white board markers, and pens or pencils, as well as cards, permanent markers, and paper.)


3. Generate responses from participants. Ask them a question or two to respond to – make each question as specific as possible; details will depend on topic. (For example, for future TAs:  ‘What are you looking forward to? What are you worried about?’ or for a workshop on how to do something, ‘What makes the job hard? What makes it easier’.) Give the participants about 5 min. to write down their answers, concerns, anticipations, worries, etc. as appropriate.

      It seems to work best if there are two questions, or two aspects of a single question. There are two advantages to this:

      (a) You can generate two lists – pros and cons (as in the previous questions), or the student view vs. the faculty view, etc. (For example, ‘What goes on a syllabus?’ Ask for responses from the student point of view and/or from the faculty point of view.)

      (b) Almost every group is heterogeneous, and different questions or aspects appeal better to different participants.  You may have a mix of first time TAs and experienced ones, or a mix of administrators and faculty, etc.


4. Call on participants and collect their concerns. Write concerns, issues, and/or solutions on board or poster if you can. (Alternatively, you can use a computer or overhead projector to both record and project as you go.) Make two lists, if appropriate, of pros vs cons, worries vs anticipations, etc. As things come up, offer suggestions, refer to handouts, and/or ask others present for suggestions. (You can start a 3rd list with suggestions and solutions as you go.) Fit in important items (see 1) as they come up or you see an opportunity. Call on everyone, in order or otherwise. (If someone seems very shy, ask them “Do you have anything to add?” as opposed to “What do you have to add?”)

      You can do this just fine by yourself, but don’t hesitate to invite a colleague to join you. Two discussion leaders are almost always better than one. No two people have exactly the same take on the situation, so having two ‘experts’ adds to the richness of the discussion and the number of good suggestions.


5. Redo? If appropriate, do another round of writing and discussing, or have participants take turns actually trying something – usually doing a small piece of whatever skill the workshop is focused on. (For future TA's, let them try explaining a problem. For research and writing workshop, have them write on "What are you doing?" and then discuss if they've narrowed it down enough, understood the background, know what to do next, etc.) One complete round usually takes about 1 hr, but the time varies depending on the number of participants and the type of task. If you want to do multiple rounds, or other activities, be sure to allow enough time. (A break for food in between rounds is always nice.) 

      Each round doesn’t have to be the same style. You always want to (a) give participants a task – something to do, answer or think about, (b) give them some time to think or work it out, and (c) collect the responses. You can simply vary the question each time, or you can vary the type of task, or you can change the way the responses are collected. In other words, you can change the contents or style of (a), (b) or (c). For example, having them write is just one way to give them time to think in public without looking stupid, but it is not the only way. Discussing or working on a task in pairs or small groups is another way to give them an adequate opportunity to think on the spot (and to demonstrate the value of collaborative work). Having the students write in response to a question (see 3 above) works well for the first round, because it allows the participants to work individually on a relatively simple task. In succeeding rounds, you can up the ante and ask them to work in pairs, or in small groups, and to do ever more complex tasks.


6. Wrap up: Don’t drag it out – even if people are having a good time, wrap it up at the designated ending time. Don’t just let it die of its own accord – provide some closure. About 5 to 15 minutes before the ending time, stop the discussion and ask participants to write down “one thing you've learned to do OR one thing you’re learned not to do.”  Collect their responses – list on board or just read aloud. If you made a handout with advice, and didn’t give it out earlier, give it to the participants to take home.

      You may want to record the responses (what they’ve learned) and/or a list of the concerns and solutions that were actually discussed in the workshop. You can pass this information on to the participants to help reinforce the points that were made, and/or you can keep it for future reference and publication.  (How you do this will depend on the technology you are using.)


This method is based primarily on an article passed on by Bill Bernhardt (Toby Fulwiler: Writing Workshops and the Mechanics of Change. WPA: Writing Program Administration, Vol 12, No. 3, Spring 1989)


Last update 6/18/09