Rethinking My Workshop Approach

On trying to improve the workshop experience for attendees.

workshops illustration

I ran my first workshop in 2014. Since then, I've taught over a dozen more. All of them have been about email marketing, design, and development, and they have mostly followed the same format. Most workshops have gone something like this:

  1. Housekeeping and introductions
  2. Lecture
  3. Show some code
  4. Student exercises
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 as needed
  6. Open Q&A session
  7. Point to extra learning resources
  8. Go home and get some sleep

As far as I can tell, this is a fairly standardized approach for tech workshops. I've only attended a few as a student, but they all used some variation on the pattern above.

Feedback from students has always been positive, with the biggest criticism being either, "The content was too basic" or, "The content was too complex". Which goes to show you can't please everyone. Running a workshop with a mix of skill levels is always a risky proposition. But I've never received any complaints about the format.

Yet, here I sit—the day after my last workshop of the year—wanting to blow up and completely rethink that workshop format. I'm not exactly what my new approach will consist of, but there's a few reasons why I'm rethinking things.

It's a Workshop, Not a Talk

My biggest complaint with the typical workshop format is that it's more like a lecture than a workshop. Most of the time is spent talking at students instead of working with them and encouraging them to get their hands dirty.

Think of the typical workshop of a carpenter: tools at the ready, scraps of wood strewn about the ground, a half-finished project sitting on a bench, sawdust covering it all. It's a place where someone can get a little sweaty, scratch up their knuckles but leave at the end of the day knowing that good work was done. That's the kind of workshop I want to spend time in. I imagine most students would feel the same way.

Don't get me wrong: every workshop will consist of some lecturing, and slides likely can't be avoided. But when it's two, three, or four hours or more of talking, things get rough. Try as I might to keep students engaged, I can only assume that a lot of them space out, play online, and work on other things after hour two. There has got to be a better format for a workshop. One that is more engaging and interactive. Less talk from me and more from the students. I want to figure out what that looks like.

People Learn in Different Ways

Not everyone learns the same way. Some people can follow along with a lecture and get what they need, some can look at code samples and understand concepts, and some can do both. Some people struggle doing any of the above. Some people prefer text. Some video. Some need strong visual cues or even music or sound to solidify ideas.

The format described above cannot possibly be ideal for everyone. So why do we stick to it?

There has to be a way to merge different learning techniques, types of media, and exercises to improve comprehension for students. My hunch is that it's going to require a lot of research, experimentation, and iteration to hit on what works, but I aim to figure it out.


The last reason I want to rethink the workshop format is that, after three years of running multiple workshops a year, I'm getting bored of it. It's nice following that format from a logistical standing since it makes prep relatively easy, but it's getting boring presenting the same variations over and over again.

I want to design and build a workshop format that engages not only the students, but myself as well. I think if I can make that happen, we'll all learn something and workshops will be hugely rewarding for everyone.

Again, I don't know what any of this will look like, but I want to spend the time to figure it out and see what I can come up with. I know that it will be a long process to test out. Yet I'm certain that it will be completely worth the energy, effort, and time.

I'm curious... If you've attended or run workshops in the past, how successful were they? What did they do well? What sucked? Email me using the link below and let me know.

Tell me about your experiences

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