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Summary

  • We designed and delivered online facilitator training to engaged EAs in Australia and New Zealand. Participants included community leaders and staff at EA organisations. 
  • The training course covered key elements of facilitation, including asking questions, active listening, planning and preparation, reading the room, and managing participants. 
  • We conducted an evaluation of the course, which found that participants were very confident the course was very helpful for their facilitation practice, and identified the practical exercises with rapid reflection and feedback as key components that made the course valuable for them. 
  • We believe that facilitation training, implemented effectively, could assist community building in Effective Altruism by improving learning, group discussions, and successful events.

We were motivated to develop and deliver facilitation training because it’s an important ‘soft skill’ in community building

Our motivation

We are two academics with extensive experience in teaching, training, and facilitation, who also are engaged in the Effective Altruism community in Australia. After working with the team at BlueDot Impact early in 2023 to revise their training for course facilitators, we thought that a similar approach could be useful for community leaders and community-facing staff at EA organisations. 

We think that facilitation in particular is an important “soft skill” in supporting learning, productive group interactions, and successful events. Facilitation is distinct from instructing, managing, or event planning.

While lecturing is “sage on the stage”, facilitation is “guide by the side”. We think that a lot of EA community building involves being a ‘guide by the side’, consistent with valuing autonomy, critical thinking, and supporting the development of intrinsic motivations to act in alignment with EA values.

Some of the specific skills involved in being this ‘guide’ include asking good questions, helping people feel like their contributions were heard, navigating group dynamics and energy, adapting to unexpected situations, and managing participant disagreement or conflict. A good facilitator clarifies and advances the shared purpose of the group. 

Participants’ motivation

We sought interest from prospective participants in Australia and New Zealand with an identified need for improving their facilitation practice. 14 people expressed interest and we invited 11 to participate. We asked participants to complete a pre-survey to help us understand their specific needs for facilitation practice. Some of the needs that participants expressed:

  • Improving skills in leading engaging discussions. For example, they wanted to be able to draw people into conversations, ask the right questions to encourage reflection (e.g., in a reading group, or in an EA introductory fellowship), and guiding discussions towards topics of interest to participants (e.g., managing vocal or dominant members, or recurring but unproductive topics of discussion).
  • Developing empathy and a better understanding of group dynamics. For example, they wanted to be able to pick up on emotional states and discomfort (so it could be addressed), identify and resolve blocks for discussion or decision-making, or encourage participants to be active learners or otherwise promote practical action from attendees. 
  • Improving enjoyment, inclusion, and engagement at planned events. For example, they held frequent networking events, community meetups, workshops, working bees, or other meetings with community members.

We developed and delivered an online facilitation training course using Miro, Zoom, and Google Docs

Development Process

We previously worked with BlueDot Impact in Jan-Feb 2023 to design and deliver training for facilitators of the revised AI Safety Fundamentals program. The format of that training was two 90 minute online sessions (1 per week), with about 1-2 hours of pre-reading or written exercises as preparation.

In March 2023 we decided we wanted to offer similar training to people in community-facing roles in EA. We adapted much of the structure and content to fit a broader audience with different needs (i.e., BlueDot had content area experts who needed some group facilitation and teaching skills; community organisers support many types of group events of varying types).

Course learning outcomes

This program aims to improve facilitation skills and confidence, enabling organisers to effectively support learners and participants in various planned activities such as Effective Altruism introductions, Reading Groups, Hackathons, and Conferences.

Week 1: Facilitation introduction and values

By the end of the session, participants will

  • Reflect on their values for facilitating group discussions and learning, as distinct from instructing or teaching
  • Practice facilitation and receive feedback from peers

Week 2: Facilitation strategies and improvement

By the end of the session, participants will

  • Know a model of live facilitation based on asking questions
  • Practice strategies for managing small online & in-person discussions
  • Understand the evidence about more effective and less effective learning activities
  • Give, receive, and apply constructive feedback for facilitation


 

We designed learning activities using Miro and Google docs, ran sessions with Zoom, and collected participant data through Google forms. 

One model of facilitation adapted from Jones (2020) Mastering Facilitation is APPLES, which provides a basic cyclical process framework for group discussions. It involves Asking questions, Pausing for thought, Picking a person, Listening to contributions, Elaborating on what a person said, and Summarising contributions from people. We adapted APPLES to be less strict, and also provided some elaboration on each stage. The ‘core’ of the adapted APPLES process is to consistently reflect on the question: “What is our purpose right now?” Keeping the group’s purpose in mind can help a facilitator what kinds of questions to Ask, who (or whether) to Pick, what themes to emphasise when Summarising, etc.

Adapted APPLES model for facilitation. This basic cyclical process framework describes six actions for facilitating group discussions. Used without permission from Jones (2020) Mastering Facilitation

Participant experience

Participants completed 1-2 hours of pre-reading (videos, book chapters, online articles) and reflection exercises each week. They then attended a two-hour online workshop with learning activities designed to help them practice facilitation skills in a supportive environment, and receive fast feedback on their practice. Readings and activities were varied, but were designed to support the learning outcomes for each week.

Participant learning and evaluation activities for the facilitator training course

Example of individual learning activity

The individual learning activities used a combination of readings and reflective prompts / questions implemented through Google Forms.

ResourcesReflective prompt / question

Facilitating a group (1998)

Dale Hunter (20 mins)

In this chapter of the book The Facilitation of Groups, Hunter, Bailey & Taylor set out their perspective on group dynamics, the role of a facilitator in supporting groups, and especially a long set of considerations ("guidelines") that a facilitator can bring to a group. 

The section "Guidelines for a facilitator", pp 36-43 [pp 6-13 in the PDF] is a list of practical mindsets and actions that can help facilitators inhabit their role in supporting participants to work together.

Guidelines for effective facilitation

Pick two of the guidelines for facilitation mentioned in the Facilitating a group (Hunter, 1998) resource. 

It is a long list, so feel free to skim it for two that resonate with you.

For each, name the guideline and describe how you could implement it in a future event.

 

Examples of group learning activities

Below are two examples of learning activities implemented on Miro, an online collaboration platform / digital whiteboard.

Example 1: Group discussion

The purpose of this activity was to examine tension between common 'failure states' in facilitation and derive values or principles for better practice. One of the participants acted as a facilitator to guide discussion, the others acted as participants in the discussion. Miro supports simultaneous use of sticky notes, arrows, shapes, image embedding, etc. After a set time (e.g., 15 minutes), facilitators and participants spend a few minutes writing self-reflection and feedback on practice.

An example of a Miro-based facilitation training activity. 

Example 2: Critique and redesign of existing activity using evidence-based learning design

The purpose was to understand evidence-based learning principles and techniques by critiquing & redesigning an existing learning activity. Over a 40 minute block, one participant took the role of facilitator and led the constructive criticism section for 15 minutes. Then, they swapped roles and another participant facilitated the redesign section and how to apply the principles to future events or facilitation practice in general. Finally, all participants spent time providing feedback to the participants who took on the role of facilitators.

An example of a more in-depth Miro-based facilitation training activity. 

Participants found the course very useful for improving their facilitation practice

We conducted more than one type of evaluation to try and make the course as useful as possible for participants. We drew on our significant experience in teaching, supervising, facilitating, and consulting to (1) test our assumptions about the participants and their needs, (2) collect data during the course to follow-up with participants and/or make adjustments to the course materials to maintain engagement; (3) measure the impact of the course for helping participants improve their facilitation practice.

We tested our assumptions about what the course should focus on, and tweaked it to make it as useful as possible

Before the course started, we tested our assumptions about the focus, format and content by asking several questions about participants’ current and goal facilitation practice in a survey (e.g., ‘Which area of facilitation is the highest priority for you to develop?’)

We used the responses to make several adjustments to the course materials and format. 

For example:

  • Most participants were not complete beginners in facilitation, so we could skip basic introductory content, and also include activities that asked participants to reflect on previous facilitation experiences.
  • Many of the answers suggested that participants wanted to develop skills and confidence in managing group dynamics and giving constructive feedback. We were planning to focus on different skills initially, so we added some additional activities for these areas.

We kept track of participant flow and experience throughout the course, and checked up on issues that arose during the course activities

Keeping track of who was attending sessions and why was useful for checking in with participants who were less engaged with the course and offering them support. This kind of check-in would be especially useful in a longer course, where early intervention can help get people ‘back on track’, or increase the likelihood of them getting something valuable from the course.

We kept track of who attended and who completed different learning activities. This helped us check-in with participants, and also calibrate our expectations for how prepared participants were for each online session.

Mini-retrospectives were especially useful for us to adjust our approach between sessions, such as by tweaking an activity, or including an additional exercise for participants to complete.

A screenshot of an in-session retrospective to help us as course designers adjust our approach to future activities and sessions. This also helped demonstrate one of the learning outcomes: giving and receiving feedback.

Participants found the course helpful, slightly improved their confidence, and gave positive public feedback

We used a pre- and post-survey to assess changes in confidence, whether their goals for facilitation were met, how helpful they found the training, and whether they’d recommend the course to others. 

  • Participants’ confidence in their facilitation practice slightly improved over the course (0.5 on a 5 point scale). We asked about five different areas of facilitation, including asking questions, active listening, planning and preparation, reading the room, and managing participants. Due to the small sample size (9 completing pre-survey, 7 completing post-survey), we directly compared the means for each facilitation area. Participants reported a small increase in confidence for all areas, with the smallest increase in "Asking Questions" and the largest increase in "Managing Participants".
  • Participants judged the training as very helpful for their facilitation practice, with a median rating of 5 ("very helpful") on a 5 point scale from “Very harmful” to “Very helpful”.
  • Participants thought it was ‘likely’ that the training improved their facilitation practice, with a median likelihood rating that the training was helpful as “Likely (80-95% chance)”, on a 7 point scale from “Very unlikely (less than 5% chance)” to “Very likely (more than 95% chance)”.
  • The course met participants’ facilitation needs, as identified in the pre-survey with the ‘user story’ item (“As a X, when it comes to facilitation, I need Y so that I can Z”). 4 out of the 5 (80%) participants who could recall their response to the pre-survey said that the course met the need.
  • Participants were very likely to recommend the course to others. The course's Net Promoter Score was 71 (i.e., 71% [5/7] of participants responded with 9 or 10), on a scale of 0 - not at all likely, to 10 - extremely likely.

In addition to these quantitative indicators for participant outcomes, we also invited participants to write a public testimonial, with optional attribution. Five chose to write testimonials and all five agreed to have the testimonial attributed to them (for this article, we have omitted names). 

  • The course exceeded my expectations, despite already knowing Mike and Zan's credentials. It is a lot of learning by doing which was perfect and I think it might be the densest value for time piece of professional development I've ever done.
  • This facilitator training course allowed me to practice facilitation skills in a supportive environment and helped me to refine and improve my techniques. I feel more confident in facilitating future sessions after this course.
  • I found the most valuable aspect of the training to be its highly interactive practice and resources which reinforced learning further by focusing on facilitation as the practice-based subject matter
  • This course was great because it took a topic that I thought was easy, and proved to me just how much I had to learn. It felt great to be humbled and see pathways to improvement I didn't recognise before.
  • The knowledge and depth of understanding was clearly articulated. It was a great reminder and inspiration to incorporate theory into practice

A three-month follow-up found lasting changes in facilitation confidence and skills, more experimentation in events, and limited community impact

In a follow-up survey three months after the training, we asked participants to describe the most significant changes in their practice across three domains:

  • Confidence and facilitation skills
  • Engagement and participation in events they facilitated
  • The EA community, attributable to facilitation practice

When it comes to confidence and facilitation skills, people reported adopting more active listening, summarising and checking understanding micro-skills. Participants also described an increased confidence in drawing on group and team resources and skills, indicating a shift from a leader-centric to a more participatory approach. One participant mentioned the value of the training for increasing their confidence in other group settings, such as filming vox pop interviews with members of the public. 

When it comes to engagement and participation in events, people reported more participation by event attendees in discussions and group activities like fellowships and book clubs. People also experimented with flexible, less structured approaches, allowing for greater agency among attendees

When it comes to broader impact on the EA community, there was limited evidence of change. One person reported that insights from the training were transferable in their mentoring EA community organisers, most reported limited or no noticeable changes within the EA community.

This follow-up suggests that the facilitator training offered participants’ tangible and transferable skills, and improved their confidence. These skills and confidence led to greater experimentation in small group discussions and other EA events. However, there is little evidence of this change in practice having a wider impact on the Australian and New Zealand EA community.

Conclusion

Facilitation training can be a useful tool for building confidence and skills in people who want to support more engaging, productive, and useful events and group discussions for members of the Effective Altruism community. The online course that we developed and implemented with Australian and New Zealand participants was well-received by participants, leading to increased confidence in their facilitation skills and practice, and positive feedback on the course content and delivery.

We think that versions of this course, or other support for EAs to develop their facilitation confidence and skills through deliberate practice and feedback, could be very useful for improving the quality of events, learning,  and group discussions in EA communities. 

At the same time, we have some concerns that the model is hard to scale. Some participants reported that the most valuable part of the training was the way we, as leaders, created an environment where people felt safe to fail, to try something new, to receive critical feedback, then to try something again. Our intuitions are that the motivational climate (i.e., the shared values and goals that support a set of actions) is very important for creating the psychological safety to practise “soft skills” that they might assume are easy or obvious, compared to “hard skills” such as cost-benefit analyses. This would imply that the setting, participants, and lead facilitators would need to be chosen carefully to create the right motivational climate for effective learning and facilitation practice change.

Access the course materials and offer for collaboration

We’d love to work with people who are interested in improving facilitation in the EA community - please contact Alexander Saeri or Michael Noetel. 

You can also request access to a shared Google folder with the facilitator online course materials directly; all reasonable requests will be granted!

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Dewi Erwan and the team at BlueDot Impact for inviting us to design and deliver facilitator training for the AI Safety Fundamentals, which we adapted for this course. Thank you to the participants in the course and evaluation. 

Author statement

Alexander Saeri and Michael Noetel jointly designed the course, including process, materials, and evaluation. GPT-4 was used by Alexander to assist in summarising text, thematic analysis, and initial drafting of parts of this article. All text in this article is attributable to Alexander Saeri and Michael Noetel. 

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:12 AM

As one of the people who attended the course I can say it was really really good! It (hopefully) shouldn't come as a surprise that a course on how to facilitate better was very well facilitated. The sessions were practical, engaging, and I learned a lot. 

This is my way of saying if you have the opportunity to attend the course, or have Mike and Zan run it, I highly recommend you do! 

I also attended the course and thought it was really well run!

Having access to courses like this to practice important skills is really important, and is the kind of thing that can be hard to access if you're working for a small non-profit. 

I think having training sessions like this available to broader groups of people who would benefit would be very beneficial!