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Sunday, August 9, 2015

How to Evaluate a Workshop

[Reformatted and revised slightly from my original post on the EuroSTAR blog.]

Why I prefer the workshop format

In the course of a typical year I speak and present about a dozen times at conferences, meet-ups and client sites. My preferred mode of presentation for most topics is a highly interactive workshop; I enjoy the interactions with my students and I always learn from them. Of course, workshops aren’t the only way to learn. For some topics they may not be the best way, but for many, a workshop can provide a deeper and more memorable learning experience than a lecture-style class like the ones we all endured at school.

There are always people who sign up for a workshop without understanding what to expect. Most participants dive in happily and enjoy the experience of working with, and learning from, their peers. But some feel cheated because they thought they were coming to acquire knowledge from an expert and there was no presentation to listen to. Where possible, I try to steer these attendees to alternative sessions that are a better fit for the way they prefer to learn.

In the subjects I teach there are no indisputable answers, no solutions that will apply to all contexts. That’s why I design workshops with opportunities for participants to explore the important areas of a subject and discover ways to arrive at answers that they can use in their own contexts.

So if you come to one of my workshops, what should you expect? How should you evaluate the workshop when it’s over?

What to expect at one of my workshops

I see a workshop as a collaborative effort. My role as the “presenter” is not to deliver material to passive learners, but rather to structure and facilitate experiences where everyone in the room has the opportunity to share knowledge and ideas and to learn new things.

You and the other students are active participants in the learning process with me. Interaction is central to the workshop model, as is the expectation that everyone has something valuable to contribute.  While we won’t quite be peers in the workshop operation—since I will be there as the person who designs and leads the session—some of the participants may well be my peers in knowledge or experience. They come to learn about the workshop topic, but they don’t expect all the learning to come from me as the leader. Instead, they expect to join with me in exploration, discovering new things (as well as reinforcing some old ones) that come out of the interactions I have designed and will guide.

Evaluate a workshop using criteria that fit the format

Teaching well takes skill and practice. The skills required to design and facilitate a good workshop are significantly different from those needed to prepare and deliver a good lecture.

Like most presenters, I work hard to grow and refine my teaching skills. I rely on participants’ comments to help me learn about what has and hasn’t worked in a session, and how I might improve for the next time. But I find that the standard conference evaluation forms rarely elicit useful workshop feedback, perhaps because they were designed for lecture-style sessions. I need participants to apply different criteria for evaluating workshops.  

The primary consideration is whether you found the workshop useful. If yes, asking some of the  more particular questions in the list that follows may help you articulate why it worked for you and how it might work even better. 

If no, the same questions may help you articulate why not.

Either way, a comment or two will help me (and other workshop leaders) continue to grow and offer good sessions in the future.

Questions that can help you evaluate a workshop

  • Learning
    • Did I learn something useful, wonderful and/or important?

    • Did the workshop challenge me and others to think?
      • Did I discover new ideas and understanding?
      • Did it help me to see things I already knew in a new light?
      • Did it provide opportunities to interact and learn from others?

  • Comfort and safety
    • Did I feel safe in the workshop (even if it took me outside my usual comfort zone)?
      • Was it okay to opt out of exercises and observe if I wanted to?
      • Were group sizes varied so that I had at least some opportunities to work with my preferences?

  • Design and structure
    • Was the workshop engaging?
      • Were there interesting and useful exercises?
      • Were groups sized appropriately for each exercise’s purpose?

    • Was the workshop well-structured? Were there:
      • Exercises building on learning from previous ones?
      • Opportunities to reflect on and consolidate what I learned?

  • Pace
    • Did the workshop move along at a reasonable pace?
      • Did it keep us energised or allow boring lags?

  • Leadership
    • Was the workshop leader warm and welcoming? Did she:
      • Listen to participants and acknowledge contributions?
      • Provide opportunities for everyone to contribute (and not allow loud voices to dominate)?
    • Did she lead the workshop capably?
      • Did she exhibit firm but unobtrusive guidance?
      • Was she flexible and able to work with emerging ideas and participants’ energy?

    • Did the leader guide discussions and debriefs so as to facilitate learning? Did she:
      • Ask good questions?
      • Speak knowledgeably about the workshop subject?

And finally...

  • Was there anything else that struck you about the workshop?


Friday, April 10, 2015

Women and Conference Keynotes

How do we get more women to speak at conferences? Or, a more basic question, how do we get more women to make satisfying careers in tech that they want to stay in and grow with? 

I think the two questions are linked. I don’t have simple answers. I don’t think there are any simple answers, but I do believe there are positive steps we can take. Anne-Marie Charrett and I have embarked on one with Speak Easy. Another important one is to highlight role models for tech-minded girls and women who are actually in tech. One place to do this is at conferences with keynotes by successful women with interesting ideas.

We don’t see enough women giving keynotes at software testing conferences. What’s “enough”?  Well, one would be good for a start! At least one at each conference, in fact.

I hear a couple of contra-arguments here.

One is that most conferences are businesses. Organizers want keynote speakers they believe will be a “draw”, speakers who’ll bring in the punters. And that’s fair enough.

But I look at it this way. Maybe you’re missing out on female punters who’d like to see more people like them. From what I hear and see, there’s a market of women testers out there that you’re not really tapping into. And you’re not attracting nearly enough women to submit track session proposals. Far more men than women are submitting conference proposals, more than seems warranted by the numbers of men and women in testing. 

Are you scaring the women off? Or could it be simply that they don’t see enough other women speaking? They don’t see a culture where women are regularly on the keynote podium. Could it be that in a very important way, they don’t really feel part of the culture?

I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this lack of visible role models were at least part of the answer.

Another argument I hear, primarily from younger women, is, “I don’t want to be chosen because I’m a woman. I want to be chosen for my experience and my ideas.”

You bet your booties, honey. So do I! So do we all. But (at the risk of sounding patronizing) I find young women’s post-feminist optimism shockingly naïve. Because before you can be chosen for your ideas, you have to have been considered. And men – and not only men, sometimes it’s women too – forget to consider women and their ideas more often than you’d think. Scouting for keynote speakers, they may forget you even exist. Still. In 2015.

I don't believe there's a vast male conspiracy in testing or test conferences, all joining together to keep good women down! In many ways, that would be easier to fight. I do think there's a general tendency to be oblivious: not to notice that there aren't (m)any women in the room or on the list, when actually, there should be. Because there are women of significant merit that they forgot to think about.

If it takes a quota to remind conference committees to expand their field of vision, then so be it. We all need reminders. We all have unconscious biases.

I think we are at a stage in human evolution where thoughtful people have to make conscious choices in order to overcome unconscious biases. It's natural for people to gravitate to the other people they feel most comfortable with, which very often means the people who are most like them.

A quota – say one woman keynote per conference – isn’t necessarily tokenism.

Let's say a bunch of people got together to do a job and suddenly realized that there weren't any men in the group. "Oh no", they said. "This looks terrible! People will accuse us of sexism if we don't have a man. Let's ask Paul. He won't make any waves (and we can get him to make the tea)."

But say the same group of people said instead, "Oh dear, this is starting to feel as if we've only looked at women candidates for our group. There's a whole pool of people we forgot to consider, and we know we would do a better job if we were more diverse. Paul would do a great job. He does excellent work, and is well respected in the community.  We know we will all work well together."

The first scenario is clearly tokenism, but is the second? Or is it simply a refocusing on the wider talent pool made possible by a conscious (however belated) attempt to overcome an unconscious bias?

I said on twitter that it’s shameful having no women keynotes at EuroSTAR 2015. I stand by that. The program committee chose excellent speakers. But given the talent pool of excellent women speakers, it's disgraceful that the committee didn’t expand its field of vision and choose at least one.

And it’s not just EuroSTAR, by the way. Take a look at StarCanada, only one other example. There are plenty of others.