2 Ways to Give Power Back to Learners

As a facilitator, it’s all too easy to do the work of being a student. Instead of letting students struggle or form their thoughts, we offer a “here, let me…” or a quick “oh, I can show you.”

We’re just trying to be helpful. It’s human nature to offer a hand when you see another person struggle. But in the case of learning, that helpfulness can actually be a hinderance, especially to novice learners. So, how do you resist the urge to be “helpful” and step back to let learners do the work of learning?

I offer two helpful strategies: the deliberate pause and the arm hold.

Deliberate Pause

Taking a deliberate two second pause in front of a class can feel like an eternity. How about a six or seven second pause? The time seems to move at glacial speed.

Oftentimes during a lecture or presentation, we’ll throw out a question to students. It will probably be predetermined, and we might even have a specific answer in mind. We’ll wait an uncomfortable second or two, and then either answer the question ourselves or move onto the next topic.

It can be tough to fight the natural reaction to avoid an awkward pause. But taking a deliberate pause and letting learners do the work of learning allows them to sit with their thoughts and feelings. It gives power to learners as they grapple with complex ideas. Prior to this experience, we as facilitators have had the opportunity to think deeply about the question at hand. Learners haven’t. This might even be the first time they’ve thought about a certain topic.

So, ask a question and then take a deep breath. Count to six or seven seconds in your head if you need to. And then try not to expect an immediate reaction from learners. Remember, if they do give an immediate reaction, perhaps they aren’t thinking deeply enough about the question at hand. By giving students time and space to answer a question, we’re promoting deeper learning because they have time to think of good answers (which isn’t usually their first answer).

Another tip is to reframe the question. Sometimes I’ll ask the initial question and then follow it up after 5-6 seconds with “put another way. . .” You can also try moving to a different spot in the room or adjusting a piece of jewelry. These tasks give you something to focus on other than the discomfort of waiting for the discussion to begin.

Arm Hold

Another great strategy to give power back to learners is what I call the “arm hold.” I actually learned this strategy from watching Barbara Oakley in her wonderful MOOC called Learning How to Learn. It is one of my favourite resources on how to study and learn effectively.

She discusses the natural tendency of teachers to want to “help” learners by taking over. Whether it’s taking over the mouse or writing out the equation, we can’t help ourselves. We want the learners to “get there,” and that usually involves showing the learners exactly how to get there. But if they can’t get there themselves, have we really succeeded? I don’t think so.

To overcome this reflex, try crossing your arms behind your back. For example, if you are helping a student solve a problem, cross your arms so you can avoid writing the equation or solution for them. Today, I was trying to help a student troubleshoot an Internet problem. My initial reaction was to grab the mouse and take over the computer. But then the student wouldn’t know what to do the next time something like this happened. So I crossed my arms and helped guide the student by asking questions and guiding them along when necessary.

These strategies will give learners more autonomy and show them that you trust them to get “there”, wherever there may be. Give it a try and let me know if it works!


Wait image taken from Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/jRE-2tH2Bvk

Lecturing – Alive and Well?

It wasn’t until recently that I learned to appreciate the value of a good lecture. Attending university (x2) had made me resent them. But now that I understand how they can be done well, I’m excited to learn more!

Nerd Nite 101

Last year, I became obsessed with Nerd Nite in Edmonton. This event happens all over the world, and the setup is always the same. Each month is themed, and three experts in their given fields have 20 minutes each to deliver a lecture and follow up with a short Q and A. This month, one of the presenters spoke about their experience with bondage. It was one of the most interesting lectures I have heard. He shared bondage’s history, present interpretations, examples, personal photos, and even brought in props. He helped us see that bondage is so much more than “erotica.”

A bonus? The pacing of the lecture didn’t overwhelm the audience’s cognitive load. He presented exactly enough information (at the right time) while adding humor, passion, and credibility. It was clear this guy knew his stuff, and even though he was an expert, he didn’t speak to the audience as if they were, too. The presenter made people feel comfortable through his cadence and style to process what he was saying.

I have Nerd Nite to thank for restoring my faith in lecturing. After all, any form of teaching can be bad or good. What is interesting about the lecture is that most people have visceral opinions about it. It appears as though the university lecture has been shunned in the age of active learning. But I think it can still play an important role in the right learning conditions.

Sell it to Me

I don’t think lecturing is always the best fit for student learning. But there’s a reason events like TED Talks and Nerd Nite exist. It’s also why people like Tony Robbins can sell out whole arenas with the promise of a life-changing lecture. What’s different from these lectures and the stereotypical “university lecture” is that they engage the audience. They chunk the content into short blocks (no longer than 20 minutes) and usually provide activities for people to process what they learning. In fact, in his book, Dynamic Lecturing, Todd Zakrajsek shares that the key to a good lecture is engagement.

As he explained in a podcast episode, people still read texts because they are interested in what they can learn. A lecture is similar to a text, but it offers affordances other than the written word. A speaker can inspire, inform, and invigorate learners to action through their words and gestures. It can bring the words to life.

It is common to hear that lecturers should not present longer than 10 minutes on a topic. Recent research by Wilson and Korn, however, suggests there are a number of considerations. For example, what are the learners’ levels? Lecturing to a novice audience will be different from an expert audience. Are they engaged? If so, maybe they are comfortable with a longer lecture at that time. While there are many factors, I still think best practice is to spend no more than 10-15 minutes lecturing, because after that students’ attention tends to fatigue. The next step isn’t to let students to take a break, but to apply what they are learning.

Planning Pointers

To plan a lecture, consider some of these pointers:

Consider the goals of the lecture: When designing a lecture, consider its purpose and the main takeaways. Then, you can determine active strategies to help learners engage with the content and make sure they are reaching the goals and point of meeting in person.

Consider the capacity of learners: You love talking about your content because you’ve had time to research and update your delivery. However, this may be the first time learners are hearing these concepts. Consider when to pause so that students can process the material. Remember to “read the room” and pivot when learners are nearing saturation point.

And when you’ve done all the planning you can take, go for it! Try the following strategy when you’re ready.

Film yourself: I borrowed the Swivl and recorded myself presenting. At first, it was a little awkward, but eventually I forgot about it being in the room. When I reviewed the recording, I learned that I didn’t let students “pause” long enough to answer my questions. I didn’t want learners to feel bad, so after about 5 seconds, I usually answered the question myself. Obviously, this doesn’t help learning, but I wouldn’t have known about it if I hadn’t recorded myself.


Wilson, K, and Korn, J. H. Attention during lectures: Beyond ten minutes. Teaching of Psychology, 34(2), 85-89.

Lecture Image from Unsplash.com: https://unsplash.com/photos/R6xx6fnvPT8