Training techniques to enhance learner participation and engagement

Creative Commons License: CC-BY Questions:
  • What does make a training effective?

  • How can instructors enhance learner participation and engagement?

  • Describe what makes training effective

  • Describe what makes a trainer effective

  • Identify some strategies that facilitate active, interactive and collaborative learning

Time estimation: 60 minutes
Supporting Materials:
Published: Sep 23, 2022
Last modification: Nov 3, 2023
License: Tutorial Content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. The GTN Framework is licensed under MIT
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Effective training

Comment: Resources / Reading recommendation

This tutorial is significantly based on the 3rd session of ELIXIR Train the Trainer curriculum, but also:

To get ready to teach this tutorial


In this tutorial, we will cover:

  1. Effective training & good trainer
  2. Effective training practices for effective learning
    1. Active, interactive and collaborative learning
    2. Peer instruction
    3. Flipped classroom
  3. Other teaching practices for active learning
  4. Practices and behaviors to improve delivery and learning
  5. Conclusion

Effective training & good trainer

Hands-on: What makes training effective and a good trainer? - time 10 min - Discussion in groups of 2
  • Recall concrete examples of your past training experience
  • Share with your colleague
  • List 3 keywords for effective training
  • List 3 keywords for a good trainer
Quiz: What makes training effective and a good trainer?

Check your knowledge with a quiz!

  • Self Study Mode - do the quiz at your own pace, to check your understanding.
  • Classroom Mode - do the quiz synchronously with a classroom of students.

Training / teaching is effective if

  • brings learners to Learning Objectives (LO)
  • is engaging
  • is well designed

A trainer / teacher is effective when they

  • facilitates learning
  • sets clear LOs
  • identifies appropriate LEs
  • is engaging
  • is inspiring
  • is empathetic
  • is accessible

To help trainers, GOBLET (Global Organisation for Bioinformatics Learning, Education & Training (GOBLET)) developed this skill matrix:

Skill matrix with 2 rows and 2 columns. Top-left - Communication: Verbal communication skills, Written communication skills, Presentation Skill. Top-right - Planning & management: Session planning, Curriculum planning, Event management. Bottom-left: Expertise & knowledge: Subject area knowledge, User application awareness, Knowledge of training methodology. Bottom-right - Trainee engagement: Flexibility in delivery, Empathy with trainees, Understanding & knowledge of trainees. . Open image in new tab

Figure 1: Skills matrix for a good trainer. Source: Global Organisation for Bioinformatics Learning, Education and Training (GOBLET)

The idea is that there are four areas in which a good trainer should be or become skilled. In many cases, trainers focus on the area of communication and are less aware about their “level” in the other areas.

This matrix is then a tool for self evaluation:

  • In which area(s) do you feel you would need improvement?
  • In which area(s) do you feel you are ok?
Hands-on: Reflect on your skills as a trainer? - time 5 min - Silent reflection
  • Look at the GOBLET Skill Matrix
  • Reflect on the following questions
    • Which areas do you need to develop in?
      • Communication
      • Planning & management
      • Trainee engagement
      • Expertise & knowledge
    • Which skills do you need to improve in communication?
      • Written communication skills
      • Presentation skills
      • Verbal communication skills
    • Which skills do you need to improve in planning & management?
      • Session planning
      • Curriculum planning
      • Event management
    • Which skills do you need to improve in trainee engagement?
      • Flexibility in delivery
      • Empathy with trainees
      • Understanding & knowledge of trainees
    • Which skills do you need to improve in expertise & knowledge?
      • Subject area knowledge
      • User application awareness
      • Knowledge of training methodology

Global Organisation for Bioinformatics Learning, Education & Training (GOBLET) aims to coordinate world-wide bioinformatics training activities:

  • to share, not duplicate, effort;
  • to share, not duplicate, cost;
  • to work together in a mutually respectful way towards common solutions and a sustainable future

Effective training practices for effective learning

We are now going to watch a short video (13 min) from Eric Mazur, professor at the Harvard University,

In this video, Eric Mazur discusses some of these teaching practices and a paradigm change: from the traditional lecture to active learning-based approaches. Can you recognise the main features of this change of paradigm?

Hands-on: Reflect on Mazur's interview - time 5 min - Silent reflection
  • Write something that really impressed you in Mazur’s interview

From the Eric Mazur’s interview but also as Mitchell Waldrop pointed out in Waldrop 2015, learners who actively interact with the material, the teacher, and other learners:

  • will learn better and more
  • will better remember what they learn
  • will be more able to apply their knowledge to different fields

In other words, for learning to actually occur, instructors should select teaching practices (learning experiences) that promote active, interactive and collaborative learning, what Mazur expresses as “learning by doing”.

Let’s discuss a few more insights about active learning and stress the main differences between the most used technique worldwide (Lecturing) and the active learning approach. You will see that we are talking about an actual change of paradigm.

Active, interactive and collaborative learning

From Felder and Brent 2009, Active Learning (also called “Guide on the side”) is anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening and taking notes (aka typical teachning practice or “Sage on stage” approach):

Typical teaching practice: lecturing Active learning
Teacher-centered Student-centered
Teaching by telling Teaching by questioning
Teacher speaks and students listen Collaborative learning
Few interactions student/teacher and student/student High interactivity (student/teacher, and student/student)
Few questions Discussion with teacher follows, not precedes
The same few students engaged All students engaged

Do you recognise the paradigm change proposed by Eric Mazur?

With the help of Mazur, you hopefully started believing that active, interactive and collaborative learning is worth considering and deserves you give it a go in one of your future training courses.Should this be the case, you may have questions like:

  • how do I choose the active learning techniques for my lessons?
  • what “active learning” means in terms of “teaching / training practices”?
  • which is the most effective technique I can incorporate in my teaching?
  • is there any “ideal” teaching technique I should absolutely learn?

There is not “the” ideal teaching technique nor the “most effective” teaching technique.

You may remember from the Nichols’ steps of curriculum design, that it is essential that you align learning experiences to the learning outcomes of your course. In other words, for each LO, you should identify the learning experience(s) that will best support the achievement of the LO.

More generally, to decide how to teach and choose the most appropriate learning experience(s), you may use three criteria:

  • What is your purpose / goal (is it to inspire learners? is it to ensure they will remember a concept?)
  • The Bloom’s level at which you intend to teach (a specific topic; this may change from topic to topic)
  • The learning outcome(s) the learning experience is designed for

    For example, a lecture is not suitable to teach learners implement an algorithm. It may show how to do it, so that they may be able to describe how to do it, but if you want them to be able to do it, you will have to choose a learning experience where learners will have the chance to practice algorithm implementation.

Inspired by Eric Mazur and the idea of active learning, Via et al. 2020 created this useful table to reinforce the concepts discussed in previously and provide with criteria to choose the most suitable learning experience(s) for the Bloom’s level, TG(s) and LO(s):

Learning experience Highest Bloom’s levels supported Example TG(s) “This LE will allow me to…“ Example LO(s) “Learners will be able to…“
Lecture, webinar Remember, Comprehend Inspire learners, ignite learners’ enthusiasm, clarify/explain a concept, provide an overview, give context, summarise content list the key points of the lecture/webinar, summarise take home message(s)
Exercise, practical Apply, Analyse Help learners digest course materials, solve typical problems, apply knowledge, show how to do things with appropriate guidance, give an idea of how a tool works follow a set of instructions or protocol, calculate a set of results or outcomes from a given protocol
Flipped class Apply, Analyse Teach learners how to formulate questions, help learners to memorise new information & concepts, or analyse & understand course materials summarise the content material, ask appropriate questions
Peer instruction Synthesise, Evaluate Prepare learners to defend an argument, give learners opportunities to explain things, thereby helping to develop critical thinking & awareness explain how they solved an exercise, evaluate others’ choices/decisions, diagnose errors in the exercise-solving task
Group discussion Synthesise, Evaluate Give learners opportunities to practice questioning, develop new ideas & critical thinking communicate their own ideas, defend their own opinions
Group work Synthesise, Evaluate Promote collaborative work & peer instruction, provide opportunities for giving/receiving feedback, & digesting course materials provide feedback on their peers’ work, share ideas, explain the advantages of team-work
Problem-solving Synthesise, Evaluate Promote learner abilities to identify & evaluate solutions, develop new ideas, make decisions, evaluate decision effectiveness, troubleshoot diagnose faulty reasoning or an underperforming result, correct errors
Comment: Learning experience vs Teaching practice

In the table, Learning experience (from the learner point of view) is the Teaching practice (from the teacher point of view).

You should be kind of familiar with some of the learning experiences listed in the table, e.g., lecture/webinar, group discussion, work in groups, problem solving. Some of you might not be familiar with the techniques of “peer instruction” and “flipped classroom”.

These two techniques can be implemented in many different ways and incorporated into your course in a “light way” or very extensively. This will depend on your familiarity with the technique. At the beginning, our suggestion is that you try with something “minima”, test it, see how you feel and how learners receive it, and then you increase the amount of learning experiences involving peer instruction and flipped classroom.

Peer instruction

Peer instruction is a 1-to-1 instruction done in a scalable way by interleaving formative assessment with learner discussion.

In its “traditional” form, the teacher

  1. Gives a brief introduction to the topic.
  2. Gives learners a multiple choice question (MCQ) that probes for their misconceptions
  3. Has all the learners vote on their answers to the MCQ
    1. If the learners all have the right answer, move on
    2. If they all have the same wrong answer, address that specific misconception
    3. If they have a mix of right and wrong answers, give them several minutes to argue with each other in groups of 2–4, then vote again

You may also be creative and implement this technique in your own way.

It has been studied extensively in a wide variety of contexts, including programming (references??). Learners value peer instruction even at first contact.

Group discussion significantly improves learners’ understanding. It uncovers gaps in their reasoning and forces them to clarify their thinking. Re-polling the class then lets the teacher know if they can move on or if further explanation is necessary. A final round of additional explanation after the correct answer is presented gives learners one more chance to solidify their understanding.

Peer discussion actually does enhance understanding. Even when none of the learners in a discussion group originally knew the correct answer. As long as there is a diversity of opinion within the group, their misconceptions cancel out.

Flipped classroom

In its standard approach,

  1. Before the course, out of class, students prepare to participate in class activities
  2. During the course in the class, students practice applying key concepts with feedback
  3. After the course, out of class, students check their understanding and extend their learning

Flipping class requires a lot of preparation. The teacher need to explain the method to learners and make an “agreement” with them: they have to commit to work on the materials you will give them prior the flipped class and you will commit to give them “manageable” materials.

Don’t start by flipping an entire course. Start small. Test. Add up.

Other teaching practices for active learning

  • Brief question-and-answer sessions: a classic to distribute attention

    When doing, the teachers should make sure that everybody has a voice and that attention is fairly distributed

    Tools like sticky notes could be used. Each learners write their name on a sticky note and put it on their laptop. Each time the teacher calls on them or answers one of their questions, they take their sticky note down. Once all the sticky notes are down, everyone puts theirs up again. It makes it easy for the teacher to see who they haven’t spoken with recently and to avoid unconscious bias and interacting preferentially with their most extroverted learners

    Without a check like this, it is too easy to create a feedback loop in which<>

    • Extroverts get more attention, leads to them doing better and leads to them getting more attention
    • Quieter, less confident, or marginalized learners are left behind

    Such tools shows learners that attention is being distributed fairly. When they are called on, they won’t feel like they’re being picked on

  • Think, pair, share: a lightweight technique that helps people improve ideas through discussion with their peers

    In this form of peer instruction, Teacher proposes an activity, a question, a problem and then follow 3 steps>

    1. THINK: Each person starts by thinking individually about it and jotting down a few notes
    2. PAIR: students explain their ideas to each other in pairs, merging them or selecting the most promising
    3. SHARE: a few pairs present their ideas to the whole group

    For example, a teacher asks a question (a problem to solve)

    1. Students THINKS singularly. The teacher can check results (technology can be used for that)
    2. Students talks in PAIRS and find an agreement. The teacher can check results
    3. Students SHARE their answers under the teacher’s guide

    Why does it work? It forces people to externalize their cognition and gives a chance to spot and resolve gaps or contradictions in their ideas before exposing them to a larger group

  • Take notes together / shared notes

    This form of real-time elaboration forces to organize and reflect on material as it’s coming in, which in turn increases the likelihood of transfer it to long-term memory

    It also allows people to compare what they think they’re hearing with what other people are hearing, and helps to fill in gaps and correct misconceptions right away.

    It gives the more advanced learners in the class something useful to do. Rather than getting bored and doing something else during class, they take the lead in recording what’s being said. They are kept engaged.

    It allows less advanced learners to focus more of their attention on new material.

    Finally, it provides the notes that are usually more helpful to learners than those the teacher would prepare in advance. Learners are more likely to write down what they actually found new rather than what the teacher predicted would be new.

  • Work in groups, e.g. with projects

  • Pair programming

    Used for Software development, two programmers work together on one computer:

    • One person (the driver) does the typing
    • The other (the navigator) offers comments and suggestions The two switch roles several times per hour. This practice is found effective in professional work

    For learning, 2 learners work together on 1 computer. They can help each other during practical exercises, clarify each other’s misconceptions when solution is presented and also discuss common interests during breaks.

    It is a good way to teach. It increases success rate in introductory courses, leads better software, higher learner confidence in their solutions and more benefits for learners from underrepresented groups

  • Discussions / debate with all learners (as for brief Q&A session, teachers should make sure that everybody has a voice)

  • Brainstorming with all learners (as for brief Q&A session, teachers should make sure that everybody has a voice)

  • Hands-on activities, e.g. running tools on their own, commands, analysis

    Galaxy is a great tool for that. That is why tutorials from the GTN are developed around that ideas.

    During training session, teachers could use sticky notes as status flags. They Give each learner two sticky notes of different colors, such as orange and green.

    If someone has completed an exercise and wants it checked, they put the green sticky note on their laptop. If they run into a problem and need help, they put up the orange one

    It is much better than having people raise their hands. It is more discreet and so students are more likely to actually do it. They keep working while their flag is raised rather than trying to type one-handed And teacher can quickly see from the front of the room what state the class is in.

    It is particularly helpful when people in mixed-ability classes are working through material at their own speed

  • Have learners make predictions

    Research has shown that people learn more from demonstrations if they are asked to predict what’s going to happen. It fits naturally into live coding / analysis: after adding or changing a few lines of a program, the teacher asks the class what is going to happen when it runs.

    If the example is even moderately complex, prediction can serve as a motivating question for a round of peer instruction.

  • Build an artefact, e.g. concept map

Hands-on: Which strategies for active learning training did you use? - time 5 min - Silent reflection

Which strategies for active learning training did you use? (Add +)

  • Peer instruction
  • Flipped-classroom
  • Brief question-and-answer sessions
  • Think, pair, share
  • Take notes together / shared notes
  • Work in groups
  • Pair programming
  • Discussions
  • Hands-on activities
  • Have learners make predictions / presentations
  • Build an artefact (e.g. concept map)

Practices and behaviors to improve delivery and learning

About teaching practices / learning experiences, we learned to

  1. Select learning experiences according to the criteria discussed earlier
    • reflect on your TG(s)
    • write LOs AND identify the corresponding Bloom’s level
  2. Select learning experiences allowing learners to achieve LOs
  3. Always remember that learning occurs BY DOING
  4. Be aware of other practices and behaviours supporting:
    • interactivity
    • a positive and engaging learning environment
    • active and collaborative learning
    • stimulating lessons
    • frequent feedback

Other teaching practices that can improve content delivery. Specially supporting

  • interactivity
  • a positive and engaging learning environment
  • active and collaborative learning
  • stimulating lessons
  • frequent feedback

Here are some examples of practices to achieve goals above. None of the practices described here are essential

  • Start with introductions
    • Begin by introducing yourself: If you’re an expert, tell them a bit about how you got to where you are. If you’re only two steps ahead of them, emphasize what you and they have in common. Whatever you say, the goals are to make yourself more approachable and encourage their belief that they can succeed.

    • Introduction of learners to each other

      • In a class of a dozen, it can be done verbally
      • In a larger class or if they are strangers to one another, you can have them each write a line or two about themselves in the shared notes or split into small groups or breakout rooms.
  • Pay attention on how you set up the learning environment (both in presence and online)

    • Learners environment: Send setup instructions per email before and have everyone run some tests at the beginning to check
    • Yours: Same as learners and food / drinks
  • Introduce blended multimedia materials to create engaging activities
  • Collect instant feedback (see dedicated tutorial)
  • Let learners do recaps: Organise recap sessions at the end of lessons or at the beginning of the following ones where learners are actively involved. You may ask them to do the recaps.

  • Repeat each questions aloud back to them before answering to ensure you and all the other learners understood the question and gives you a a chance to redirect the question to something you’re more comfortable answering

  • Introduce physical exercises, short, relaxing breaks: In day-long training courses, you may introduce very short sessions of stretching (or even one moment meditation and then doing 1 minute meditation together). You might feel ridiculous, but you have no idea of how learners appreciate these types of activities and how these create a relaxed climate in the class.

  • Introduce challenges or games: Gamification can be a very powerful and engaging technique. Before using gamification, it is though better to learn how to do it.

  • Never teach alone. Teach together. Whenever possible: With two or more trainers in the classroom, the class can be observed from different angles, it is easier to detect learners who are not comfortable or struggling or lagging behind. It is possible to provide one-to-one support without stopping the lesson flow. It is also important that trainers teaching together provide feedback to each other.

    • Team teaching: Both teachers deliver a single stream of content in tandem, taking turns like musicians taking solos.
    • Teach and assist: Teacher A teaches while Teacher B moves around the classroom to help struggling learners.
    • Alternative teaching: Teacher A provides a small set of learners with more intensive or specialized instruction while Teacher B delivers a general lesson to the main group.
    • Teach and observe: Teacher A teaches while Teacher B observes the learners, collecting data on their understanding to help plan future lessons.
    • Parallel teaching: The class is divided in two and the teachers present the same material simultaneously to each.
    • Station teaching: The learners are divided into small groups that rotate from one station or activity to the next while teachers supervise where needed.

    If you and a partner are co-teaching:

    • Take 2–3 minutes before the start of each class to confirm who’s teaching what. If you have time, try drawing or reviewing a concept map together.
    • Use that time to work out a couple of hand signals as well. “You’re going too fast”, “speak up”, “that learner needs help”, and, “It’s time for a bathroom break” are all useful.
    • Each person should teach for at least 10–15 minutes at a stretch, since learners will be distracted by more frequent switch-ups.
    • The person who isn’t teaching shouldn’t interrupt, offer corrections or elaborations, or do anything else to distract from what the person teaching is doing or saying. The one exception is to ask leading questions if the learners seem lethargic or unsure of themselves.
    • Each person should take a couple of minutes before they start teaching to see what their partner is going to teach after they’re done, and then not present any of that material.
    • The person who isn’t teaching should stay engaged with the class, not catch up on their email. Monitoring the shared notes, keeping an eye on the learners to see who’s struggling, jotting down some feedback to give your teaching partner at the next break—anything that contributes to the lesson is better than anything that doesn’t.
    • Take a few minutes when the class is over to congratulate or commiserate with each other
  • Assess prior knowledge and mental models to tailor the lesson on learners’ actual needs, to address misconceptions, to learn about your learners (see dedicated tutorial). The more you know about your learners before you start teaching, the more you will be able to help them.

  • Learn learners names and use them

  • Avoid homework in All-day formats: Learners who have spent an entire day programming will be tired. If you give them homework to do after hours, they’ll start the next day tired as well.

Each of the techniques presented here will make your classes better, but you shouldn’t try to adopt them all at once. The reason is that every new practice increases your cognitive load as well as your learners’, since you are all now trying to learn a new way to learn as well as the lesson’s subject matter. If you are working with a group repeatedly, you can introduce one new technique every few lessons; if you only have them for a one-day workshop, it’s best to pick just one method they haven’t seen before and get them comfortable with that.


Question: What is the highest Bloom’s level supported by each teaching technique? - time 5 min - Silent reflection
  1. What is the highest Bloom’s level supported by Peer instruction?
    • Remember
    • Understand
    • Apply
    • Analyze
    • Evaluate
    • Create
  2. What is the highest Bloom’s level supported by Peer instruction?
    • Remember
    • Understand
    • Apply
    • Analyze
    • Evaluate
    • Create
  3. What is the highest Bloom’s level supported by Flipped-classroom?
    • Remember
    • Understand
    • Apply
    • Analyze
    • Evaluate
    • Create
  4. What is the highest Bloom’s level supported by Brief question-and-answer sessions?
    • Remember
    • Understand
    • Apply
    • Analyze
    • Evaluate
    • Create
  5. What is the highest Bloom’s level supported by Think, pair, share?
    • Remember
    • Understand
    • Apply
    • Analyze
    • Evaluate
    • Create
  6. What is the highest Bloom’s level supported by Take notes together / shared notes?
    • Remember
    • Understand
    • Apply
    • Analyze
    • Evaluate
    • Create
  7. What is the highest Bloom’s level supported by Work in groups?
    • Remember
    • Understand
    • Apply
    • Analyze
    • Evaluate
    • Create
  8. What is the highest Bloom’s level supported by Pair programming?
    • Remember
    • Understand
    • Apply
    • Analyze
    • Evaluate
    • Create
  9. What is the highest Bloom’s level supported by Discussions?
    • Remember
    • Understand
    • Apply
    • Analyze
    • Evaluate
    • Create
  10. What is the highest Bloom’s level supported by Hands-on activities?
    • Remember
    • Understand
    • Apply
    • Analyze
    • Evaluate
    • Create
  11. What is the highest Bloom’s level supported by Have learners make predictions / presentations?
    • Remember
    • Understand
    • Apply
    • Analyze
    • Evaluate
    • Create
  12. What is the highest Bloom’s level supported by Build an artefact (e.g. concept map)?
    • Remember
    • Understand
    • Apply
    • Analyze
    • Evaluate
    • Create