To Design an Engaging Learning Session, use these strategies

  Consider Yourself a Facilitator of Learning
  Consider Yourself a Facilitator of Learning

Designing an engaging session begins with changing your perspective on your role as faculty.

Ask yourself…

  • What does it mean to facilitate vs. teach?
  • What would I need to do differently to be a facilitator instead of a teacher?

Compare these descriptions:

A teacher is a person who has the knowledge and/or content that others need or want. Teachers do much of the talking and ask for questions, which they in turn answer.

A facilitator of learning is a person who is navigating and/or leading a process whereby others are seeking to gain knowledge and/or make changes, as necessary. Facilitators of learning may have more knowledge but sometimes simply have different experiences that position them to lead others in discussions that will help colleagues develop new strategies and best practices. Facilitation requires getting attendees to be participants - i.e. getting the audience to be actively involved in their learning.

In the role of a facilitator, you will share less information (i.e., talk less) and instead prompt learners to participate in a discussion. Facilitating is a very different skill than teaching. You have to plan for it differently. When you facilitate a learning session, you focus on what you want the learners to know or know how to do and guide your learners to that outcome through discussions, prompts, sharing some content, and providing examples.

To plan for facilitating a session, start by creating a structure (e.g., a timed outline) for your session based on your learning objectives. Think about the content that needs to be covered to meet the objectives, but remember that you don’t have to deliver all of the content. Identify some questions that you can ask learners to generate a discussion related to the content that will help meet your objectives. Also, develop back-up questions that you can use if discussion is slow.

Engagement with learners through a discussion allows the learning process to both begin and unfold. Through engagement, learners have time to hear new information, sync it with their own schema (knowledge structures), and begin to modify or create their own knowledge and know how.

Tip

Faculty Tips:

  • Instead of leaving time at the end of a presentation for Q&A, build a presentation that engages learners in discussions throughout the session.
  • Build upon the knowledge and experience of participants to make your key points. Ask questions like, “Who can tell us…?” or statements like, “Let’s work to solve this case together.”
  • Be responsive to learners. When someone asks a question, integrate the question into a discussion with other learners with questions like, “How would others approach this situation?” or “Has anyone else had this experience? If so, what did you do?”
  • Affirm suggestions and examples.
  • Show enthusiasm and support for participation.
  • Use informal language that puts you and learners on the same level, such as, ”Let’s look at what we will be discussing today.” or “I know we have all struggled with this kind of situation.”
  • Use eye contact with participants.
  • Avoid confrontational verbal and non-verbal responses. Ask “why” or get additional information.
  • Support all ideas and questions but manage discussions to keep on topic. Consider using a “parking lot” for questions or points that are not germane to the immediate topic but could be referenced later if time permits.
  • Use gestures and body language that create openness with learners (e.g., walk away from the podium, walk across riser/stage to engage all learners, don’t cross arms).

Video Examples

Case Presentation How Frail Is Too Frail for VAD (23:10)
Faculty: Larry A. Allen, MD, FACC

Larry A. Allen, MD, FACC facilitates discussion throughout his presentation of two cases.

Faculty: Larry A. Allen, MD, FACC

Hide the Video

Case Based Family Evaluation: VUS, ECG Borderline, My Toughest Case (25:44)
Faculty: Andrew Krahn, MD, FRCPC, HRS

Andrew Krahn, MD, FRCPC, HRS engages learners throughout his session as they, together, discuss an ethical dilemma.

Faculty: Andrew Krahn, MD, FRCPC, HRS

Hide the Video

  Use Analogies and Share Stories
  Use Analogies and Share Stories

Ask yourself:

  • Who was the most engaging faculty/speaker you remember? How did they share their experiences? Did they share stories?
  • Did you share a story the last time you gave a presentation? (NOTE: Odds are you did.) Did you plan to share the story or did it just happen?

Some of the most engaging speakers hold our attention because they are masterful storytellers. Engaging speakers aren’t just telling stories, but using the story to make their points. The story itself isn’t the point, but instead is a bridge used to get learners to the main point. Stories themselves can be analogies that help people learn.

Remember that knowledge is stored with context in cognitive schemas (mental models). Experiences provide the context and allow learners to access their schema, so storytelling and analogies can be powerful. Analogies and stories can connect something new and unknown to something known and familiar.8 They can also illustrate key points by providing a context to which participants can relate and identify.

Consider the analogy embedded in this Albert Einstein quote.

Cardiology Magazine Image"Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving."Albert Einstein

By using the bicycle analogy, readers can think about their experiences riding a bike. Immediately, you can think about what it is like to try to balance on a bike not in motion — it’s hard! But, when you think about how much easier it is to balance on a bicycle when you are peddling and moving, you can very much appreciate and grasp Albert Einstein’s quote.

Although storytelling can be powerful, remember you are using the story in support of learning within a given timeframe. Share the parts of the story that are most relevant to the learning goals and that help you connect with your learners.


  1. Gentner, D. (2002). Psychology of Analogical Reasoning. Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science. London: Nature Publishing Group.
Tip

Faculty Tips:

  • Use an image or a non-clinical situation as an analogy to help make your point.
  • Start your presentation with a story and then connect the discussion points to story points.
  • Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself or share personal examples that demonstrate that you are human too.

Story-telling Video Examples

These TED Talks are examples of engaging speakers who rely on storytelling.

My stroke of insight | Jill Bolte Taylor (20:11)
Source: http://www.ted.com

In this TED talk, Dr. Bolte-Taylor, a neuroanatomist, shares a powerful story of the day she had a stroke.

Source: http://www.ted.com

Hide the Video

Do schools kill creativity? | Sir Ken Robinson (20:03)
Source: http://www.ted.com

In this TED Talk, creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson discusses how the US should re-think how we educate children to better encourage creativity and different types of “intelligence.”

Source: http://www.ted.com

Hide the Video

The power of introverts | Susan Cain (19:04)
Source: http://www.ted.com

In this TED Talk, self-described introvert Susan Cain advocates for the encouragement and celebration of extraordinary talents and abilities of introverts.

Source: http://www.ted.com

Hide the Video

ACC Talk Preventing Atherosclerotic Cardiac Disease in Congenital Heart Disease (17:30)
Faculty: Ami B. Bhatt, MD, FACC

In this TED-style talk, Ami B. Bhatt, MD, FACC draws upon learners’ experiences via story-telling. In her style of story-telling, Dr. Bhatt allows learners to paint a mental picture of her patient and the patient’s experience.

Faculty: Ami B. Bhatt, MD, FACC

Hide the Video

Analogy Video Examples

System Wide Approaches to Reducing 30 Day Readmissions (02:09)
Faculty: Ileana L. Pina, MD, MPH, FACC

Ileana L. Pina, MD, MPH, FACC opens her presentation with images that serve as an analogy to help her make her key points and share her story.

Faculty: Ileana L. Pina, MD, MPH, FACC

Hide the Video

The Heart Failure Bazaar Negotiating the Options (00:54)
Faculty: Larry A. Allen, MD, FACC

Larry A. Allen, MD, FACC uses a non-clinical analogy to help make his point about presenting choices to patients.

Faculty: Larry A. Allen, MD, FACC

Hide the Video

PH and HFpEF An Overview (00:53)
Faculty: Sanjiv Jayendra Shah, MD, FACC

Sanjiv Jayendra Shah, MD, FACC uses a non-clinical analogy to help make his point about identifying patients with pulmonary hypertension.

Faculty: Sanjiv Jayendra Shah, MD, FACC

Hide the Video

  Get learners involved: Using an Audience Response System (ARS) and other active learning strategies
  Get learners involved: Using an Audience Response System (ARS) and other active learning strategies

Ask yourself:

  • What do I want participants to know or be able to do as a result of my session/presentation? What question(s)/activities can I develop that will help learners achieve this goal?
  • What questions/activities could I use that would provide me with information that I could use to help participants learn?
  • What questions/activities could I use that would help me really involve learners in my session?

Getting learners involved helps keep them engaged. When deciding what kind of strategy to use to get participants involved, it’s best to match your strategy with your desired outcome. For example, if you are facilitating a session to help learners develop motivational interviewing skills, then offering time for role playing and practicing motivational interviewing would be a great strategy.

You can get learners involved in large and small group discussions, group activities, exercises, and/or games. An audience response system (ARS) is a tool that can help you facilitate learner involvement. However, if you don’t have access to an ARS, you can still engage learners in active participation through discussions and the traditional response system (raising of hands).

Tip

Faculty Tips:

  • Review your objectives for your session. What do learners need to “do” in order to achieve the objectives? How can you involve your learners to help them meet those objectives? ARS? Discussions? Cases?
  • If you are introducing findings of research, presenting conclusions from a study, or sharing experiences from a recent case, consider why you are leading the session. Are your findings, conclusions, or experiences different from what is currently known or accepted? Involve learners using activities or questions that support why you are leading the session.
  • Present questions/prompts that provide you with information about your learners. Then, ask learners, based on the varying answers, to discuss their responses. “Why?” is always a great follow-up question to get learners involved.
  • Develop questions for discussion that will help you determine if learners’ experiences are different from yours and from other learners, and different in what way(s). Ask questions like:
    • Do you agree or disagree with this? Why?
    • Should this change how we practice? Why or why not?
    • Does this change your perspective? Why or Why not?
  • Share facts and information that may be a “wake-up” call to learners to point out why the content is relevant to them. This will get learners engaged and involved.

Meaningful Use of an Audience Response System (ARS)

When you have access to an ARS, the best first question to ask yourself is:

  • How can I use an ARS to involve participants in a meaningful way?

Develop ARS questions that are meaningful to learning, not mechanical. A question that has little value in support of learning won’t involve the participants in your session and won’t lead to engagement.

Tip

Faculty Tips:

  • You can start a session with a question like, “Why did you choose to attend this session?”. Answer options might be responses such as:
    • The speaker(s)
    • I’ve got general questions I’m hoping to get answered
    • I have specific questions based on a current case
    • The session I wanted to attend was full
    • Other
  • Based on the responses, ask participants about their questions immediately to identify what learners are hoping to gain from participating. You don’t have to answer them right away. Acknowledge them and come back to their questions as you move through your discussion. You will most likely be addressing their questions somewhere in your planned session. However, if the questions don’t get addressed during the discussion, you can address them at the end or let learners know to see you after your session. You may also find you can refer them to a resource that would be helpful to them.
  • Consider presenting some initial details of a case but do not share your diagnosis or actions. Use the ARS to ask a problem-based question, “What do you think happened next?” or “What do you think I did?” Then, use a follow-up question, “Why?”. You can facilitate a discussion with learners based on their responses or ask them to take a moment and discuss their thoughts at their table. You can also use the ARS with pre-set responses to the “why” question or ask learners to go to a microphone to comment.
  • Allot time for discussion AND engagement when using an ARS. Be realistic about the time needed to be effective with engagement and ARS questions. Plan for 2-3 minutes to ask an ARS question and get responses. If you plan to have a discussion after an ARS question, remember to build in time for those activities, too.

Video Example

Advanced HFREF Pearls (03:52)
Faculty: Sanjiv Jayendra Shah, MD, FACC

In this session, Sanjiv Jayendra Shah, MD, FACC effectively uses an ARS to help learners identify their own learning needs about his topic and highlight key points.

Faculty: Sanjiv Jayendra Shah, MD, FACC

Hide the Video