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Can Bias Derail Your Learning Design and Facilitation?

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Learning designers and facilitators (often the same) are empowered to influence the experience and knowledge transfer of the participants. With that influence comes a great deal of responsibility and accountability. The paradox is that biases can sneak into design even with the best intentions. The bias tendency can be unconscious to the designer at the back end and to the facilitator on the frontline, yet out front and glaring at a class participant.

Designers and facilitators are trained to research and gain an understanding of the audience to ensure we connect to what is relevant. We don’t always have the luxury of gathering all the data we’d like and are left to design based on what we know. It is important to understand 1) how design biases show up, 2) how the facilitator’s behavior can affect the perceived message, and 3) the impact when participants don’t see themselves in the learning.

How Design Biases Show Up

Could what we miss or leave on the design floor impact the learning and steer in unintended directions? Possibly, when we go with what we know. Let’s face it! We all have biases, and they can show up in several ways, as described below:

1) Selection bias. When designers assess the audience, the evaluation can be biased based on their thoughts and experiences and even creep in stereotypes of that selected group. This can especially be the case with a more homogenous audience. A more diverse audience might trigger a designer to dig deeper.

2) Cultural bias. Designers may approach problems and design solutions based on the cultural influences of their experiences that value certain aesthetic preferences over incorporating and even intentionally stretching themselves to get out of their knowledge box.

3) Implicit bias. Our unconscious bias influences our decision-making process in ways we may not recognize. It can affect how we interpret design briefs, select design elements, and evaluate design solutions.

4) Confirmation bias. Without a conscious effort to avoid any tendency to seek only information confirming a preexisting belief, designers can find themselves excluding members of their audience. This could lead to designers favoring certain design approaches or solutions over others, even if they are not the most effective or appropriate.


How the Facilitator’s Behavior Can Affect the Perceived Message

Skilled facilitators work hard to bring a neutral demeanor and stay focused on what’s relevant to the participants.
It can be difficult to stay on task as it also becomes a learning experience for the facilitator. A few tips to be aware of include:

Tone and delivery. If the facilitator speaks confidently, clearly, and with enthusiasm, the audience is more likely to be engaged and receptive to the message. On the other hand, if the facilitator speaks in a monotone voice or appears disinterested, the audience may become bored and less likely to absorb the message. An engaged facilitator also builds the audience's trust and allows a safe space for participants to share information that connects them to the training.

Nonverbal communication. When the facilitator makes eye contact with the audience, smiles, and uses appropriate gestures, the audience is more likely to feel connected and engaged. However, if the facilitator avoids eye contact, looks distracted, or uses inappropriate gestures, it can create a barrier between the facilitator and the audience. It can make it difficult for the audience to connect with the message. This can happen when the facilitator is unconsciously more absorbed in themselves than the audience.

Bias. The facilitator’s personal bias can impact the message received by the audience. If the facilitator has a strong bias towards a particular point of view, it can consciously or unconsciously reflect how they present the information and their choice of examples. Their perspective could leave the audience with a biased interpretation of the information received.

Clarity of message. When the facilitator can present the information in a straightforward, simple, and understandable manner, the participants are more likely to absorb and retain the information. Comprehension can be difficult when the message approach is unclear and confusing.


Understand the Impact When Participants Don’t See Themselves in the Learning

When participants don’t see themselves in the learning, they can quickly disengage and mentally block the remainder of it. Consider the ideas below to keep audience members feeling included with an understanding that their contribution matters to the learning experience:

Make the learning objective relevant. Remember the training is not about the facilitator but about the experiences and needs of the participants. Use examples and case studies that directly relate to situations they may encounter. Make sure to engage the participants to share real examples of where they see the information connected to what has been presented in the learning design.

Use inclusive language. Avoid using gendered, ableist, or exclusive language in any way. A facilitator may slip occasionally, but an intentional consciousness to avoid is a step in the right direction.

Collaborate with participants. include activities that allow participants to collaborate on learning objectives to reflect what is most relevant when there are gaps. It’s nothing like ideas bouncing off ideas. Participants will feel they have contributed to the learning outcomes and become more invested in how they apply once they leave the training.

Show context. Help participants understand how the learning fits into the broader context of the organizational goals, values, vision, and personal career goals and aspirations. The key is to find a connection of inclusion for everyone in that room.

Offer participants a choice in how they engage. People engage in learning in different ways, and learning styles vary. Offer participants a way to see their best learning mode through various learning activities. Allow them to bow out and lead in when it fits their needs.

Overall, understand that the learning experience is best when the participants can connect and walk away with tips for addressing things they already encountered or never considered. As a designer and facilitator, it is important to understand that learning is not about you and the bias you may bring, but about sharing a process where participants can critically think and navigate their way through the learning. As a facilitator, welcome participants to challenge the learning. This can create memorable talking and flash points that will be discussed repeatedly.

About the Author

Sharon E. Harrington, MA, CPTD, is the founder of Amediate, LLC and Senior OD Consultant. She assists leaders to develop empowered teams skilled with preventive techniques for self-navigating difficult and uncomfortable workplace situations. She has been a frequent presenter at local, regional, and national conferences and meetings for associations addressing employee relations issues. She instructs the 32-hour EEO Investigator training for the MD-110 Certificate and the 8-Hour Annual Refresher.

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Sharon. thank you for this information. I'm starting a role that involves facilitating and this information is very helpful. The way you broke down the topics is very easy for me to understand.
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Sharon, thank you for this timely and thought-provoking article. I agree that removing bias from our content design and delivery must always be top-of-mind. One of the most commonly overlooked implicit biases I've encountered in design is the selection of images. Our content should be accessible and inclusive, reflecting the diversity of our potential learners. Thank you again for the excellent article.
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