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Creating a Learning Environment Using Set-Ups


Wed Oct 01 2014

Creating a Learning Environment Using Set-Ups

Many of us use games and activities as a part of our training. Each of these activities is facilitated with a certain outcome in mind. The activity allows participants to understand the concepts better, engage in the content, and then associate the learning to the workplace reality. One way to make these activities even more effective is to create “set-ups”—as I like to call them. 

If an activity has within it different instructions for different participants, that is not a set-up, that would just be the nature of that activity. Set-ups, according to me, reflect exactly what it is: the facilitator deliberately creates conditions for certain outcomes. I have used set-ups in many different training workshops, including leadership training, creativity, stress management, interpersonal relationships, conflict handling, team building, and so forth. 


For a set-up, I create more than one condition of the same activity. It is like creating “experimental groups” and “control groups” in the class. There can be one control group and one or more experimental groups. The benefit of the set-up is that participants can see and experience the different outcomes from the same activity, thereby enriching the learning from the experience. 

If the entire class is divided into smaller groups, and all the groups did the same activity with same instructions, the class still benefits from small group experience, but the outcomes between groups may not be very different from each other. The differences in the outcomes can be attributed only to the differences in the individuals within that group. 

However, if the groups are deliberately set up in a manner so that outcomes would be considerably different, then the learning would be much more, and debrief and discussion that follow can become very rich due to the number of “variables” that can be discussed. It also gives some control to the facilitator to bring out the desired outcomes from the activity. 

Types of set-ups 

Here are some various ways to conduct set-ups. 


Determine groups on a specific characteristic. Keeping instructions same, set up groups based on characteristics such as gender, age, department, and so on. Compare the activity results across the groups. 

Give different instructions to different groups. Divide the class into groups randomly. To avoid any bias, the groups have to be created as randomly as possible. Then, there are different instructions for different groups. The instruction may be given to a group leader or to the group members, depending on the type of activity. Instructions should be given separately to separate groups, so that others do not know what instructions the groups are receiving. 

Share different materials for different groups. When you are using a set-up, depending on your activity or the outcome you want to discuss, you may give slightly modified materials to your experimental groups. For example, you might give a missing part to one of the groups, and compare what happens in that group as they seek to solve the problem. Then, compare across groups. 

Precautions for set-ups 

Here are a few precautions to keep in mind when using set-ups. 


Give instructions to the control group. Ensure that even the control group gets the same instruction, that way you maintain the uniformity in the set-up. An added benefit is that the “control group” does not feel left out and become an extraneous variable that can affect outcome of the set-up. 

Make sure the activity conducive to set up. Address the following questions before using a set-up: How many groups can you make? Is it feasible? Is it going to take more time to facilitate? Be sure to consider all the potential constraints. 

Determine whether the set-up makes sense for the activity. There has to be an obvious advantage to the set up. Each advantage will depend on the learning objective. If you want to the entire group to experience the same condition and see the outcome you think would be consistent, then set up may not be necessary. For example, if you want all the members in the training to experience how aspiration of the group increases the achievement of the group, then have all sub groups do the same activity. Then, everyone has the same experience. 

However, you may want to take it up a notch, and decide you want to show how the leader behavior affects aspiration of the group, then you give different instructions to different group leaders. A set-up would be a better option in this instance. 

Design adequate instructions. Be sure to address the following questions when developing your set-up: What are the specific instructions you need to create to get a particular outcome? Are they clear and specific? Are they culture-free (if that is going to be a consideration)? Is it going to affect someone emotionally, or otherwise? 

Facilitation considerations for set-ups 

Here are a few facilitation considerations to keep in mind when using set-ups. 

Consider failures. Sometimes the set-up may not work as planned. For example, someone may not follow the instructions. Other times, personal traits, preferences, and characteristics of the participants may affect an outcome. For instance, in one game, a participant was asked to give very specific response each time in each round of the game. But during the activity, she changed her response and did not stick to the instruction because she started “feeling bad” for the other participant. These can become powerful points during debrief. 

Conduct a debrief. Always tell the participants at the end of the activity that it was a set up. Sometimes some participants do get an idea that something is up, but they may not know exactly what the instructions were. Clarify the “mystery” at the end of the activity. 

Resolve any issues within the session, and reassure the participants that certain participants were behaving in a certain manner because they were given specific instructions, and their behaviors do not necessarily reflect what they think and feel or value as persons.

Bottom line 

Set-ups are a powerful facilitation tool. However, to create and use them effectively, you need to have a mastery over the content and the topic. Remember: the set-up has to be valid in the first place, and add to the learning outcome. To do this you need to know your material.

As a facilitator you should be able to connect the dots and other “extraneous” or “confounding” variables that may affect outcomes and give satisfactory explanations in the debrief. Also, in case there are constraints in the session that you may have not thought of before, you need to make modifications to the activity at the last minute. And that requires knowledge of the subject. You have to retain your credibility as a facilitator!

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