As a teacher, trainer, or professional development provider, do you think about professional learning all day? Are you constantly grappling with instructional design and curriculum development, integrating learning strategies and ways to engage learners in your workshops or courses?

Have you ever paused to consider what our professional learning participants might be feeling during our sessions? Or whether participants’ emotional states might shape the depth of their learning and its application in their work?

I’ve long had a burning curiosity about how people “experience the learning” in professional development settings. I was familiar with the link between learning and emotions, and I wondered if people approached professional learning with the same eager anticipation and excitement that I often felt, or whether they came with skepticism about their time being used well, or concern about whether sessions would meet their expectations. And I wondered if this might influence how much they learned or used back in their workplaces.

When it came time to do my doctoral dissertation, I jumped at the chance to conduct a program evaluation study of a multi-day intensive professional development institute for educators. Evaluation questions and data collection for this study focused on exploring participants’ understanding and beliefs related to the content taught during the institute, and whether they were applying what they learned and updating their practices following the course. 

I collected mounds of qualitative data: journals in which participants responded to given question prompts, field notes and photographs documenting the lessons and small group projects, and individual interviews with participants in the months following the institute. Though no questions directly asked participants what they were feeling or, as I had wanted to understand, how they ”experienced the learning,” many of them wrote and talked about their feelings. Several themes emerged from the data and inspired the following six questions:.

6 reflective questions for instructors and trainers about how professional learning participants are feeling

Our professional learning participants don’t check their emotions at the door. They come to our sessions with experience, ideas, self-concepts, and expectations for how the learning will go. 

1. Are they feeling capable?

Self-efficacy and confidence are important to the learning process. If learners feel they are not up to the demands of your learning activities, they’re likely to expend less effort to learn, tune out, and refrain from participating. 

2. Might they be feeling frustrated?

Frustration is a recipe for disaster in any learning environment. Frustrated participants don’t listen well, aren’t likely to be active learners or open to new ideas, and are at serious risk of checking out. Frustration can arise from a number of factors, including feelings of incompetence or lack of clarity on instructions from teachers or trainers, the material itself, expectations for participation, etc. 

3. Are they comparing themselves to others?

This is especially important in skill-based professional learning, where learning activities require participants to apply what they’re learning and create something that will be shared. Participants who are less experienced, feel less skilled, or are less competent than others may hesitate to engage in or contribute to shared activities. 

4. How do they feel about collaboration with other participants?

Do participants know each other? Are they comfortable with each other? Do they feel a sense of belonging within the large or small groups? This ties in closely with how they compare themselves with others and whether they feel capable. Collaborative activities can boost or diminish feelings of competence or frustration, and can help or hinder the learning depending on how supported participants feel.

5. Are they comparing THIS session to past learning experiences?

If participants have attended enjoyable, engaging, and worthwhile professional development in the past, or if they’ve taken similar courses, or have experience with a particular instructor or trainer, etc., these factors may influence how they feel about the current learning experience. This is also tied to how participants see themselves as learners and assess their own capabilities.

6. Are they concerned about how to apply new learning in their work? 

Do participants feel the content is relevant to them? How clear is it to participants what they need to do to implement their new learning back at work? Will they know how? Will they have the knowledge, skills, and tools they need? Will they have support from colleagues or higher-ups to change their practice? These concerns can get in the way of learning.

How can we support learners’ emotional states?

Knowing that professional learning participants may be experiencing any or all of these (and more!) can help you make a plan for framing activities to head off some of these feelings and supporting participants as they work through your course.

Where and how will you design support for participants? Take an active role in identifying points in your course where participants may need:

  • Encouragement or feedback
  • Explanation or clarity
  • Scaffolding or chunking of content
  • Examples or exemplars 
  • Repetition
  • Options or alternatives 
  • Breaks or energizers

All of these strategies employed at different times have the potential to help participants feel more capable, less frustrated, better able to participate and collaborate, and know how they will apply new learning in context. 

Pro tip!

emoji faces with different feelings or emotions

Created with DALL-E2

Observe, observe, observe. If you run a course multiple times, consider recording a session (whether it’s live or virtual) and studying the recording to determine where participants were struggling and document the questions they asked. Pay attention to facial expressions and body language in addition to what people say. If you can, hire someone to observe a session and take notes on all of this for you. 

During my study, I carefully observed participants as they entered and left the room (you can learn a lot in these moments!) and once, on the way out of the room, I heard one person say to another, “that conversation was rough!” and it lent support to what I had already observed about the energy in the room waning substantially during the activity just before the break. Another time I observed a workshop from the hallway outside the open door and noticed that one participant after another got up to leave the room. Not just two or three people, but more like 9 or 10! At first, I figured they needed a restroom break, but several just walked out of the room and stalled in the hallway, in no apparent rush to get anywhere but out. Some stretched, and some groaned. It was enough to let me know that something was going on inside that made people need to leave the room at that moment. Could it be they were just tired from a long learning session and the instructor should have scheduled a break? Or was there an activity that didn’t work for many people? Were they struggling with feelings of incompetence or frustration? Did they not see the value of the activity? This is important data for an instructor or trainer and something to be explored and acted on.

A caveat

This study is unpublished and was not designed to produce generalizable knowledge, but what I learned here, coupled with experience from thousands of hours spent in professional learning contexts as both a participant and a provider, informs my own professional development work. I hope you will find it helpful too.

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Interested in a talk or workshop on teaching or learning strategies, or any of the topics I offer? I’d love to chat with you.