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Avoiding Common Traps when Reviewing with Groups

First published in Roger Greenaway's Active Reviewing Tips ~ ISSN 1465-8046
Active Reviewing Tips is a free monthly publication from Reviewing Skills Training.
which you can receive by email by entering your address on the page about the newsletter.


Avoiding Common Traps when Reviewing with Groups

by Roger Greenaway, Reviewing Skills Training

In this article I describe some of the many the traps awaiting those who facilitate learning in groups - and I provide some ideas about how you can avoid these traps in the first place.

What kind of trap?

A 'trap' is an attractive looking option that, once taken, has consequences that cause you to regret your choice (while you are busy working out how to escape from it!). Sometimes you do not choose the trap at all: the trap  chooses you if you do not realise that other options exist.

Do you recognise these traps?

1. Apologising for holding a review
2. Asking 'What did you learn?' at the start of a review
3. Speeding: expecting instant thoughtful responses
4. Trivialising: expecting brief answers to big questions
5. Controlling the whole review process, or trying hard to do so
6. Keeping the whole group together for every review process
7. Filling up flipcharts
8. Strongly favouring one learning style
9. Assuming that everyone had much the same experience
10. Welcoming certainty
11. Talking too much as a facilitator

Each of these traps also conveys unintentional messages that block learning. If you know enough about these traps you can avoid them.
Trap 1  Apologising for holding a review
(and promising that it won't take very long)

Unintentional message:
"This process is not that important. I am sure you would rather be doing something else. I'll not inconvenience you for too long."

Avoid trap 1  Raise Expectations and Commitment
  • Declare or negotiate a purpose for the review that is suitably ambitious.
  • Explain that however pleased or disappointed they are with what happened, there is extra value to be gained by reflecting on the experience.
  • Explain that a good review can easily double or triple the value of the learning that can be gained from an experience.
  • Give an example to support your extravagant claims! (The example could be a reminder of what participants have already learned through reviewing their experiences.)
Trap 2  Asking 'What did you learn?' at the start of a review

Unintentional message
"The learning has already happened - so don't expect to learn anything new in this review."

Just four words ("What did you learn?") transform an opportunity for new learning into a memory test.

Avoid trap 2  Follow a sequence that is designed to generate learning from experience during the review. For example:
  • Start by asking for descriptions of what happened and of what people were doing. (Consider how selective you want these accounts to be, and whether you want participants to focus on particular themes or perspectives.)
  • Ask yourself (or the group) whether visual aids would assist their reflection and communication (eg pictures, diagrams, photos, video or re-enactments of key moments).
  • Encourage participants to look out for different versions of events and experiences. Such curiosity helps to bring out new learning.
  • Notice how much description is 'external' (equivalent to CCTV footage) and how much reveals 'internal' worlds of feelings, reasons, intentions etc. Recognise that a lot of learning will arise from bringing out new information - both external and internal.
If you also want the group to recap what they have already learned, try to do so in a way that does not interfere with their expectations of new learning arising during the review process.

Trap 3  Speeding: expecting instant thoughtful responses

Unintentional message
"Reviewing involves saying the first thing that comes into your head - so we don't give you much time for reflecting, thinking or preparing what you might want to say."

The chances of getting a worthwhile response are even less if you direct your question to an individual, and are less again if the surprised individual rarely speaks up or tends to go along with what has already been said.

Avoid Trap 3  Slow down! Provide the time and the tools for participants to prepare their answers or to choose the question they wish to answer.
  • Give more thinking time: just before a  break, announce the questions you will be asking after the break.
  • Wait until everyone has indicated they are ready to speak: ask everyone to walk around (alone or with a partner) and not sit down again until they have something to say.
  • Give more choice. Write down some of the questions you want to ask, each on separate card. Ask everyone to pick a question they wish to answer. If you want the questions to follow a particular sequence you can number or code the questions in advance.
  • Ask participants to first talk in twos or threes.
  • Ask participants to find a picture or object that helps them to answer the question.
  • Ask participants to find their own personal thinking space or 'magic spot' - indoors or outdoors.
  • Give participants notebooks and well-timed opportunities for using them.
Trap 4  Trivialising: expecting brief answers to big questions
(such as when asking for one picture, one word or one phrase that sums up the group view)

Unintentional message
"Simple, superficial or cliched  responses are OK - just be sure you do not exceed 3 words / 10 seconds / one symbol."

The one word, phrase or item that the group chooses is unlikely to communicate the range and depth of their experiences. Their exceptionally brief answer is unlikely to capture what was special about the experience. (A process that encourages 'groupthink' is even more out of place in a programme about personal growth and development.)

Avoid Trap 4  Find the level of detail that generates clarity and significance without pruning things right down to a single unsatisfactory statement.
  • Ask for 5 or more pictures (not just one) to be presented in a sequence or other pattern.
  • Provide pictures that are rich with possibilities for multiple interpretations (rather than simple pictures that have just one instantly recognisable meaning).
  • Ask the group to make a composite picture, or collage or  chart or map of their experiences and ideas.
  • Ask for several words (not just one).
  • Ask for several phrases (not just one)
These richer forms of expression are more inclusive than the 'one item' approach - they are more inclusive of people and their ideas. Participants choose the level of detail and richness that is most satisfying and significant for themselves.

For more ways of avoiding triviality see 'Getting Beyond Cliches' in Active Reviewing Tips 13.3.

Trap 5  Controlling the whole reviewing process
(or trying hard to do so)

Unintentional message
"You have very little responsibility for your own learning. I will guide you through the whole process. You must trust me even if my controlling ways betray a lack of trust in you."

Avoid Trap 5  Be selective. Decide which aspects to control (such as the time frame or the overall purpose). You can monitor or delegate other aspects rather than controlling them directly.
  • For each review method you have different controls. For example, in some methods you provide all the questions, but in other review methods you control the framework within which questions are generated.
  • If sharing control with participants keep these questions in mind:  Is everyone involved? Is everyone having a say? Are differences being resolved in productive ways? Is anyone so stuck that they need help to get unstuck?
  • The role of the facilitator in learning groups is explored in depth by David Jaques in 'Learning in Groups'  and by John Heron in 'The Complete Facilitator's Handbook' where he provides advice about when to control, when to share control and when to hand over control. I have summarised John Heron's advice here.
Trap 6. Keeping the whole group together for every review process

Unintentional message
"I do not trust you (to review without me)."

This is closely related to the previous trap: keeping everyone together helps the facilitator keep control. Staying in the group for every review process risks slipping into a suffocating sameness: once a group pecking order is established it is difficult for those lowest in the pecking order to find their voice. When the same few people dominate the conversation, the least heard voices lose interest and lose confidence in their ability to change the pattern. And even the more frequent speakers may feel uncomfortable with such unequal participation.

Avoid Trap 6 Make it a higher priority to facilitate inclusion and contribution.
  • Mix in time for individual reflection, learning buddy conversations and for small group reflection so that participants are ready to make a higher quality contribution to the whole group process.
  • If you are concerned that subgroups may not use their time well, ensure that you give them suitable review tasks - ideally with a process that is visible and with an output that demonstrates the quality of their independent reviewing.
  • For the design of such processes see my series of articles about design indexed here
Trap 7 Filling up flipcharts
(or asking groups to do so)
Even on those rare occasions when you feel the need to collect lots of information 'filling up flipcharts' is unlikely to be the most inclusive, efficient or dynamic way of doing so.

Unintentional message
"Writing things down is the main learning process here"

The number of flipcharts produced in a review is not an indication of its quality! The subtle and cumulative influences of the flipchart conspire to shape a review into a process that no-one wants. If a participant's words are recorded by the facilitator they feel acknowledged. The corollary is that participants whose words are not recorded are likely to feel less valued. The facilitator senses this (or is told so by the person whose words are not recorded) and starts writing down a much higher proportion of what is said. When the participants sense what you are trying to do, everything slows down so that you have time to do all the recording.

Avoid Trap 7 If you are trying to kick the habit of filling up flipcharts then plan to carry out some of your reviews in a place where there are no flipcharts, whiteboards, blackboards etc.
  • 95% of the reviewing methods described in the 'Active Reviewing Guide' do not need a flipchart.
  • If you need to collect lots of information then use a survey method in which small groups construct the questions, carry out the survey and report on results (without a flipchart!).
Trap 8  Strongly favouring one learning style

Unintentional message
"You needed all your senses, intelligences, resources and learning styles during the activity, but you can switch all but one of these off during the review."

Yes - an invitation to switch off! For example: if everyone sits in the same place doing nothing but listening for most of the review, this favours participants who prefer to learn by sitting and listening for long periods (and occasionally speaking up). But even such people will probably learn more effectively if you encourage a broader variety of learning opportunities during the review.

(Exceptions do happen: a group can get so engaged in a good review discussion that it could be intrusive to introduce a different method simply because you want them to be more 'active' or 'creative'.)

Avoid Trap 8  Make reviewing a holistic process that engages a variety of different senses, intelligences and learning styles. For example:
  • For talking about group dynamics, participants choose, move and arrange objects into patterns that show how the dynamics are changing.
  • For sharing an emotional experience, participants create a rope graph showing their ups and downs. Their 'story-line' serves as an aid for deeper reflection and communication.
  • For examining a critical moment participants re-experience the event by re-enacting it. This typically brings out greater honesty and understanding.
This rationale is described in more detail in a foreword I wrote on 'Why Active and Creative Reviewing' (pdf) and draws on the metaphor of 'broadband' representing enriched multichannel thinking and communication.

Trap 9. Assuming that everyone had much the same experience
(and will all come out of the review with much the same learning)

Unintentional message
"Difference is inconvenient. It would be so much more convenient if individual views or minority views make way for the emerging mainstream version of events."

Some useful learning can happen at a general level. For example, a group might say: "We all experienced the disappointment of running out of time to complete the task, and we all learned that we must manage our time better in future." But underneath this headline could be a whole range of different experiences that point to other factors that are far more significant and critical for group learning, for individual learning, and for better task performance.

Avoid Trap 9: Use methods that bring out the range of experiences and that acknowledge diversity and difference.
  • Discourage generalisations rather than asking for them! Look for exceptions.
  • Use reviewing methods that give everyone a voice.
  • Discourage statements beginning "We think ...". Until everyone has spoken, speaking for others is guesswork.
  • Check that statements made on behalf of others are based on facts, not assumptions.
  • Check that statements about learning are based on evidence.
  • When the evidence for learning is experience-based, check the connections (Are the findings over-generalised? Are people jumping to conclusions?).
  • When 'checking' it is better to prompt others to check ("How confident are you in your conclusion that ...?") rather than making your own direct assessment as the 'checker'.
Trap 10  Welcoming certainty

Unintentional message
"Learning is about creating certainty and agreement. It is not about casting doubt, or looking for holes in arguments, or introducing evidence that does not fit, or creating alternative explanations."

Your job is to generate learning. So whenever learning makes an appearance your instinct is to welcome it. But learning also comes in the form of 'unlearning' (finding flaws in previous learning). And 'unlearning' can be more difficult and more profound and more valuable than 'new learning'. 'Unlearning' is often accompanied by uncertainty. So we should perhaps have an even bigger welcome for uncertainty!

Avoid Trap 10: Unless you are doing fire drill training (or any other kind of training drill), appreciate the value of uncertainty and ambiguity and appreciate the value of mixed endings to a review: there may be greater certainty in some areas and greater uncertainty in others. To ensure the quality of learning:
  • Interrupt assumptions
  • Bring out alternative interpretations
  • Challenge confidence in conclusions
  • Explore ambiguities and other possibilities
  • Ask 'What else?'
  • Consider re-examining the conclusions of a previous review if they now seem unsound and/or too tidy.
While writing this article I learned of the death of Sir Patrick Moore the British astronomer who once gave a lecture entitled "What we don't know". This suggests an interesting strategy for avoiding the certainty trap. I think that 'What don't we know?' could become one of my favourite review questions.

Trap 11  Talking too much as a facilitator

Unintentional message
"I don't value what you have to say."

The facilitator who talks too much may actually prefer that participants speak up more. But this is a situation in which setting a good example as a role model (of someone who speaks a lot) is counterproductive.

Avoid Trap 11  Make it easier for participants to speak up.
  • Ask questions that you cannot possibly answer yourself.
  • Sit out silences if it seems that participants are still thinking about your question.
  • Ask an easier version of the question for which no response is forthcoming.
  • Avoid Trap 6 (always keeping everyone together) and have pairs or small groups prepare their responses (written or verbal or active or creative in any combination)
  • Ask pairs or small groups to discuss what would make it easier for them to speak up.
  • Set up review tasks that enable participants to generate the main stimulus for review discussions - allowing the facilitator to take a more responsive role.
A concluding note
Hopefully you have gained some fresh insights into some of the traps awaiting facilitators of learning. I hope you have also picked up some useful ideas about how to avoid these traps, and how to avoid giving out messages that are counterproductive. I welcome ideas for additions, changes and improvements. Your comments are welcome by email 

A quick private review
If you prefer to reflect in private, go to the list of 11 traps and jot down the numbers in a rank order that applies to the frequency with which you (or your colleagues) stumble into these traps.

Roger Greenaway

First published in Roger Greenaway's Active Reviewing Tips ~ ISSN 1465-8046
Active Reviewing Tips is a free monthly publication from Reviewing Skills Training.
which you can receive by email by entering your address on the page about the newsletter.


Copyright Roger Greenaway, Reviewing Skills Training, 2012 and 2013
First published in Active Reviewing Tips 14.5 and then at

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