June 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 3 // Tools of the Trade // 3TOT1

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Gaining Audience Involvement: Interactive Teaching Exercises

In order to enhance teaching effectiveness, exercises were devised to involve attendees at train-the-trainer sessions. While focusing on a specific health issue, it is believed that the general principles used here are applicable to a variety of teaching situations. The principal exercise assigns the roles of key stakeholders to participants. This allows articulation of major issues from various perspectives, especially in relation to expression of the divergent views of "opponents" of the majority view. It has been observed that these exercises provide welcome relief in what would otherwise be a long day. They generate useful exchanges and sometimes comic relief.

Joseph T. Ponessa
Associate Specialist, Housing and Energy
Rutgers Cooperative Extension,
New Brunswick, New Jersey
Internet Address: ponessa@aesop.rutgers.edu

Teaching day-long sessions about the hazards of lead poisoning to health care and community outreach workers means that the teacher needs to be sensistive to the need to break up what could be a full day of solid lecture. Even though the audiences are devoted and purposeful, hour-after-hour of solid lecture would be unbearable.

However, there is a lot of hard core scientific information to convey. After showing a couple of videos and asked rhetorical questions, how else can the audience be engaged?


Looking a bit beyond the clear-cut science and health elements reveals that this topic, as well as many other health/behavioral issues, involves complex perceptual and attitudinal considerations. These include people's ranking of the issue on the scale of their other day-to -day concerns, and their emotional response, which is important in determining how people will react. Sensitivity to the personal toll of this health impairment, and to its effects on other stakeholders, should enhance outreach workers' message to clients and to policymakers with whom they work.

An element related to the issue of lead poisoning is persuasion; at low levels of poisoning, kids show no appearance of ill effects. It is often difficult to convince parents of the importance of this issue, especially when they are plagued by other demands and problems that often seem more immediate and pressing than the developmental impairments of lead poisoning. Likewise, public officials, and even some medical professionals, are not aware of the newly discovered clinical significance of the recently lowered blood lead standards. Thus, the need for good communication extends to a broad range of audiences and issues

To address the perceptual element, the author considered the differing viewpoints and attitudes that different groups may have. This suggested a role playing exercise, in which each of the interested parties' viewpoints would be expressed. What does it feel like to be a victim, and learn of the lifelong consequences of lead poisoning? How might parents feel? These perspectives help to put a "face" on this medical problem.

For the role playing exercise the class was separated into five small groups. Each group represents a stakeholder. In this example, these are: poisoning victims ("children"), parents of victims, community leaders, local community officials, and landlords. The assignment is to compose a statement outlining the viewpoint or position of the stakeholder, which might be presented to a government official trying to devise solutions to the problem of lead poisoning.

It is especially useful to give a voice to landlords (one participant actually was a landlord.) While this group is often perceived as "the opposition" in this issue, they nevertheless have problems that need to be acknowledged and addressed for the most workable solutions. The entire group benefits from a discussion of the problem from this perspective.

Another exercise used could be called a "blue sky" media exercise. The audience is divided into small groups of two or three persons. Each small group is given a card with a brief public outreach message relating to the topic, and about five minutes to develop a presentation. The premise of the assignment is that each group has free access to a unit of mass media "space" of their choosing: a billboard, newspaper space, or 60 seconds of airtime (radio or TV). Groups may select a medium and must then devise a means to convey the message using some attention-getting method such as role playing, skits, rap songs, cartoons, and artwork.


The media exercise has been used with about ten groups. It provides a welcome break to lecturing, and enables attendees to use knowledge that they have just gained. The presentations rely heavily on the imagination and skills of participants, so the 5-minute time limit places some limitations on creativity. In nearly every class, there is a least one small group that brings enough wit and humor to the exercise to make it one of the highlights of the day.

The role playing exercise has been conducted in about two dozen classes. These have been well received and frequently provide new insights and occasional moments of humor. Giving identity and voice to all interested parties, especially those with divergent views, gives substance to the process.

These exercises provoke lively discussions and provide a better appreciation of the complexity of the issues involved. It is hoped this will provide better communication with client groups and enhanced credibility for the issue.


The general approach of identifying the various constituencies associated with an issue, and asking class participants to create a presentation or viewpoint of these stakeholders, has several benefits. New information is reinforced, and novel perspectives are revealed. At the same time learners are engaged while instructors vary their teaching format. These principles can apply to and enhance a variety of teaching scenarios.