Planning learning activities: a guide for communications professionals

CrayonsIf you’re a communications specialist and you need to design your own learning activities then this blog post is for you.

Perhaps you need to design break-out workshops at conferences, standalone seminars or soft skills training included as part of a broader communications solution.

These examples are less about communication theory and more about adult learning theory. It’s about stimulating people’s minds as part of a learning process.

So how do you go about planning these?

The 4MAT model

Try using the 4MAT model, developed by American teacher and writer, Bernice McCarthy. This provides an excellent framework for planning a learning session.

This model assumes there are four key learning styles and that people generally prefer one style over another. They’re summarised by four questions: ‘Why?’, ‘What?’, ‘How?’ and ‘What if?’ Each question represents one of the learning styles. There is more on this below.

4MAT cycleBut these four elements are not just styles, they also represent the four stages of planning and delivering a learning session. You can think of the ‘Why?’ style as point 1 and the ‘What-if?’ style as point 4 (see graphic).

Why do it in this order?

It makes sense to do it in this order because it’s the order in which adults learn. People want to know first of all, ‘why’ the content is relevant to them, then ‘what’ it’s all about; then ‘how’ you do it; and then ‘what-if’ I experimented a bit?

By planning and delivering in these four consecutive stages, you not only design a session which caters for the sequence in which adults learn, but you’ve also covered the styles in which people learn.

Knowing there are four stages or styles to get through enables you, therefore, to break down your planning of the session into four parts and tailor accordingly.

I’ve summarised each of the stages/styles below, together with suggestions of the kind of learning activities that work well for each one.

Stage 1:

The ‘why?’ learning style

People who like to ask ‘why?’ are imaginative and learn from feeling and watching. They want to know the purpose behind the session and how it relates to their needs before going any further.

Engage them through activities facilitating reflection and dialogue. Enable them to reflect on personal experiences and sharing stories. This helps develops a personal interest in the subject matter. Try reflection exercises, stories, simulations and other experiential activities.

Stage 2:

The ‘what?’ learning style

Those who prefer to ask ‘what?’ learn by watching and thinking. They‘re analytical and like concepts, theories and models.

Your role here is to present information, enabling people to find out facts and understand the key topics and concepts. This is big picture stuff. Visual metaphors work well here.

Stage 3:

The ‘how?’ learning style

People asking the ‘how’ question learn by thinking and doing. Preferring practical activities and interested in knowing how things work and experimenting, these people focus on skills.

Use a coaching style to let learners do something practical with what they’ve learned and allow them to personally contribute. Think along the lines of simulations, case studies and role-plays.

Stage 4:

The ‘what-if?’ learning style

Those who ask ‘what-if?’ learn by feeling and doing, and by trial and error. They like to explore and rely on their own intuition, enjoying active learning and seeking adaptions.

You can support these people by collating the learnings, relating content to their personal situation, and assessing how they apply what they’ve learned, to aid future development. Critique their practice, use self-assessment, action planning and develop personal commitment.


For a more thorough and detailed explanation of this model, watch this video by author Bernice McCarthy:

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