Moderating the PERC Session on “Conceptual Resources”: Reflection on Structure and Facilitation.

I was asked to co-moderate (with Lisa Goodhew) a discussion at the end of a Thematic PERC Poster session on “Identifying Conceptual Resources for Understanding Physics Ideas”

The way we structured the session was as follows:

5 Minute Introduction to the Session (providing an overall framing)

40 Minutes to Explore Poster Presentations (30 minutes  structured timed rotations + 10 min to mingle more freely)

40 Minutes for Structured Moderated Discussion (details below)


I. Individual Time to Articulate Questions

Each person was asked to take some time to think about a question and to write it down on a note card.

II. Small Groups Tasked with Choosing or Crafting One Questions to Elevate

What they did: We had about 40-50 at the session people, with 40 people being present for the discussion period. A little clumsily, I broke people into five groups. Each group was anchored by a presenter.

What I did: Groups shared their questions while my goal was to keep them on task by reminding them that the goal was not to start discussing questions, but to stick to the task of coming up with a question to elevate for whole discussion. I make decisions about how much time they really needed while also pressing them to get the task done, which worked fairly well. While getting questions from each group, I made sure to ask questions to make sure I understood the essence of their question / concern, rather than worry about the exact wording.

III. Moderated Panel Discussion with Everyone:

After small groups, the presenters were seated at the front in panel, while audience was seated in more rowed seating. Instead of just reading questions as presented and having the panel addressed them, I tried to look for questions that were driving at the same issue, and offer the questions together or a framing of their questions that got at what relation I saw them having. In addition, after reading a question, time was given before the panel would address it. Here’s how I did this.

A.  Time for Audience and the Panel to Discuss:  For each question, time was given for the audience and panel to talk with each other. This was like “think-pair-share”. I felt this was good for audience to think about what they think before hearing from the panel, but to also make sure they understood the question in their own way. For the panelists, this gave them time for each of them to try out saying things, and decide individually and collectively what parts of their thoughts might be best to share.

B. I opened up the first question to the Panel. Over the course if our time on this question, a few panelists ended up speaking a few audience members. I was pretty heavy-handed in my moderation, re-voicing ideas, making connections (or contrasts) between contributions, and even shutting down a contribution when it was clear that it was going to lead to a “new question” from an individual (one we hadn’t collectively elevated). For the second question, the panelists told me after discussing that they think the question should be initially answered by the audience. The question involved comparing and contrasting the researcher’s, and the panelists felt like the audience was better position to say some meaningful things since they had actually visited multiple posters. So, it began with more audience contributions and shifted to the panelists responding.

We ended up only having time for two questions, but the discussion (I think) felt engaging and meaningful. It felt like the question was a launching point to discuss an issue, not “answer a question”.  That’s not to say that things were perfect or that my moderator moves were always best, but any faults and mistakes didn’t drastically undermine the wholeness of what we were doing. I’m not everyone felt that way, but my sense was that the structure and enactment worked out well for many. One feedback I got (which is not surprising for me) was that I was talked “way too fast” for international participants.

I don’t want people to think that this structure is the best structure, and so I want to share my thinking about why I chose this structure. I think the “thinking” here is valuable:

  1. Who are sessions for? I wanted to strike a balance between the session being useful and fun for the presenters and also for the audience. This is why, even in the panel format, every question was first discussed in pairs, and then we would hear from the panel. This engaged the audience I think while also highlighting the expertise of the panelists we had invited.
  2. Are there multiple outlets for thinking (and fermentation of thinking)? I wanted to give people outlets for thing “they need to say” to someone that don’t need to be said to the whole group. This was designed into first asking groups to write a question and share, in the think-pair-share for the audience, and the think-pair-share for the panelists. Everyone got to have and share ideas, before having to decide if that idea would be elevated to the entire group. Ideas and thoughts need space for fermentation, and all the products and processes of that fermentation don’t make it to the end product.
  3. Who has power in the session? I wanted to disrupt the standard questioning format of, “asking questions” to the panel based on who gets called, and to distribute more of the power around. That’s not to say the the power dynamics would flatten out completely, but that more of the decision-making process about what questions would be asked and what ideas might be discussed was distributed. I held a lot of power — my plan use it judiciously but unapologetically. I was invited to be the moderator for a reason — someone felt I had the skills and know-how to carry out that responsibility well, and I counted on the audience trusting me in that role. I think moderators often cede too much power in facilitation. I think of it more was “sharing power through structure” (notecards, groups, pairs), but then exerting power during facilitation. I want to use my power to empower the group to do something more meaningful than if just left to our own. I’m not saying that my structure of my facilitation accomplished that completely, but that was the goal.


Anyway, I just wanted to reflect on this and write about it. If you were there at that session, I’d love to get your feedback about your experience of how the session was structured – what worked and what didn’t, and how my facilitation did or didn’t advance and elevate our collective work in the session (both in terms of enjoying it and in terms of the substance of what was enacted in the collective).





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