Developing facilitation capacities in graduate students

By Gemma Jiang and Robert Hacku

1. Gemma Jiang (biography)
2. Robert Hacku (biography)

What does it take for graduate students to become good at facilitation? What skills do they need to learn and how can such skills best be imparted?

A facilitator is someone trained in the skill of shaping group dynamics and collective conversations. In cross-disciplinary research, thoughtful facilitation is necessary to enable effective interaction across disciplines and sectors.

We describe an apprentice facilitator program developed in a cross-disciplinary research team comprised of nine faculty and 15 graduate students from four academic institutes, representing six disciplines.

Five apprentices were selected from the graduate students on the team. The program was one semester long and took on average one hour per week.

Liberating structures (the principles of which were described by co-founder Keith McCandless in a previous blog post) formed the basis of the curriculum for the apprentice facilitator program, with a focus on 1-2-4-all, Impromptu Networking, Conversation Café, Wise Crowd and TRIZ (for more details see

In particular, the apprentices gained experience in:

  • Generating cross-disciplinary interactive dynamics
  • Making sure everyone’s voice is heard
  • Encouraging deep listening
  • Creating psychological safety for questioning
  • Making room to leverage collective wisdom to solve problems
  • Holding space for reflection on team processes and adaptive strategies.

This “learning by doing” program included three components: enhanced learning, guided practice and independent practice.

Enhanced learning

In the first component of the program, the different meeting types and facilitation skills outlined above were introduced and practiced in seminars open to the whole team. In addition, the apprentices as a group practiced on each other, receiving coaching and critique from an instructor.

Guided practice

Almost simultaneously with the enhanced learning phase, apprentices practiced their newly acquired facilitation skills at student meetings and informal gatherings of students around specific topics. In particular they facilitated most of the student meetings focused on divergent thinking described by Gemma Jiang in a previous blog post.

Apprentices were paired and worked collaboratively with the instructor in designing the meeting flows, writing out the facilitation guides, co-facilitating the meetings, and reflecting on the learning.

The guided practice culminated in a capstone project, which was a one-hour event designed to engage the whole team. We decided on a “Team Playground” theme to make room for social play and fun, while serving as a charging station for an upcoming reverse site visit with our funder, marking the transition from year 2 to year 3 of funding.

  • We opened with a coloring game to help everyone arrive in a playful mood. Team members were then moved into two-person breakout rooms where each took turns to tell the story of their name. The purpose was to move the team out of their usual task-oriented mindset into a relationship-oriented mindset.
  • The team was then divided in half, with each group participating in two further activities, to continue building relationships. One was to pass around a virtual “curiosity ball” to ask a question of the person they were passing the ball to. The second activity involved showing objects related to circular economy (the focus of the team’s work, eg., plastic water bottle, smartphone) with team members asked to share “what comes to mind when you see this”.
  • We ended with a game called “Starburst”. To start, everyone turned off their cameras. Then one by one team members turned on their cameras (like a twinkling star) to answer the prompt: “In the coming three years, our team will thrive by…”. The purpose of this exercise was to connect individuals with the team vision and end the event with a future orientation.

The instructor consulted with the apprentice team on the flow and rehearsed with them several times to deliver a successful event, judging by the interactions and feedback.

Independent practice

Apprentices then worked individually in all types of team meetings, with the instructor’s role transitioning to that of a learning partner. There were monthly reflection gatherings for apprentices to learn from each other, to introduce new practices and to harvest learning for future offerings of the program.

Two key learnings and concluding questions

The apprentices were all engineering students, who are highly trained to work with complicated mechanical systems. The apprenticeship program deliberately shifted perspective to facilitation of complex adaptive human teams. There were times when the apprentices were reluctant to practice out of fear of failure. In such situations, the instructor encouraged them to examine their assumptions about what “failure” and “success” mean in facilitation. This usually led to the apprentices worrying less about skills and techniques and gaining a deeper understanding of the importance of the interactive dynamics arising at the moment.

Another key insight was being more thoughtful about the purpose of each team gathering. Instead of defaulting to the common practice of sharing information and updates, which often leads to disengagement, the time is much better spent on solving problems by leveraging collective wisdom and supporting this with the necessary facilitation capacity.

How do you develop the facilitation skills of your graduate students, especially in cross-disciplinary research teams? Do you have experiences or lessons to share?


Funding for this research was provided by the U. S. National Science Foundation Award ID: 1934824, GCR: Collaborative Research: Convergence Around the Circular Economy.

This blog post is based on a workshop presentation at the 2021 Science of Team Science Conference:

Biography: Gemma Jiang PhD is the Director of Organizational Innovation at the University of Pittsburgh, USA. She applies complexity leadership theory, social network analysis, and a suite of facilitation methods to enable transdisciplinary teams to converge upon solutions for challenges of societal importance. She was the instructor for the apprentice facilitator program.

Biography: Robert Hacku is a PhD student in Chemical Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, USA. His research focuses on the design and life cycle assessment of reusable thermoset plastics within the context of the circular economy. He was a participant in the apprentice facilitator program and led the capstone project.

14 thoughts on “Developing facilitation capacities in graduate students”

  1. Copied from Twitter by the blog editor:
    Interactive dynamics? Do you mean the action and understanding that happens in the gaps and spaces or intersections between disciplines? Or the novel that gets created as a result of the same #transdisciplinary

  2. Dear Gemma and Dear Robert,
    Thank you for sharing your experience. It is really inspiring.

    I would like to share my experience of developing facilitation skills among my graduate students in a smaller scale, within one discipline and smaller in number, they were eight fresh graduate students. My goal emphasizes on achieving two components: encouraging independent practices and generating a disciplinary cooperative skill. The students were very positive and learnt different practices: leading, organizing their system thinking within the research, and accomplishing the tasks in the due dates.
    Of course, to practice and expand the idea in a cross-disciplinary graduate students, it will need expanding the insight of inter/ transdiciplinary concepts and tools. I am encouraging to teach the graduate students “the interdisciplinary research curriculum.”

    With best wishes,

    • Great to hear about your practice, Manal. Keep up the good work — it is so important to start students when they are young. The Liberating Structures ( formed the basis of the curriculum for my apprentice facilitator program. It might be a helpful resource for you as you expand the idea in cross-disciplinary students. It will be more challenging, and more fun!

  3. I love that you are formalizing the training of these skills as an apprenticeship, because it is all about practice! I am curious how the research team responded to the students’ facilitation. I’ve had some bad experiences as a graduate student trying to lead meetings this way, where the team totally rejected my approach and even made fun of me in the chat. There are power dynamics with grad students leading more senior colleagues. How did you manage those dynamics?

    • Great observation, Bethany. I can totally see the dynamics with grad students leading more senior colleagues. I am quite aware of it, because sometimes I myself could feel a little intimidated by some of the senior colleagues — I talked about the issues of power in another blog post. I can share if you are interested.

      So in this apprentice program, the students’ practice field were mostly student meetings (average attendance about 15 students). The capstone project was with the entire team, but we designed it as the “Playground”, something the team never experienced before, so it kind of leveled out the power dynamics. That worked out really well.

      I totally agree we should be really careful how we place the apprentices, to enable them instead of intimidate them. They need to build up a good portfolio of successful experience before facing the tough issues of power. What do you think?

  4. What a comprehensive (and fun!) facilitation experience! Though there is more awareness around the value of these skills there is still a lot of resistance to facilitation. What value did the apprentices see in adding these skills to their professional toolbox? Do they think these skills will apply for their future career plans? It’s heartening to see that you’re building the capacity for facilitation skills while also building a case for the value of these skills.

    In partial answer to Keith’s question. Girl Scouts of America has developed an experiential STEM curriculum for kindergarten through high school. Many GS events are led and designed by older girls (with support from adult mentors). They always design experiences to work for multiple ages, skill levels, and physical abilities.

    • Thank you for the excellent example of Girl Scouts of America, Anne! A lot of good things are happening outside the traditional school curriculum.

      The most rewarding part of this apprentice program is seeing the apprentices facilitate meetings. We only started this program at year 2 of the project, so they have something to compare against with the way meetings were run at year 1. They really do great jobs transforming the meetings. Several of them told me they were applying some of the facilitation skills with their friends get togethers. I always believe generating awareness is more difficult than developing skills — once that awareness is there, abundant resources will be coming to help develop the skills. I think all our apprentices have generated great awareness, and are continuing to generate more awareness in other contexts. For example, one of the apprentices started working on another NSF (National Science Foundation) funded project this fall. She introduced me to her new team, and invited me to share my experiences facilitating the convergence process on this project. It feels to me that some of the concepts will take root because they are asking periodic check-ins to compare notes. See how it spreads!!

      • Yes, love the Girl Scouts example. I have worked with teens leading meetings in 4-H (Editor: see and the Los Angeles school system in the US. Many LS (Liberating Structures) users apply the methods at home with their children and with their local schools. LS microstructures are simple and easily scaled. Young people do not have to unlearn more conventional approaches that unwittingly exclude, inhibit creativity, or over-control people. High velocity skill development is possible when you get an early start. So glad you are supporting the apprentices with a peer network.

        • Love this: High velocity skill development is possible when you get an early start! Let’s start early with LS (Liberating Structures). That very thought makes me feel excited.

  5. Thanks, Gemma and Robert. I think that the way you have gone about doing this will prove very valuable to your “apprentices”. Facilitation skills will grow in importance, I suspect, as a more-connected and faster-moving world increases the number of complex issues graduates will face.
    For instance, I expect that the use of multi-disciplinary teams will increase. Many graduates are ill-equipped to listen to, and understand, graduates from other disciplines.

    • Thank you for the comments, Bob. I completely agree with you that facilitation skills will grow in importance. Developing engineering students’ ‘cultural competency’, or ‘people skills’ or ‘soft skills’, has always been one of my top priorities. It is gaining growing attention in the national agenda as well. For example, the recent solicitation for National Science Foundation’s National Research and Traineeship program has mandated three core competencies: communications, team work and ethics. I believe facilitation touches upon both communications and team work. It is so important to develop the awareness of working with multi-disciplinary teams early on. What are some of your insights in developing facilitation capacity?

  6. Wonderful. Yes, preparing students to work across disciplines in diverse teams is critical. So many innovations arise from exploring the adjacent possibilities betwixt and between subject matter experts. I wonder how skill building in weaving human and engineering systems could get started much earlier?

    • I completely agree with you, Keith. In terms of skills building in the interface of human and engineering systems, my belief is that the earlier, the better. One thing I find particularly helpful is to distinguish between complicated technical systems and complex adaptive systems. All complicated technical systems are embedded within complex adaptive systems, and are influenced by what happens in those complex adaptive systems. It helps to explain why it is important to build skills to enable effective interaction between the two different systems. Simply put, it is hard for an engineer to advance in their careers if they did not understand human dynamics. What are some effective strategies you have found?


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