Dr. Judith M. Newman

Participatory Workshops

Understanding Participatory Approaches to Learning

Published by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance

1.1 What are Participatory Approaches to Learning?

Participatory approaches to learning are active approaches that encourage people to think for themselves. Participants actively contribute to teaching and learning, rather than passively receiving information from outside experts, who may not have local understanding of the issues. The approach encourages people to share information, learn from each other, and work together to solve common problems.

As people become more experienced with the approach, they take increasing responsibility for planning their own learning sessions. They learn how to work together in a group. They also gain experience in using the activities and visual tools to do their own fieldwork.

Participants can bring what they have learned back to their own organisations and communities, and continue to use facilitator techniques and participatory tools locally. Participatory learning also ultimately provides people with a framework of skills that they can use in any situation to explore issues and take action.

1.2 Why are participatory approaches used?

Participatory approaches are used in situations where a number of people must work together to resolve a common problem.

Good problem solving requires input from a variety of people with many types of experience and expertise. It also includes everyone who is interested in finding the best solution —the stakeholders. Experience shows that when everyone contributes to the learning process, then people feel more ownership of the problem and develop more appropriate solutions for their context.

HIV/AIDS is an issue that often involves the whole community. It requires that people from international, national, regional and local organisations work together. Participatory workshops can be very effective in bringing people together, from members of local communities to national NGOs and international policy-makers.

When people at international, national and regional levels have the opportunity to learn and to work together, there can be better co-ordination of services.

The workshops can raise awareness of HIV/AIDS, as well as developing knowledge, skills and attitudes relating to HIV/AIDS. However, participatory approaches have disadvantages as well as advantages.

Advantages and disadvantages of participatory approaches to learning


  • They use inexpensive resources.
  • They can be used in any physical setting.
  • They are interesting and fun—helping to involve people in the subject.
  • They help people to build self-confidence.
  • They help people to learn about themselves.
  • They help people to understand the perspectives of others.
  • Participants with different degrees of experience and literacy can use them.
  • They prevent individuals from being singled out for what they know, or don't know.
  • They are less intimidating for less confident participants.
  • They can help people to analyse complex situations.
  • Outcomes are often documented during the process and do not depend on jargon.
  • They are memorable.
  • Lessons learnt can be brought back to local communities or organisations.


  • They are difficult to plan, because planning often depends on what the participants want to do.
  • Involving stakeholders takes time.
  • It can take time for people who are used to being "students" rather than "participants" to feel comfortable with these approaches.
  • Facilitator techniques can be difficult to master and use effectively.
  • They can make people feel uncomfortable, for example about drawing.
  • They can be difficult to document in a report format but can be documented well using photographs or by keeping flipcharts.
  • Some people may not consider them to be valid ways of working.
  • Participants may be more focused on the creative, rather than learning, aspect of the activity.
  • It can be difficult to establish clear action points or conclusions from the activity.


This is an extract from A Facilitators' Guide to Participatory Workshops with NGOs/CBOs Responding to HIV/AIDS, published by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance in November 2001.

To download the whole document, complete with graphics, in pdf format (which requires Adobe Acrobat software to read it) follow this link (file size 1.15mb)
[If the above link doesn't work, click here]