What is the Difference between an Instructor and a Facilitator? 

By Bill Wilder, Director of the Life Cycle Institute and Tara Denton Holwegner, CPLP

Learning experiences produce results by changing behavior. Behavior-changing learning experiences are led by experienced, passionate professionals who know the content and how people learn.

At the Life Cycle Institute class leaders are called facilitators. This acknowledges that in addition to being experienced authorities on their topic, they have a passion for teaching and have developed this passion into a set of learning facilitation skills.


An instructor is a content resource. Most content experts share their knowledge through writing or lectures. When they instruct, they appear as the “sage on the stage” imparting all knowledge to a passive participant. They are a content resource. They control what is taught and when. It is up to the participant to adapt their personal style and prior knowledge to learn new skills and knowledge.

A facilitator, on the other hand, is a process manager first, a content resource second. Facilitators use their knowledge of how people learn to create an active environment that embraces participants’ prior knowledge and unique learning style. They engage the participant in taking charge of their learning. When they facilitate, they appear as a “guide by the side” encouraging the sharing of knowledge by and with an active participant.

Adults learn best when certain conditions are present, conditions that are different than traditional instructor-led classes. This is a well established and proven fact. Malcolm Knowles identified these and popularized “andragogy” as the Theory of Adult Learning. The four conditions that are influenced or directly stated principles of andragogy are woven into all successful adult learning.

  • Adults are ready to learn when they sense a need to cope with real-life situations.
  • Adults learn best when they take charge of their learning.
  • Adults engage in learning with unique and often extensive prior knowledge that will aid or inhibit learning.
  • Adults who test and apply new knowledge and skills in the learning environment are more likely to change their behavior on the job.

Facilitators complete a rigorous qualification and are continuously engaged in activities that enhance their effectiveness at facilitating learning. This includes a rich repertoire of openers, closers, energizers, and interactive lecture techniques. Facilitators begin as highly qualified content instructors. They then work to build their facilitation skills through development activities. So even though we call them facilitators, they are really both and can apply either style based on participants’ needs and the course learning objectives.

There are eight competencies a facilitator is expected to have:

  1. Prepares for training delivery
  2. Creates a positive learning climate
  3. Establishes credibility as facilitator
  4. Adapts teaching to what participants know and how they learn
  5. Focus on learning objectives
  6. Facilitates learning by encouraging participation 
  7. Employs a variety of teaching tools and techniques
  8. Ensures learning outcomes

An effective course depends on the quality of the learning objectives. The ability to change behavior to achieve a desired result is dependent on active, measurable learning objectives.  

An effective class depends on the quality of the facilitator. A well designed course alone does not make an effective class. A weak facilitator who is dependent on slides and lecture will deliver a weak class, regardless of the quality of the course design and materials.  A strong facilitator with a deep knowledge of the content, an understanding of how adults learn, and a rich repertoire of activities to facilitate learning can deliver an effective class despite weak course design and materials. 

Adults participate in formal learning activities to enhance their ability to produce specific results. Producing results through learning is best achieved in an environment in which a clear, active, measurable objective (result) is identified and an effective facilitator guides the process.

For more information about how the Life Cycle Institute can help your learning programs yield more effective results, please contact us at 800-556-9589 or [email protected].


Bill Wilder, M.Ed is the founder and director of the Life Cycle Institute, the learning, leadership and change management practice at Life Cycle Engineering. The Institute integrates the science of learning and the science of change management to help organizations produce results through behavior change. You can reach Bill at [email protected].

Tara Denton Holwegner is a Learning Consultant with the Life Cycle Institute. Tara has designed and delivered formal and informal learning events and training material since 2001. Her passion for adult learning principles leads her to build learning products that meet business objectives and practice facilitation techniques that ensure knowledge transfer. Tara’s learning products have been named a finalist in training product competitions; her flexibility allows her to work on a range of projects, from advising a Fortune 500 company on an internal certification program to delivering Web training seminars. You can reach Tara at [email protected]

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