Ironically, 60% to 80% of a conference attendee’s time is spent in formal learning, passively listening to a presenter. Unfortunately, 14 days later we only recall 20% of what we hear in those presentations. (John Medina, Brain Rules; E. Dale, Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching). 30 days later, attendees have forgotten 90% of what they learned in the session (German psychologist and memory researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus). Most of what we hear in the lecture is forgotten within a matter of minutes.
So why do conference and event organizers continue to develop conference schedules that promote formal learning models that offer the least amount of learning and retention?
Are we selling conference snake oil that attendees can improve their professional lives by attending our conference education sessions when they can only remember 10%-20% percent of what they heard?
Today’s Traditional Conference
Conference organizers, speakers and attendees often have the same mental image of how conference educational sessions work. Speakers lecture while attendees listen and occasionally take notes.
This process is repeated several times for a six- to eight-hour day of learning. Duplicate Day One for two, three or even five more days. Add a dash of tradeshow hours, mix in a couple of evening receptions or parties and sprinkle a networking session or two and you’ve got the Betty Crocker mix for the ultimate, conference experience. Just add attendees and you’re done.
The conference organizers and attendees think that the more content that can be poured into an attendee’s head in this conference mix, the more learning that occurs and the higher the attendee’s ROI.
We think adding more content is like adding butter to our Betty Crocker Conference mix. As Julia Childs said, “With enough butter anything is good.” She often exclaimed with glee that butter worked very well as a flavor carrier for spices, vanilla and other fat soluble ingredients.
In the conference world, we mistakenly think that adding more content acts as an ROI carrier, increasing the retention and learning at an event. We’ve just added more butter.
Yet that isn’t true.
The Challenge With Conference Lectures
The “information transfer model” of the traditional lecture does not match what current cognitive science research tells us of how humans learn. Research shows that the brain does not record information like a digital video camera. Turn your digital video camera on, click record and hit play. Boom, you’ve just recorded everything for replay whenever you want.
It’s a much more complicated process to get that knowledge passed from the speaker’s mouth, through the listener’s ears to the brain and move it from short term to long term memory. Our image of the brain as a recorder is incorrect. How the information is originally obtained through the five senses and whether there is some type of participation such as discussion or simulation have a tremendous impact on the learning and retention.
So how does formal and informal learning play into the conference mix? Why is it important to provide both?
Defining Formal And Informal Learning
Informal Learning author Jay Cross says, “Formal and informal learning are ranges along a continuum of learning.”
Cross states, “Formal learning is accomplished in school, classrooms, courses, conference sessions and workshops. It’s official, scheduled and taught. Most of the time it’s top down with learners evaluated on mastering material someone else has deemed important.” Sometimes scores are applied and successful mastery of the information results in diplomas, degrees and certifications.
“Informal learning often flies under the radar. It can happen intentionally or inadvertently…No one graduates because the learning never ends,” he adds. It is accomplished in the conference hallway, over a meal, through observation, trial-and-error, asking friends for their opinion, conversing with others, participating in a group, composing blog comments, reflecting on the day’s events, raising a child, chatting over coffee, pursuing a hobby and more.
The most successful conferences intentionally include a blend of both formal and informal learning. Those organizers purposely craft informal learning opportunities by providing small group discussions and peer-to-peer learning. Social researcher and author Etienne Wenger says, “Learning is best understood as an interaction among practitioners, rather than a process in which a producer provides knowledge to a consumer.”
Changing Our Conference Learning Models
Our definition of a successful conference learning experience must change. It must include informal learning opportunities. It must embrace each attendee’s connections onsite and that the real learning comes from their interactions with one another. Nurturing attendees’ informal learning is an implicit part of every conference organizer’s job.
So how do you do that? How do you design informal learning opportunities for attendees?
One way is to encourage all presenters to allow attendees the time to practice thinking in terms of the new concepts being taught. Right during their lecture, they should stop and ask attendees to generate their own examples of how to apply the concept they’ve just heard. Then ask them to turn to the neighbor seated on their left or right and share how they will apply it. This approach works with the mind’s natural processes for brain learning and retention, and thus improves learning.
This simple yet profound activity, allowing attendees to participate in discussion with one another, increases the retention of the content. Attendees recall 70% of what they discussed 14 days later. (John Medina, Brain Rules; E. Dale, Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching).
Now that’s some great conference and meeting ROI. And it’s not magic conference snake oil.
What are some ways you’ve successfully nurtured informal learning in conference formats? What have you seen done successfully at conferences that helped you increased your learning?
*From research from Institute of Research on Learning, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, The Education Development Center of Massachusetts, Capitalworks, the eLearning Guild and Canada’s National Research Network on New Approaches to Lifelong Learning.