Imagine this scenario.
You’re attending the annual conference of your favorite professional association. You can’t make up your mind which breakout to attend and decide to peek in on a couple sessions that have alluring topics and descriptions.
You walk into one room and find the presenter demonstrating the use of a popular software using their own computer and showing the steps on a screen. The speaker is showing the attendees how to set up the account and use it properly. The attendees are sitting, listening and watching the screen. None of the attendees are using a computer and following along with the presenter.
You walk into the second room and find the presenter lecturing using PowerPoint. The speaker is showing slides packed full of text and content. The attendees are sitting, listening and watching the screen. It doesn’t look much different than the previous room.
You walk into a third room and find two presenters giving a fast paced lecture of 60 tips in less than ninety minutes. The presenters are firing tips at a rate of one tip in every minute and a half. The audience is packed. Everyone is sitting on the end of their chairs, listening intently and watching the screen as the PowerPoint slides change rapidly.
So, here’s my question. Are these attendees learning? Who’s growing their brains in these groups?
The answer might surprise you.
Dr. Marian C. Diamond’s Research
In a 1985 study, University of California neuroscientist Marian Diamond, placed young and mature rats in the same enriched environment with toys such as rat wheels, trails to follow and blocks to climb. She wanted to know if both young and mature rats could learn and grow their brains.
Rats are often used in neuroscience studies because the rat brain is very similar in structure to the human brain. It also has fewer wrinkles making it easier to measure for changes. Neuroscientist like Diamond measure the number and density of dendrites, part of the brain’s neuron involved in learning, along with a host of other things. The more learning that occurs, the more dendrites grow and become thicker.
Guess what happened in Diamond’s young and mature rat study? The older rats refused to let the younger rats play with the toys. The mature rats dominated the cage and controlled the toys. The younger rats sat passively and watched their elders play.
Diamond’s results were amazing. Only the mature rats grew dendrites and experienced learning. There were no changes in the younger rats’ brains.
Let’s return to the three annual conference breakouts listed at the beginning of this post. Were the attendees learning? Who had brain growth because of their attendance at these conference sessions? According to Diamond’s research, the presenters were learning and growing their brains, not the attendees.
In conferences and events, it’s not enough to offer a variety of presentations where attendees sit passively in lectures, panels and demonstrations. They must be actively involved in the session in some way like case studies, pair or group discussions, role plays, simulations or structured note taking for learning to occur. The attendees need to help create their learning and be active in it. Active participation, not passivity, in experiences encourages brain growth.
And the one bright spot from Diamond’s young and mature rat research about learning? No matter how old you are, stimulating and challenging your brain with active learning will foster brain growth. You can teach an old dog new tricks.
How can conference organizers change some conference sessions so that more learning and brain growth occurs? What can event professionals do to encourage more learning and brain growth at annual meetings and events? Or does a conference’s attendee’s learning even matter? Is it more important to give attendees a temporary feel-good session so that they return positive smile sheets than actually have them learn something?