Conference Lectures Are A Lazy Format For Lazy Learners

Images by Warein Holgado, Lori Greig and Josh Hunter.

This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. This is your brain during a lecture. (See image.) 

Our Addiction To Lectures

We are addicted to lectures.


They are easy to plan and schedule for a conference. Release a call for presentation proposals. Select speakers from submitted proposals. Ask speakers to give monologues or panel dialogues. Secure the right AV. Set the room theater style for maximum number of people. And ta-dah, it’s done.

They are easy to attend. Show up. Sit down. Stay quiet. Look forward. Act like you’re paying attention. Let your mind wander. And ta-dah, the osmosis occurs. Learning is magically transferred from the lecturer to the listener. Not!

They are easy to prepare. Put together a presentation. Create some bullets for PPT slides. And talk. Talk ad nauseam. Because content covered is content learned. Not!

Lectures Are A Lazy Format For Lazy Learners

Lectures are a lazy format for lazy learners. The premise is that anything we hear, we automatically learn, retain and can recall. That is incorrect. The ROI from information transfer from the presenter to the speaker is incredibly low. Without time to process the information, the learning that occurs is minimal.

The ROI Of Learning From Lectures

  • In a 1991 Berkeley study, only 20% of students retained what the lecturer presented. Maryland Collaborative For Teacher Preparation.
  • Eight minutes into the lecture, only 15% of the students were paying attention. Maryland Collaborative For Teacher Preparation.
  • Compared to peer discussions, lecture is the poorest method to promote thinking and retention in 90% of experiments. Donald A. Bligh, What’s The Use Of Lectures, 2000
  • Without variations in the usual lecture technique, lectures are not good for helping people develop new attitudes, behaviors or skills in 90% of experiments. Donald A. Bligh, What’s The Use Of Lectures, 2000
  • People usually forget 90% of what they learn in a class within 30 days. Majority of loss occurs within hours of the class. German psychologist and memory researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus. 

What is Learning?

Learning is an active process that takes place in working memory.

The learner processes words and visuals. During that process the learner gives attention to a few specific elements. Then abstracts meaning from them and connects them to past experiences. That is followed by the learner integrating the meaning with existing knowledge in long-term memory.

This process takes time. And it takes dedicated attention. It can’t occur while listening to a lecture.

Lectures Produce Cognitive Overload

Provide too much content in a lecture and the learner experiences Cognitive Overload. The working memory has a limited capacity of three to five things for a matter of seconds. Overload the working memory with too much information and it backfires. It can’t process the information. Learning stops. 

Changes Needed In Traditional Conference Education

For lectures to increase learning ROI, they must reduce the amount of content covered, integrate active audience participation and give people time to process information. In short, the presenter must stop talking and allow attendees to talk to each other. Or allow attendees to engage in practice.

As an attendee, what can you do to increase your learning after hearing a lecture? What are some tips conference organizers can do to increase attendee learning and encourage less lectures?

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  1. Jason Hensel says:

    Jeff, have you seen the latest news about how taking tests is the best way to learn?

    As an attendee, I like the practice of starting the session online before the conference. Then when you’re at the session on site, take a short test for review and then open up the subject for discussion. The only lecturing should be guidance and facilitation.

    I’m so sick of being spoken to at conferences and not included in the conversation. If I want to be spoken to, I’ll attend a book reading.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by MemberClicks, Ron Morrison. Ron Morrison said: Conference Lectures Are A Lazy Format For Lazy Learners #eventprofs #pcma #NADA11 […]

  3. John Wiker says:

    I think technical conferences address this better than others.

    When code is shown, it slows down the presentation, and reduces the amount of information so it’s not jus a machine gun of slides with densely packed bullet lists. At our events we encourage lots of Q/A and lots of showing and talking about code.

    Panels also serve this purpose as they’re more interactive by nature.

  4. No doubt about it, real learning is hard, and demands a lot of everyone involved. Maybe we’d rather be lazy and hope to pick up a few nuggets around the edges? I recently went to a conference that had a general session, three breakouts, a lunch with lecture, three more breakouts, and after-hours sessions–every day for three days.

    If I had actually spend the energy to learn everything being taught at every one of those sessions, I’d be in a rubber room right now! The best I could do was take tons of notes and hope to find time to sift through it all later. Classic data dump, but there’s no other way to transfer that big an amount of info to learners in that short a time frame that I can see.

    We’d have to scale everything way back, from number of sessions to amount of stuff to be learned per session, if we wanted to realistically make the classic conference a true learning experience. But then it doesn’t sound quite so enticing when you market it–everyone seems to want more, more, more, even if it means you learn less. Thoughts?

  5. Scott Lum says:

    Interesting, I generally say that panel discussions are the lazy way to program an event. Invite a bunch of people who have some expertise on a topic let them talk for 5-mins, which is mostly a marketing spiel about themselves or their company, then answer a bunch of questions from the audience and they can mostly talk in tweet size soundbites and overlap what the previous panelist said. I’ve been to many conferences and found that maybe 1 in 5 panels are done well where it’s well organized and the moderator understands the strengths of the panelists so that the discussion flows well. I also find the Q&A portion the least valuable part of the conference – attendees talk about what they’re interested in and it generally makes the discussion disjointed.

    Content value per hour I’ll take a lecture over most panels. The lectures are generally better organized and more thought out. I’ll take my notes to prevent overload and keep track of go-dos that are actionable. But that’s just my learning style.

    I agree there are much better ways to engage an audience through interactive training but that’s difficult to do in a 45-min format. It might work better if you had a half/full day workshop where the presenter can lay out the groundwork, provide some interaction, then debrief what they learned. Maybe one or two tracks from an event can take this deeper training style.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Yes, I read that article about test-taking too. Thanks for providing the link to it for others to see! And as always, thanks for reading and commenting.

      I agree that panels are more interactive…for the panelists…and not the audience. 😉

      Interesting thoughts about everyone wanting more, more, more. Maybe if we marketed it that the attendee would have more ROI, more takeaways, more retention that might make a difference. Another way around the issue is to structure content so that there are a lot of sessions around similar topics from different perspectives. I’m actually seeing a trend from attendees that they want to go deeper into content with less all-you-can-eat buffets of content.

      Thanks for reading and adding your thoughts too!

      I think the easy way to engage an audience in a 45-minute format is to have peer-discussion. Speak for 10 minutes and let them discuss for five. Then repeat twice more.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. […] Elizabeth Loder writes: “- the bulk of the “teaching” is still done through the traditional lecture method, even though research makes clear that listeners retain very little of what’s taught this way…. […]

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