Three Key Ingredients Needed For Conference Learning To Occur


Learning at conferences is actually a fragile thing.

Many things affect our learning. And those factors increase in a complex, content-rich, sensory-strong, ever changing, unfamiliar conference environment.

Three Factors That Influence Our Learning

Cognitive psychology researchers have shown that three major factors influence how much and how well we learn: ability, prior knowledge and motivation.


Topping the list of key ingredients of learning is ability. Ability is the capacity to learn new knowledge and skills. It also varies from individual to individual.

We are born with learning potential. Our brains are muscles waiting to be used, strengthened and exercised.

Some people have acquired skills and habits that allow them to exercise their learning ability more than others. It is very similar to those that have increased their strength and stamina through exercise.

Ability is usually broken into three categories:

  1. Nonverbal ability
  2. Concrete reasoning ability
  3. Abstract reasoning ability

What’s important for conference organizers to remember is that attendees vary in their ability to learn. Conference programming needs to compensate for those that learn rapidly as well as those that don’t. Those that learn faster need more stimulation and challenge to keep their focus.

Prior Knowledge

How much a conference attendee already knows about a specific subject strongly affects his/her learning. Prior knowledge helps the attendees acquire additional knowledge and skills more rapidly.

The more you know about a subject, the easier it is to acquire additional knowledge and skills in that subject. Conference organizers should encourage presenters to allow attendees to identify what they already know about the subject being presented at the beginning of the presentation. This gives the presenter an indicator of how to customize the presentation to meet the audience’s needs.


Most of us have seen the power of high motivation. It results in a strong desire to achieve.

We’ve also seen the reverse when motivation is lacking. Those that are unmotivated may not care. They have no drive and seem to lack an interest in learning.

Three major factors affect motivation.

1. Value

The more we value something, the more motivation we have about it. As an attendee attaches more value to the content being presented, motivation increases. The higher the value connected with what is being learned, the more inspired and motivated the attendee is.

Conference organizers must secure speakers and content that potential attendees find extremely valuable. The most valuable conference education is usually content that helps solve immediate problems and can be applied easily.

2. Confidence

When attendees feel hopeless in their ability to learn something, they are unmotivated. They lack confidence in their ability to learn. Similarly, overconfidence leads to a decline in motivation as well. When attendees feel a topic is too easy or at a beginner’s level, motivation plummets.

The sweet spot occurs when attendees believe the subject is relevant to them and they have the confidence to learn it. Attendees have to be challenged and have a sense of security that they can learn the subject.

3. Mood

We all know what it’s like when we are not in the mood. We lack motivation to learn or connect.

Personal feelings affect our mood. The conference atmosphere and environment also affect our mood and thus our learning.

A positive conference learning environment can improve an attendee’s mood and thus their motivation. A positive mood is when an attendee is open and optimistic to learning new things.

Conference Presenter Implications

Conference organizers often put speakers in the role of helping attendees acquire knowledge and skills. The presenters are focused on providing content.

Asking presenters to step out of the role of expert and become more learner-centric is a challenge yet necessary. If presenting were just speaking words aloud, attendees would remember everything. And everyone would automatically excel at everything because they heard it. Yet, that’s not what happens. Telling doesn’t automatically result in attendee learning.

Helping speakers understand how an attendee’s ability, prior knowledge and mood affect their learning is critical to the success of the conference.

What are some ways conference organizers can affect attendees’ mood at the event? How can speakers take advantage of attendees’ prior knowledge about a topic during a presentation?

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  1. In our experience, speakers have been able to achieve great results helping their attendees acquire new knowledge and skills by engaging them directly with live audience response systems (ARS). We’ve seen clearly that well designed live polls and post-event surveys can test attendees’ assumptions and deepen their understanding of a given topic, and serve as a great springboard for discussion and debate. When used to ask the right questions, ARS is extremely successful because it appeals to that all-important prior knowledge of the audience. With a digital tool to reach out to attendees, speakers become facilitators of learning rather than simply lecturers.

    It should also be mentioned that utilizing ARS also helps the speaker learn more about their audience and speaking topic, not just the attendee!

  2. thom singer says:

    A speaker is not a commodity product. Too often the spot to present is handed to someone who seems smart or has done something cool. The organizer can “check the box” that the speaking slot has a speaker…. but that does not mean that that individual has the skills needed to impact, inspire, educate, motivate and entertain the attendees.

    Expecting more from speakers than a book report of information is not just a good idea… it is necessary if we want a successful event.

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