Conference Share-A-Thons Are A Learning Illusion

kindergarten is fun

It all started in preschool and kindergarten.

Every week, our teacher would ask us to bring something to class for show-n-tell.

We would bring our beloved stuffed animal or a coin from a foreign country or a favorite toy or whatever caught our eye on the way out the door to school. The purpose of show-n-tell was to stand in front of the class and tell our classmates something about the object. The goal was for us to practice talking and communicating with others. The goal was not for the class to learn more about each child.

Daily Conference Recaps As Faux Education

Recently I attended a major industry conference that had an adult version of show-n-tell.

Each day ended with a sharing session where attendees could gather and get the highlights and critical notes from two other sessions that they could not attend.

Attendees entered the room and chose a table with a leader who had attended a specific education session. In 20 minutes, that leader would share the top 5-10 critical points of the sixty or ninety-minute session he/she had attended.

After twenty-minutes, someone would announce change and attendees could move to a different table to get a recap of another session. It was billed as getting the notes, critical content and takeaways from two additional sessions in less than sixty-minutes.

While the spirit of this daily download session was good, it actually was the direct opposite of what one should do if learning is the goal. If the goal was for each leader to recap what they had learned so that the leader would remember it more, then it worked. If the goal was for each attendee to learn something, and gain additional takeaways, then it failed.

Think about it. Did buying and reading the Cliff Notes help you learn anything? Nope. You still had to study the information to learn it. Even the writers of Cliff Notes state that you should read the book chapter or play first, then read the corresponding section in Cliff Notes. Cliff Notes just serve as a tool to give the reader another view, not as the end goal of learning itself. There are no short cuts to learning.

After attending the share-a-thon, sure, I felt like I have more information. Sure, I walked away with a list of takeaways. However, in reality, I did not gain any education or learning. Just had more clutter in my mind that would be forgotten in a matter of minutes.

Cramming more information into our brains does not automatically mean we learned it or even will retain it. Giving us a takeaway does not mean we know how to use or apply it. Nor does it mean that we have the right context for that takeaway. It’s like giving a child the fact 5×10=50. It’s an obscure fact without any relevancy or meaning. And unless I have the full context of when and how to use that fact, it is a waste of time.

Why Recaps And Share-N-Tell Fail At Learning

Learning is an ongoing experience. It’s much like a journey.

The journey starts where the learner is now. It ends then the learner is successful.

The end of a learning journey is not knowing more. It’s not about having more notes and takeaways in our hands to file in a cabinet. It is doing more with the knowledge we have.

Most conference organizers and volunteer committees assume that what their attendees need is more information. They believe that if the attendee just had more information they could perform better.


Information is the tool that attendees must have in order to perform. However, having information doesn’t accomplish anything by itself. Something is accomplished when the attendee uses that information to do something.

Remember, telling isn’t learning. Nor is hearing learning.

Conference organizers obviously want attendees to have the right tools to be successful. More importantly, we want attendees to know what to do with that information.

Having information without knowing how and when to use it is a lot like buying an expensive video camcorder. We have a great video camera but we are still taking crappy videos because we don’t have the right skills and abilities to use it.

The Million Dollar Question For Designing Education Sessions

Here’s the million dollar question that speakers, conference organizers and conference planning committees should ask when designing an education session:

It is reasonable to think that an attendee can be proficient on this topic without practice?

If the answer is no, then the attendees need opportunities to practice and develop the skills that apply the information. And this is more than sharing a recap of the takeaways!

How could you tweak the conference recap session so that each individual actually learns something instead of walking away with a list of others’ takeaways? Why do we believe that having more information is a good thing when most of us rarely apply that information anyway?

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  1. If the goal is learning, I’d think that having the people who attended each session re-gather into groups during a recap session to share their key takeaways with each other–and how they could apply them IRL–would be pretty effective.

    If we have to have recaps for those who didn’t attend the actual session, I suppose having the group leader give one takeaway and then ask the group to figure out how to apply it to their situations might lead to learning.

    Looking forward to seeing how others would tweak this. It’s interesting, because when I first started reading this post, I thought the recaps sounded like a good idea. It’s really hard to move from the ingrained “cram as much info-sharing as possible” mindset to one more geared toward learning!

  2. I’d rather have the chance to hear others’ takeaways than not regardless of whether or not we classify that as learning.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      What attracts you to hearing others’ takeaways? And how much is too much? Would you listen to 50 people’s takeaways? 100? 300?


  3. Very interesting and I think it comes back to organizers thinking that cramming in info shows value. I agree with Jeffrey that I like this idea in concept – but it does really come down to creating context as we know that we don’t retain what we don’t have a use for and it takes a pretty special facilitator to be able to do this. It is something organizers should be paying attention to though, so good to say it out loud.

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