Conference attendees generally want to learn.
Presenters generally want attendees to learn.
Conference organizers and hosts generally want attendees to learn as well.
So why does so little learning actually occur at a conference?
Good Intentions Pave The Way To Learning Fail
The conference organizers’ and presenters’ intentions are good. Unfortunately, their intentions go awry because often a disconnect occurs in the “what and how” of learning.
Typically, conference organizers spend the majority of their time seeking experts to deliver specific information. The experts focus on covering content. Usually, they try to cover too much content.
This entire process embodies presenter-focused, or teacher-focused, education. The attendee as a learner is completely lost. The learner is expected to adjust to an established way the speaker presents–frequently the lecture.
For successful learning to occur, the organization must shift to attendee-centered or learner-centered education. For conference organizers to succeed in their education endeavors, we must unlearn our expert-reliance. We must become learner-centered.
We must demand that conference organizers meet attendees’ learning needs. We must insist that conference organizers and presenters get better at diagnosing their audience’s learning needs. We must stipulate that speakers choose appropriate learning strategies for their presentations. We must challenge and require speakers to move away from a totally lectured-based presentation.
Attendees Are Information Processors
Conference attendees are information processing organisms. They have sensory capacities, information receiving constraints and memory limitations. To move to a learner-centered conference, we have to recognize how our bodies naturally receive and process information.
1. Sensory Capacities
Presenters should remember that attendees have multiple senses, each with different processing capacities. The more an attendees’ senses are engaged in meaningful and organized ways, the more easily learning can occur. Force too much information through one sense and you’ll overload its capacity.
2. Information Receiving Filters And Constraints
Do you perceive all the information bombarding your senses? Are you aware of the feeling your shoes create on your feet? Do you hear every sound around you right now? If you try, you’ll find that your focus on some noises causes others to fade.
Part of the wonderful way our body works is the ability to selectively perceive all of the stimuli around us. We only notice what appears to be relevant. We are automatically hard-wired to filter out information we perceive is irrelevant. Much of this is done unconsciously.
Three parts of our body, the brain, the nervous system and the endocrine system, are involved in automatically filtering information. Note: The endocrine system controls the chemicals released in our bodies that regulate mood, growth, metabolism and more.
In short, these three body systems act as gatekeepers to whether we focus our attention on specific stimuli. You can take charge of that attention for a short period. However, as soon as you lose attention, the body reverts to its automatic filters.
If an attendee unconsciously feels that the information is not vital to his or her needs, our body systems automatically filter out the information being transmitted.
To facilitate effective learning, presenters have to focus on attendees’ information-handling and storage capabilities.
3. Memory Limitations
Information that gets past our bodies’ natural gatekeepers is allowed into short term memory. Short term memory lasts for 10-15 seconds. It fills up and then automatically empties to be refilled again.
Information that enters short term memory is examined and either dropped or sent to long term memory. Unconsciously, the attendee decides if the information is important to store in long term memory. This decision is based on need, relevancy and past experience. If there’s no past experience with that information, there’s nothing to connect it to in long term memory and it is quickly forgotten.
The Conference Presentation As Transformation
As you can see, learning is a fragile process. A lot of things can stimulate or hinder conference learning. We have to get better at designing experiences that foster learning. We have to become learner-centric and see our attendees as information processers, including its limits and opportunities. The traditional lecture is not enough and is actually a learning barrier!
When learning does occur, the attendee’s mind is literally no longer the same as it was before the learning took place. Learning is change in our brain. It is the change that occurs in our physical and cognitive structures. That change can lead to new attitudes. It has the potential to lead to new behaviors.
This transformation equips the attendee with the ability to act in new ways. The attendee is transformed! And the attendee’s brain has changed, literally!
What are some ways to engage the senses at a conference experience that facilitates learning? What does moving from an expert-reliance conference experience to a learner-centered experience require?