Five Myths Of Interactive, Participatory Learning For STEM Conferences

It’s one of the most common excuses I hear from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics/Medical) conference organizers today…

“As ______________ (insert appropriate STEM word) attendees, they won’t participate in interactive sessions or discussions. They don’t want to be actively involved. They don’t like to talk. They came to hear from an expert. We can’t leave them to their own learning.”

In short, these conference organizers and their teams are convinced that they can control their audience’s learning through a lecture. Their attendees have never complained in the past. They’ve always done it that way so why change now.

Conference Myths Regarding Active Learning For STEM Groups

Dr. Doug Jacobson, Dr. James Davis and Dr. Barb Licklider created a program called LEA/RN (Learning Enhancement Action/Resource Network) at Iowa State University in 1994. Their goal was to help professors who wanted to improve student learning. Their own research and experience shows that STEM groups can improve learning through the use of interactive participatory experiences.

Cooperative, collaborative learning is learning in small groups, triads or pairs to ensure active cognitive processing of information during a lecture. Active learning strategies are all activities that adults do and actively participate in during a session. The emphasis is on what adults do and it does not include passively listening to a lecture although an effective strategy is to integrate participatory learning activities within a lecture.

Here are some myths that many conference organizers present as truths and the reasons they won’t try something new. The research is clear and dispels these myths. Adults can learn more and at higher levels when their presenters use active, collaborative learning strategies outside of or with the traditional lecture.

Myth 1: Collaborative, interactive learning won’t be successful in a STEM field.

This is the most common myth I encounter and usually the first roadblock the conference organizers state to making changes. At a glance, it appears that participatory learning is best suited for non-STEM groups whose content is subjective. However research shows that interactive learning experiences do work for STEM groups. Success with implementation is dependent upon helping adults understand the science behind the why and how of collaborative learning. Creating a safe and supportive environment where adults can learn with and from each other is also key.

Myth 2: When interactive learning experiences are used there isn’t time to cover all the content.

Presenters often feel that if they have to provide audience reflection or discussion exercises, they can’t cover all their content. They also get frustrated with deciding which content to eliminate. This is why learning outcomes are so important to each conference session. Those learning outcomes should be based on providing solutions to the audience’s challenges. If the content does not relate to those outcomes, it should be removed. Yes, there is less content covered and the adults do the heavy lifting of uncovering the critical concepts through cooperative learning.

Myth 3: Adults don’t want to learn through interactive exercises.

Part of collaborative learning is using our social skills to learn. Modeling for adults the appropriate ways to respond to questions, reflect on key content and think about application is one of the ways to foster engagement. Allowing adults to “pass” or only observe is also key to success. When you establish expectations and create a safe environment for learning, many adults and introverts transition more easily into participatory roles.

Myth 4: Adults don’t want to work together. They came to learn from the expert.

When the responsibility for learning is put back upon the learner, some do resist. They prefer to sit back and “absorb information” through listening although science shows that listening to a lecture is as valid as putting your head on textbooks and hoping to absorb the information through osmosis. I’m not saying that conference education should be content-free. There are proven strategies to integrate collaborative learning with lectures to increase knowledge retention. Success for active participation depends upon finding contextual and good group problems from the content presented. Writing code as a group is not a good interactive exercise. However, having the group each take pieces of a larger problem and solve them individually and then bring the pieces together is one collaborative strategy that does work.

Myth 5: Participatory learning can’t occur in large sessions.

Yes, it’s true that some room sets foster learning better than others and therefore those room sets may limit the number of attendees that participate. However, even in large ballroom settings, it’s easy and simple to have adults turn to those sitting on their left or right or in front of or behind them and have a short conversation. As long as the presenter establishes some expectations and creates a safe learning environment, even large ballrooms of thousands can actively participate in learning.

What other myths or excuses have you heard regarding interactive learning and conferences? When an adult says they came to learn from an expert, what do you think they really mean and what’s the real message they are sending?

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  1. I actually haven’t heard of these myths regarding STEM conferences, but I can assure you that the professors/delegates/graduate/post docs that attend our Mathematical conferences require that the conferences we produce have the element of participatory learning. Mathematicians aren’t shy when they’re large groups of their peers!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for reading and sharing your experience. Congratulations on having success with participatory learning at your conferences too!

  2. Adrian Segar says:

    As someone who has designed and led a participant-driven and participation-rich annual STEM conference for the past 22 years, I can confirm that these are indeed myths.

  3. Sue Pelletier says:

    I only hear this from those who haven’t tried it–those who have, anecdotally anyway, have had huge success. Which makes the resistance on the organizers’ parts so strange.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and adding your own experiences to this conversation. Appreciate it.

      Yes, it does make the resistance on the organizers’ part to use participatory learning very strange. I personally think it’s a control issue. Organizers and speakers feel if they can control the information flow, they can control the learning. That’s a myth for sure. Thanks for reading and adding to the discussion.

  4. John Collins says:

    Having provided interactive technology to many STEM meetings over the last couple of decades, one of the questions that we often ask is, “Did you enjoy the interactive sessions?” We have never received less than a 90% favorable response.

  5. […] as Jeff Hurt has persuasively argued, it is a myth to suggest that introverted audiences don’t value participative formats. And, […]

  6. Julie says:

    As a conference organiser who has run more than 20 engineering conferences in Australia, I have had my delegates speed dating, drumming and all manner of other interactive activities. Good conference design is not just about professional development but also eliciting positive emotional responses from delegates

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Hi Julie!

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I’m right there with you that attendee participation in a conference is critical. The challenge for meeting & conference professionals in ensuring that the activity aligns with the goal of that particular session. Drumming is a great way to provide an attendee break from the routine or create a new experience. However, drumming does not align well with mental engagement required for learning a new concept, understanding it and considering how to apply it.

      I’ve seen well-meaning conference organizers create themed micro-experiences such as an immersive Asian dinner experience. The goal of the organizer was to create an immersive culturally-based event so that those traveling to Asian would be prepared for some of the cultural differences. However, the attendees remember interesting food and decor not specific culture differences. This is how we often misalign our participatory activities with the desired outcome from the sesion.

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