More Dangerous Assumptions About Your Conference Education Part 2

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The research* shows that much of what we do in our conference education is actually counterproductive. (*See partial list of research and books at the end of Dangerous Assumptions Part 1 post.)

We spend too much of our conference time on delivery of information. The web is a better information delivery model than our events.

We should shift our conference education focus to our attendees’ real business results. When we emphasize delivery for application instead of delivery for information the attendee wins. Delivery for application requires enough time and active practice for participants to comprehend the content, connect it to their existing knowledge and then encode it in a way that they can retrieve and use it on the job says the authors of The Field Guide To 6Ds about transforming learning into real business results.

Four More Faulty Conference Education Assumptions

This is part 2 of dangerous assumptions about your conference education.

Assumption 3: Get A Year’s Worth Of Education In Just Three Days

We push content at our audiences as fast as we can. We claim we have something for everyone.

We believe that our audience can learn in bulk in three days at our event.

Our audiences have to give their focused attention to what is being said. This is the first and vital step to in the learning process.

Processing speed and capacity are two more bottlenecks in the learning process. And people need breaks to satisfy both their mental and physiological needs is a fourth bottleneck. Sitting passively for one to eight hours a day listening to experts is the exact opposite of what we should do for real learning to occur.

When too much content is presented, it overwhelms the brain’s capacity to process and make sense of that information. It leads to cognitive overload.

“When the overload gets large enough, the learning systems shuts down altogether,” says researchers Clark, Nguyen and Sweller in their book Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load.

Truth: Less content is more. And that conference education needs to have intentional breaks to allow the brain time to process, reflect and connect the information as well as dedicated time away from the content. You cannot attend to a year’s worth of content in three days. It’s impossible to do.

Assumption 4: Experts Should Talk Out Loud Not Attendees

Did you ever really control your audience? No! You controlled the flow of information and therefore thought you controlled the learning.

So what percentage of your conference experience is dedicated to attendees talking to attendees? What percentage is dedicated to intentional, facilitated peer discussions around specific issues? Most of the time we don’t schedule time for attendees to think, process and reflect about what is being said.

Articulating our decisions out loud helps us learn says author and educator Jan Bozarth. We need more one on one peer discussion and explanations during conferences. We need to help attendees understand the importance of talking out loud to each other for their own learning.

Truth: “Working out loud takes us off autopilot and forces us to confront assumptions, bad habits, and prejudices. Helping others better articulate decisions helps them learn,” says Bozarth. Have speakers dedicate 35%-50% of their presentation time to reflection and one on one discussion of application.

Assumption 5: Attendees Are The Best Judges Of Their Own Learning

As the authors of Make It Stick: The Science Of Successful Learning have pointed out, adults are delusional about when they think they are learning. They believe sitting and listening for long hours each day will automatically lead to learning. Most don’t want to have to work at their learning.

“Just give me the crib notes, cheat sheets, top tips or copies of everyone’s handouts and PPTs and I’ve got it,” is the common statement and unfortunately is an illusion. When we’ve got those things, we think we have learned that information but we haven’t.

Truth: We have to help attendees understand the biology of their brain and authentic learning. Provide learning tips and relevant application of the learning research.

Assumption 6: Conference Effectiveness Is Equal To Customer Satisfaction

We seldom evaluate our conference education. Nor do we actually evaluate the effectiveness of our conference education. Most of the time we ask questions about the attendees’ satisfaction with the speaker. Satisfaction has nothing to do with learning says Dr. Will Thalheimer. And Thalheimer’s research shows speaker evaluations are biased in favor of the speaker.

Truth: We need to use more effective evaluations (not traditional smile sheets) and better gauge the workplace application of our education. We need to shift the focus of our speakers to our attendees’ real business results and not just satisfaction.

What other conference education assumptions do we have? What eventually will happen if we continue to promote our traditional conference education model of lectures and panels over attendee learning?

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  1. Håkan Olsson says:


    Interesting article!

    But how come you guys publish e-learning right here without applying basic science and research?

    You use decorative images that are not relevant to the instructional purpose. According to E-learning and The Science of Instruction (Clark, Mayer) one thing to look for in e-learning regarding images is: Graphics should be relevant to the instructional purpose rather than decorative.

    Also, I noticed the images were linked. Of course, I thought you wouldn’t do that unless it’s part of the e-learning — but no, that gave even less relevant images and I lost a bit focus.

    Another thing: It’s a lot of written information. Also, you link to several books. That’d probably take months to read. Wouldn’t our learning experience become more efficient and effective if you linked to an example and someone who shows how to do it and where you gradually get involved in practice solving increasingly complex problems?

    Yes, I’m ironic, though not to become a troll — but to make a point. The publisher/author of these web pages are in the same situation as many speakers at conferences. You are both not convinced that your audience actually want the kind of science/research-based presentation format you are asking for.

    Now, if applying this further, one should ask what is the teacher’s responsibility? It’s not to make people learn (they do that by them self). It is to make their learning more effective, i.e., help them learn. One more thing is needed here. Learning is directed by goals. You evaluate costs and benefits of opportunities to learn. If the price is expected to become high or benefits low — you go look for alternate goals (better deals). Any time you believe the audience don’t appreciate, e.g., pre-knowledge tests, practice sessions, collaborative work etc etc — you are actually doing science/research-based instruction if you omit it and your prediction is correct.

    So, to me it looks like one can’t say they are doing it wrong unless you get it confirmed by the audience.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for reading and commenting. We greatly appreciate it.

      Can you help me understand your position about information, content and a blog post being elearning?

      I see information as static, just words on a page, data, facts, figures. Learning is a process, not information on a page. It is only when we begin to uncover what that content means to us does learning occur.

      1. Håkan Olsson says:


        I regret my sloppy thinking when I wrote “…publish e-learning”. Of course, learning (with or without “e”) can’t be published. Learning is something that occurs inside a creature, from experience and that changes one’s behavior or feelings or how one interpret information etc. (Something like that)

        However, I think e-learning is learning that is developed when using some electronic device as stimuli. That would typically be a computer but could be something else. So if I, via a computer screen, process content that’s on a blog post on www, and I learn from it — I would consider this occurrence as e-learning.

        1. Jeff Hurt says:


          Thanks for the clarification. For me, learning is a biological process that requires thinking, sense-making, connecting and action. I’m also a strong believer that learning is social. IMHO, text, published blog posts or books are just content. They may encourage thinking but is only the stimulus for active processing and active learning. So I don’t see blog posts as a lecture in a formal learning experience at all. It’s just words on a page.

          My job as a writer is to get you to uncover what this content means to you. Or to get you to think differently.

          When I design a learning experience, I design something very different than words on a page or spoken words from my mouth to your ear. I design an active engaging experience where the audience is going to do something. That’s very different than static blog posts.

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