Time To Pivot: Rethinking Human Memory And Remembering For Conference Education

Pivot Conference 2011

How does the mind work, especially how does it remember things from your event?

Well, it’s probably not like your currently believe. Creating a memorable event is not enough!

Unforgettable memorable events, which most of us aim to offer, misguide your attendees because our memories do not accurately record an event or experience. Your memory is flawed and gives you a false sense of learning. It fills in gaps with misinformation. It misinterprets what actually happens. We need to turn to cognitive science, the interdisciplinary field of research from anthropology, computer science, linguistics, neuroscience, philosophy and psychology to understand what happens in our attendees’ minds.

Poor Judges Of Learning

Your attendees have spent years in formal and informal education settings. We would expect that they know how they learn. In reality, they know very little about how they really learn.

We are all terrible judges of our own learning say the authors of Make It Stick: The Science Of Successful Learning.

The majority of conference education routines and practices are counterproductive to learning. The standard lecture, the panel of six talking heads, the debate, the entertaining and inspirational keynote, verbatim note taking, all create the illusion of learning. In reality, the gains your attendees thought they had disappear quickly.

A Major Conference Cognitive Science Principle To Adopt

Turning to cognitive science, here is one major principle that your conference should adopt if you want your attendees to remember information to use on their job. It is adapted from the works of cognitive psychologist and Professor Dr. Daniel Willingham.

You Only Remember What You Thought About

Some of what happens daily is stored away in our minds for the future. Most of it is not!

For example, you may vividly recall the stage of an opening general session. You remember the furniture and the huge screen with vivid moving pictures. You recall what the primary speaker was wearing but not her six points.

So why would your memory recall those things and discard the really important things—what the speaker talked about? Why would your memory remember a color of a dress but not the primary points?

You and your attendees don’t control what is stored!

Memory Is The Residue Of Thought

Memories are formed as the residue of thought. This means that the more you think about something, the more likely it is that you will remember it later.

Wait! Don’t get too excited yet.

It is only the salient bit—the part of the conference that your attendees’ really think about—that turns into memory says Willingham. And often your attendees think about the wrong things—the color of the speakers’ dress, the big screen, the furniture.

Devoting Attention, Time And Meaning-Making

But wait. There’s more!

You recall what you think about but not every fleeting thought. Only those matters which you devote some attention are committed to memory and remembering says Willingham.

Here’s the rub for conferences: it’s vital for your attendees to know what they’re going to want to remember later, because that dictates how they should think about the conference. And they must devote attention, time and meaning-making to those things during the conference to remember them.

Sometimes, we have to direct attendees’ attention to the big ideas. And we have to give them time, during the presentation to make their own meaning of those big ideas.

We’ll share additional conference cognitive science principles like creating conference cues in coming posts.

How can conference organizers help our attendees think about the meaning of the right things at our events? How can we create conference experiences that encourage their focused attention on things they should remember back at the office?

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  1. Jody-Ann says:

    Cannot wait to read your followup posts. This is an area of interest for me as I strife to create the “unconference” experience while delivering all the education sessions for adult learners. Impossible?

  2. Rod Johnson says:

    Great article and reminder – seminars are not a strong learning driver. Recently we created the tagline “Connecting Content to Context” for our Peer Insight learning tool. And this applies here as well. Content is not memorable – although every speaker presentation falls in love with their content. The learning occurs when have available tools following a presentation that ties it into a relative context for each learner present. We must realize – and this is the challenging part – learning can not be universal across an audience. Learning is individualized – and therefore the context of learning must be highly individualized.

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