Why Bother With Conference Education Peer Discussions?


How many conference speakers have you seen that don’t want attendees asking, answering, commenting or participating during their presentations?

From the speaker’s point of view, the presentation seems to be moving along nicely as the content is covered. The room is silent except the speaker’s voice. And surely that means that the audience is attentively listening and learning. Right?

However, look at the audience and you’ll see from their body language that the speech is far from mesmerizing. Some attendees have their heads propped up with their hands. Some are on mobile devices or laptops. Some are sleeping.

Speeches, Talks And Presentations – Ho Hum

Many of us have found ourselves in similar situations where the presenter’s monologue is less exciting than having our teeth pulled.

I believe that most speakers take their presentations very seriously. They want to do well. They want to help the audience. They find great value and excitement in their own content. And they want the audience to share in that passion.

But they often don’t know how to do it differently. Or are afraid to change. It’s easier to talk at an audience that change the way we’ve always presented.

But wait you exclaim. Just look at TED Talks. They are successful. Aren’t they?

There’s a reason they are called TED Talks and not discussions or learnings!

The Bold Claim-Peer Discussion Better Than Lecture

So are audience participation, interaction and discussion actually worth it? Are the benefits of conference peer discussions sufficient to justify “giving up lecture time to cover content” for authentic learning?

Too often, speakers, even keynote presenters, assume that their lecture is more important than the participant’s peer discussion.

Bottom line, the first and foremost reason to increase conference peer discussion and decrease expert lectures is that participants learn more as a result. It is a bold claim says Jay R. Howard, author, sociologist and Dean of College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis. And it is well proven to be worth it.

There is an abundance of evidence that points to the value of active learning and participant engagement in facilitating learning (example, Pascarella and Terenzini 1991, 2005).

Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) summary of research on effective classroom practices is one of the first and most influential efforts to draw attention to the value of active learning and peer discussions says Howard.

Kuh et al. (2005) conclude that engagement is a key to success. Participants learn more when they are intensely involved in their own education and have the opportunity to think about and consider how to apply what they are hearing. That involves a lot more than listening to a lecture. It often involves peer discussions.

Learn More If Lectures Interrupted With Brief Activities

Despite a tendency in the STEM field to push through as much material as possible, attendees will learn more if lectures are interrupted with brief activities that engage them, says engineering educator and Bucknell University Professor Michael Prince (2004).

Active learning strategies like peer discussions are superior to lecture in promoting development of thinking and writing skills says Bonwell and Eison (1991).

When conference participants are actively participating in peer discussions, they learn more then when they merely listen to a lecture (Kuh et al. 2005).

Conference participants must do more than passively listen to lectures! They need to read, write, discuss and solve problems with their peers using higher-order thinking skills such as evaluation, synthesis and analysis (Bonwell and Eison 1991).

It’s time to decrease the lecture and increase audience discussion!

Hat Tips Jay R. Howard’s Discussions In College Classrooms.

Why are so many conference organizers still unwilling to transition to effective learning models such as active learning and peer discussions in their sessions? What will it take to get more industry subject matter experts and professional speakers—that are not delivering inspirational or motivational messages—to incorporate active learning strategies such as peer discussions into their presentations?

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  1. Jeff,
    I totally agree with you. In December I presented a session/lead a discussion that was on fire. Participants were really engaged with the conversation some were sharing really vulnerable things – it was great. I felt terrible at the end of the hour when we had to stop the conversation and head to lunch. Judging from the evals and from the feedback many people liked it and the discussion helped them think differently about the topic.

    But here’s the catch, when I started speaking, I started with the monologue format. It is easier in some ways. I can practice and practice and rewrite and eventually get it right. Facilitating a dialogue is a whole new skill set. I’m learning how to deal with the uncomfortable silence after I ask a question while everyone is processing the answer they may want to share in public. I’m learning how to amplify the really insightful comments. I’m learning what to do when very odd questions arise. I want to learn to do this well but I feel like it’s a difficult skill to learn. And, maybe I’m wrong about this, but I can only learn it by doing it which means I’m practicing in front of a room full of 50, 100 or 200 folks (that’s kind of terrifying right?).

    You ask, what will it take to get more industry subject matter experts and professional speakers—to incorporate active learning strategies such as peer discussions into their presentations? There’s speech training out there – Toastmasters, Dale Carnegie, etc. But is there leading group discussion training?

    Thanks as always for your insightful posts Jeff!

    1. Sherry Marts says:

      Amanda – what you’re looking for is what’s often called “facilitation training.” It requires some of the same skills as public speaking, along with the ability to read and, if needed, shift the energy in a room, interpret body language signals, and to rein in the over-enthusiastic and encourage the shy and retiring.

      1. Sherry – thank you! I’ll look into facilitation training. I think that could really come in handy not only with speaking but with client debrief meetings as well.

    2. Jeff Hurt says:

      Hi Amanda:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. The easiest way to do peer discussions is to have them turn to their neighbor and talk. If you debrief and you get silence, keep waiting, silence is your friend. The audience becomes more uncomfortable with that silence than you should and eventually someone will raise their hand and speak.

      Keep at it. And don’t retreat to what feels safe–the lecture.

      1. Thanks Jeff! I appreciate your comments and yes, I’ll keep at it. I agree with your thoughts on silence. Standing up there silence feels uncomfortable. But people are just thinking. I conduct member phone interviews and through that I’ve been learning to wait out the silence. It’s not natural, it’s difficult, we want to fill the silence. But I’m learning to subdue my impulse response and wait it out. Again, thank you Jeff!

  2. Sherry Marts says:

    I think the effectiveness and acceptability of a peer-discussion approach greatly depends on who is in attendance and what their expectations are. As a presenter, I much prefer delivering interactive workshop-style programs rather than listen-to-the-expert talks. However, I have had this backfire on more than one occasion, with attendees complaining that the didn’t get the information they came for because too much time was “wasted on forced conversation between attendees.” (Yes, that’s a quote from one of the evaluations.) When one’s chances of being invited to present at future meetings hinge on receiving good marks on evaluations, it is hard to justify taking a chance with a more interactive presentation format.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks Sherry for sharing your comments and experiences. Your view is a common one among presenters.

      I let all my audiences know up front that if they are coming to get a list of tips, the high notes or my crib sheets that they are in the wrong session and should go to another one. I explain that the one that does the work, as Dr. Terry Doyle says, does the learning and if they just want to copy what I’m saying they will fail at implementation. I also explain that their level of learning is directly related to their level of particpation, thinking and involvement, not listening.

      The conference organizers laugh off and discount those that write complaints on their evals–and I’ve had the same complaint–that I didn’t give the information they came to because they had to do interaction. Those people are just following the biology of their brain that they don’t want to work/think.

      I judge success of my presentations on if my audience says, “You caused me to think,” or “Wow, I had to think about this instead of just listening.” Not on if I get invited back or not. Oh and btw, I get invited back a lot even with audience interaction.

      1. Sherry Marts says:

        That’s encouraging, thanks. I was specifically told the reviews were why I wasn’t invited back, but as you point out, perhaps that wasn’t the right place for me and my approach anyway.

  3. Rod Johnson says:

    There is an inherent challenge between “being in control” vs. pushing the learning and key takeaways down to the audience level. The stage is not different than a classroom – its just a bigger stage. However, I’ve seen too many programs where the group participation breaks go flat. They’re superficial and the audience gets stuck in “and what are we suppose to do?” format. And when this happens, the continuity and energy in the room dissipates. This is why audience based activities have to be well designed and integrative to the message ahead of time. Plus, there needs to be key takeaways from the group discussions.

    So here are couple things that need to be considered.
    1. Group participation is not always a win-win scenario
    2. The group participation has to be really well thought out
    3. The presenter will not be able to cover as much material
    4. And since the presenter won’t cover as much material, the group activity better shine.

    With that said, tools are available that can help.

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