Improve Your Conference Sessions with these Proven Educational Ideas

According to our annual State of the Conference Industry Report, a majority of associations recognize that education is the primary value their annual conference provides to attendees. And, the quality of educational programming is a major factor in whether an individual chooses to attend a conference. As a result, organizations continue to look for ways to increase the relevance of their programs and the quality of their speakers to maintain and elevate attendee satisfaction. But this alone will only take the learning so far. There is significant opportunity for meeting planners to incorporate proven educational ideas based on adult learning best practices into the structure and format of the conference.

Researchers spend considerable time studying how adults learn and retain information best. Using these findings, professional educators continually experiment with new classroom techniques to increase the amount of active learning and retention. Meanwhile, conferences continue to rely on the same, long-established format: subject matter expert positioned at the front of the room, walking through a PPT deck. The session may include some type of interactive, small-group exercise or discussion, but that’s as far as most sessions go to break from “traditional” format. Because the conference is a primary way that associations deliver education to members, there is significant opportunity to apply the principles of adult learning used by classroom educators into conference breakout rooms.

Here are four guiding principles to consider when thinking about the structure and format of your conference.

Guiding Principle #1: Andragogy

The study of andragogy, or the art and science of adult learning, was developed by Malcolm Knowles in the 1950s. The concept acknowledges that, unlike children, adult learners bring a wealth of professional experience with them into an educational session. According to Knowles, the best way to engage adult learners is to focus on how new information relates to these life experiences and allow them to be active participants in their education. Some examples of andragogy principles put into practice include:

  • Focus on task-oriented instruction versus memorization
  • Put learning activities into the context of real-world tasks, challenges and issues the learner encounters regularly

Guiding Principle #2: More sensory input leads to greater retention

The average adult classroom will contain three types of learners: visual (looking, seeing, watching), auditory (listening, hearing and speaking) and kinesthetic (experiencing, moving doing). Creating environments that incorporate all three learning styles does more than just appeal to a wider audience. It also increases retention for all learners. According to the Principles of Adult Learning & Instructional Systems Design, we retain approximately 10% of what we see, 30-40% of what we see and hear, and 90% of what we see, hear and do.

Guiding Principle #3: More content is not necessarily better

As meeting planners, we want to deliver as much value as possible for our attendees in return for the time and expense they invest in our conference. Delivering more content, however, can actually be detrimental to the overall experience. One of the greatest challenges attendees face when attending a high-quality, jam-packed conference is how to battle the inevitable learning fatigue that comes from trying to process a lot of information in a short period of time, while spending a majority of that time in a physically passive state (sitting and listening).

Guiding Principle #4: The “Forgetting Curve”

Hermann Ebbinghaus, a 19th Century German psychologist, conducted a series of memory experiments that uncovered some alarming statistics about learning retention. On average, we forget up to 90% of what we’ve learned within the first month. Repetition and reinforcement after the initial learning event does help to decrease this, to an extent. Retention is also affected by how meaningful the information is. The more a learner can connect new information with existing knowledge, the greater retention is over time.

Putting these principles into practice

Understanding how adults learn and retain information is just the first step in creating a more effective learning environment. The second (and perhaps most challenging) task for meeting planners is how to use this information to re-think the structure of your conference. Here are a few educational ideas to try at your next event.

1. Create a layered approach to learning

Consider decreasing the number of topics featured within your conference schedule, and instead, feature multiple sessions that address a singular topic in a variety of ways. For instance, you may introduce a broader topic or concept in a standard, classroom-style session. Then, dive deeper into specific aspects of that topic in subsequent sessions, each featuring more active learning applications. So if, for example, you featured a general session on strategic planning, subsequent sessions may include:

  • A hands-on learning task where attendees build the framework for their own strategic plans, which they can then bring back to the office and use
  • A makerspace-type session where attendees gather together to tackle a specific organizational challenge or experiment with solutions, under the guidance of a facilitator
  • A hollow-square session, where attendees have the opportunity to pose questions to and learn from each other

2. Interject micro-learning moments

Zoos and museums are two examples of organizations that know how to create great on-site micro-learning moments. While walking from one area to another, you may find a staff member or volunteer standing next to a small cart or table, providing a hands-on opportunity to touch, feel or see one aspect of a larger display. They’ve figured out that learning can truly take place anywhere—including outside the exhibit. Similarly, think about how you might be able to interject short (two to five-minute), pop-up, multi-media learning sessions throughout the venue: in the hallway or stairwell during breaks, in a lounge area where many attendees are often taking a moment to sit and check email, on the sidewalk outside of the conference center. These can be fun, interactive, almost “freestyle” or “street-style” opportunities.

3. Add more thinking and moving time

Instead of packing every possible hour with expert-led educational sessions, think about ways to schedule more “whitespace” into your conference—blocks of time designed to make learning more effective and productive. Consider scheduling “study” time designed to absorb and use what has been learned. Provide workbooks to help structure notes from the entire day into ideas and action plans that participants can apply as soon as they get back to the office. Have multiple attendees from the same organization? This can become a valuable team collaboration session (which can be difficult to find time for when everyone returns to the office).

Look for ways to get people moving more at the conference. Consider removing the chairs from a breakout session to keep the blood flowing. Schedule a 10-minute networking “walkabout” before your mid-morning and mid-afternoon sessions. Turn a learning lab into a scavenger hunt. Think about including five minutes of breathing and stretching exercises throughout the day.

4. Provide resources for attendees to reinforce learning after the conference

Learning doesn’t have to end when the conference does. Consider creating value-added opportunities for attendees to continue the learning after the conference throughout the year. Use both structured (instructor-led) and unstructured (attendee collaboration) virtual events to foster continued discussion. Provide ongoing access to conference and supplemental materials through an online conference library.

By following these educational ideas for conference sessions, your conference attendees will be more engaged and retain more information, making your conference and its education much more valuable.