Many conference attendees find it difficult to absorb information that is presented in ways that require them to passively sit and listen, as is the case in traditional talks. Active learning, which involves using discussion and activities to assimilate information, has been used in schools for some time, and is beginning to become part of the conference environment.
Active learning offers a variety of benefits, such as ensuring that the events at the end of the day aren’t full of people who are bored or who have already been overloaded with information.
Attendees are more likely to enjoy the conference experience and retain more information. It makes the day more exciting for speakers: after all, a talk in a room full of tired and distracted people is no fun for anyone involved.
So active learning is a useful tool in planning a successful conference. However, since conferences often have a high ratio of attendees to speakers, it can be harder to integrate active learning into conference rooms than into classrooms.
Harder, but not impossible. At the most basic level, the time-honoured teacher’s technique of saying “now, get into groups” is remarkably effective. If you can decide on the layout of the conference room, you can facilitate groups by arranging people around small tables.
In the case of seminars or workshops, aim to make the subject as specific as possible, which will help keep numbers manageable. It also makes it easier for less experienced speakers to lead a session, which not only gives them valuable experience, but opens up the possibility of running more sessions, therefore benefiting more attendees.
Smaller group work is more manageable in a seminar setting, but the format also opens up the possibility of brainstorming and other types of larger group activity, which can become difficult to manage with a larger audience. Seminar-style sessions also make it easier for attendees to ask questions as they arise, so that the speaker can adjust their content as necessary.
It’s also worth considering less conventional conference events, like having presenters set up stands around the room and encouraging attendees to seek out information and ask questions.
Icebreaking activities are also a form of active learning, and can form a good basis for networking. It’s a particularly good opportunity to get attendees up and moving around, as a long day sitting doesn’t exactly help concentration and enthusiasm.
If you choose to err on the side of silliness for these activities, bear in mind that larger groups can feel more awkward about this. Make sure you know where your most confident, up for anything attendees are, and try to spread them evenly around the room if possible.
It’s true that many conference organisers and speakers may not feel comfortable deviating too far from their tried-and-tested methods. However, a little variety can be a powerful thing when it comes to revitalising the conference environment and engaging attendees. So why not incorporate aspects of active learning strategies into your events - the results may surprise you.