Why switching to active learning is hard — and worth it

switching to active learning
A September 2019 research study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences clearly illustrates why switching to active learning is hard — and worth it!

Lecturing has been the core modality in our education systems for centuries. Sadly it still is, even though we know that active learning provides superior quantity, quality, accuracy, and retention of knowledge. Active learning beats the pants off the “receiving knowledge” model drummed into our heads through years of listening to teachers. (For a full explanation of why active learning modalities are superior, see Chapter 4 of my book The Power of Participation.)

So why do we continue to use broadcast-style formats?

The NAS study gives us some important new information:

[M]ost college STEM instructors still choose traditional teaching methods…We find that students in the active classroom learn more, but they feel like they learn less. We show that this negative correlation is caused in part by the increased cognitive effort required during active learning.
Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom, L Deslauriers, L S McCarty, K Miller, K Callaghan, and G Kestin

Let’s look at these three conclusions in the context of meeting design.

Most meeting presenters still lecture

The majority of college STEM teachers choose traditional teaching methods. And most meeting session presenters resort to lecturing as their dominant session modality.

Attendees learn more when presenters use active learning modalities

We have had research evidence for the effectiveness of active learning modalities for more than a hundred years. (The pioneer of memory retention research, Herman Ebbinghaus, published his seminal work in 1885.)

A large body of research over the last twenty years clearly shows the superiority of active over passive learning.

“Students learn more when they are actively engaged in the classroom than they do in a passive lecture environment. Extensive research supports this observation, especially in college-level science courses (16). Research also shows that active teaching strategies increase lecture attendance, engagement, and students’ acquisition of expert attitudes toward the discipline (3, 79).”

College students are the focus of this research. There’s no reason to believe that these conclusions would not apply to adult learning during meeting sessions.

Superstar lecturers and motivational speakers

Here’s a striking conclusion from the NAS research:

“Students in active classrooms learned more (as would be expected based on prior research), but their perception of learning, while positive, was lower than that of their peers in passive environments. This suggests that attempts to evaluate instruction based on students’ perceptions of learning could inadvertently promote inferior (passive) pedagogical methods. For instance, a superstar lecturer could create such a positive feeling of learning that students would choose those lectures over active learning.

Including highly paid keynote speakers at meetings is a meeting industry fixation. I’ve argued that the evaluations of such sessions are unreliable. Now, the NAS research buttresses my point, by providing an important explanation why expensive keynote lectures are so popular at meetings. People perceive that they learn more from a smooth lecturer, while the reality is that they learn less!

Conclusion

There is overwhelming evidence that we can improve meetings by switching to active learning from passive lectures. And we now know that the popularity of fluent lectures, as measured by session evaluations, is based on an incorrect belief by attendees that they are learning more than they actually do.

Finally, the NAS report indicates that a simple intervention can overcome false perceptions about the efficacy of lectures.

“Near the beginning of a physics course that used… active learning …the instructor gave a 20-min presentation that started with a brief description of active learning and evidence for its effectiveness. …At the end of the semester, over 65% of students reported on a survey that their feelings about the effectiveness of active learning significantly improved over the course of the semester. A similar proportion (75%) of students reported that the intervention at the beginning of the semester helped them feel more favorably toward active learning during lectures.”

Consequently, we need to educate stakeholders, presenters, and meeting attendees about the benefits of active learning modalities at meetings.

Image attribution and original inspiration for this post: Inside Higher Ed & Kris Snibbe / Harvard University

Thank you Stephanie West Allen for bringing the above research to my attention!

Three better alternatives to the conference lecture

Ah, the ubiquitous conference one-hour lecture. How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. Actually I don’t need to do that since Donald Bligh listed them all in his classic book What’s The Use Of Lectures?, first published in 1972!

Rather than reiterate the shortcomings of broadcast-style teaching, I’ll go positive. Here are three superior alternatives to sitting through an expert’s non-stop utterances.

As an example I’ll use a three-day conference I’m currently designing. The participants are four hundred international scientists who only get to meet en masse every few years. It’s important to give them excellent opportunities to discover and connect with cross-disciplinary colleagues and ideas. They also need to share a massive amount of information about their current research in ways that maximize appropriate learning, fruitful connections, and future collaborations.

Here are three session formats we’re using for the middle of the conference arc. In my experience, each of them is far more effective than a traditional conference lecture.

1 — Short bursts of varied content followed by breakouts
Most academic conferences schedule large numbers of simultaneous lectures. Instead, we’ve designed sessions with multiple short serial presentations, aka lightning or speed talks. By “short” I mean four minutes per scientist. After a batch of these talks, each presenter moves to a separate space in the room. Participants are then free to meet in small groups with the presenter(s) they chose for in-depth discussions.

We’ve scheduled 165 lightning talks grouped into 16 thematic sessions.

The four-minute time limitation nudges each presenter to focus on the core aspects of what they want to share and how to communicate them as effectively as possible in the time available. In addition, audience attention remains high because the presenter and their material is changing every five minutes, well within the ten minutes Bligh and John Medina cite as a maximum before listener attention flags.

Each session is assigned a facilitator, a timekeeper, and a staffer who projects a pre-assembled master presentation slide deck for the four-minute presentations.

2 — Poster sessions
Poster sessions are a variant of the above format. Presenters stand in front of a standard size poster they’ve created that summarizes and illustrates their content. (We’re using e-posters, which not only eliminate the need for the presenters to print, pack, and securely transport a large poster to the conference but also make changing posters between sessions quick and efficient.)

One potential drawback of simultaneous sessions is that presenters can’t attend another presentation that’s taking place at the same time. In a thematic poster session, this prevents presenters from engaging with other presenters who are standing next to their own posters. To allow individual presenters the opportunity to engage with some of the other presenters and their content, we’ve divided each poster session into two 45-minute parts.

Each poster session begins with half the presenters giving a one-minute summary of their work/poster to everyone present. Attendees then spend the rest of the 45 minutes browsing content that interests them. The poster creator remains available for explanations, elaborations, and discussions as needed. The process is repeated for the second set of presenters.

The need to create and deliver an effective one-minute presentation concentrates a presenter’s mind wonderfully!

Each session is assigned a facilitator/timekeeper and a staffer who makes the appropriate e-posters available for the presenters.

We’ve scheduled 125 poster sessions grouped into 7 thematic sessions.

3 — In-depth interactive sessions led by one or more experts
In addition this conference includes a small number of longer sessions on key organizational and science issues. The formats for these sessions vary, but they are all designed to incorporate ten-minute or shorter chunks of presented content or provocative questions interspersed with small group active learning activities.

Such sessions provide more effective and appropriate learning than a traditional lecture. They supply learning that is personalized, and that will be remembered longer, in greater detail, and more accurately.

Summary
Given the sheer volume of information available from the assembled scientific minds at this event and the considerable investment of time and money to hold this conference, it’s important to use session formats like these. They maximize rich knowledge transfer and the likelihood of making the kinds of “aha” connections that can lead to significant advances in the conservation work and research these scientists perform.

Image attribution: Marisha Aziz

 

Why you should run The Solution Room at your next event

The Solution Room is rapidly becoming a popular meeting plenary. Invented at MPI’s 2011 European Meetings and Events Conference, the session fosters active meaningful connections between attendees, and provides peer support and solutions to the real professional challenges currently faced by participants.

Participants rate The Solution Room useful and valuable. They really enjoy the opportunity to meet a small group of peers in a safe, intimate, and relevant manner, and be both a consultant and a consultee on a current professional challenge each group member chooses. Here are testimonials from an MPI session:

Unlike many participatory formats, The Solution Room scales beautifully, whether there are 30 or 1,000 people in the room. The resources needed are modest: paper-covered small roundtables, colored Sharpies, sound reinforcement, and a good facilitator.

Although the format was originally conceived as a closing session, I’ve found it to be a great opening plenary, especially if time or space constraints prohibit running The Three Questions roundtables. By ensuring that each small group contains a mixture of newcomers, experienced, and veteran professionals, first-time attendees get to know peers with industry experience (and the veterans often learn a thing or two from the younger folks at their table).

You can tell that Solution Room sessions are a success when they end — and no one leaves. Instead, the small groups go on talking about everything they’ve discussed; they don’t want to stop sharing. I see a lot of enthusiastic business card swapping at the end. Participants tell me that they made valuable long-term connections through the meeting and sharing that took place during the session.

Want to learn  more about how to incorporate The Solution Room into your next event? You’ll find everything you need to know to run The Solution Room in Chapter 34 of The Power of Participation. Or contact me — I’d love to facilitate a session for you!

Adrian Segar Speaker Tips Interview

After a one-day Participate! Lab for Dutch professional moderators, Otto Wijnen interviewed me about presentation and speaker tips for making presentations more effective by incorporating active learning. Apart from a brief introduction and closing in Dutch, the 13-minute interview is in English.

Six reasons to change our conferences

Six reasons to change our conferencesIn my keynote at Blend Abu Dhabi, the inaugural meeting industry conference at the new Yas Conference Centre, I shared six reasons to change our conferences for them to remain relevant to today’s attendees.

Although I’ve written about these issues before, this is the first time I’ve summarized them in one place. Together they make a strong business case for the participant-driven and participation-rich meetings I’ve been advocating since 1992.

Enjoy!

Sessions provide no connection around content

Today, the most important reason why people go to conferences is to usefully connect with others around relevant content. But our conference programs still focus on lectures, where a few experts broadcast their knowledge to passive listeners: the audience. During lectures there’s no connection between audience members; no connection around lecture content.

At traditional conferences, connection is relegated to the breaks, meals, and socials! That’s why you so often hear “the best part of that conference was the conversations in the hallways”. It doesn’t have to be that way! Peer conferences provide conference sessions where participants connect around relevant, timely content.

Lectures are a terrible way to learn

We’ve known for over a hundred years that lectures are a terrible way to learn something. Lectures are a seductive meeting format because they are very efficient ways of sharing information. Unfortunately, lectures are perhaps the least effective way of learning anything.

Why? Over time, we rapidly forget most everything someone tells us. But when we engage with content, we remember more of it, remember it more accurately, and remember it longer. Every measure of learning increases drastically when attendees actively participate while learning in sessions.

The rise of online

Most broadcast content is now readily available online. An internet connection provides expert content anywhere, just in time when it’s needed. You don’t need to go to conferences for broadcast content (which you’ll probably have forgotten by the time you need it) any more!

Professionals learn predominantly socially, not in the classroom

Until about twenty years ago, professionals learned most of what they needed to know to do their jobs in the classroom. Today we know that only about 10% of what we need to know to do our jobs involves formal classroom teaching. The other 90% is informal, provided by a combination of self-directed learning and social, active, experiential learning with our peers on the job or (what an opportunity!) at conferences with our peers.

Though ~90% of the learning modalities adult workers need these days are informal social learning from our peers, we persist in making the bulk of “education” at meetings formal presentations by a few experts! Instead, we need to concentrate on and provide maximum opportunities for the just-in-time peer learning our attendees need and want.

Today, everyone has expertise and experience to share

Everyone who has worked in a profession for a while is a expert resource for some of her or his peers. Instead of limiting content to broadcast by a few “experts”, peer conferences provide process and support to uncover and tap the thousands of years of expertise and experience in the room. Remember how David Weinberger puts it: “the smartest person in the room is the room.” We need conference process that uncovers and taps everyone’s experience and expertise while people are together at the conference!

Most pre-scheduled sessions don’t address actual attendee wants and needs

Because we’ll forget learning that isn’t currently needed and reinforced, conferences need to provide just-in-time learning.  And you can’t predict most of the just-in-time learning by asking a program committee, or attendees for that matter, in advance. My research has found that 50 – 90% of all pre-scheduled conference sessions are not what attendees actually want and need! In contrast, just about all peer conference sessions, chosen and run by participants during the event, are rated highly because they provide the just-in-time learning and connection that participants want from the event.

Conclusion

My first two books explore all these themes in detail. To get the full story, buy ’em!

Children shouldn’t sit still in class — and neither should adults

Children and adults shouldn’t sit still in class. It’s amazing that we ignore established research on ways to improve children’s learning when designing adult learning environments.

Some research:

Dr Ash Routen’s and Dr Lauren Sherar’s article “Active lessons can boost children’s learning and health” contains additional links.

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Three ways to make it easier for attendees to participate

How do we get people to participate at meetings?

We know that participants — people who are active learners — learn more, retain more, and retain more accurately than passive attendees. They are also far more likely to make valuable connections with their peers during the event.

Seth Godin describes a desirable meeting mindset:

What would happen…

if we chose to:

…Sit in the front row

Ask a hard question every time we go to a meeting…

All of these are choices, choices that require no one to choose us or give us permission.

Every time I find myself wishing for an external event, I realize that I’m way better off focusing on something I can control instead.
—Seth Godin, What Would Happen

This is all very well, but it begs the question: what can meeting designers do to make it easier for attendees to participate more at meetings? Here are three things we can do.

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