How to Be More Learner-Centric at Your Conferences

Author: Dave Lutz, CMP       

Peter Sheahan

Peter Sheahan, founder and Group CEO of Karrikins Group, presents during PCMA’s Education Conference 2018 in Cleveland. Educon presented a mix of learner-centric and speaker-centric sessions. (PCMA photo)

Who is at the center of your conference planning, programming, and experience? Are you keeping your participants as learners foremost in mind? Or do you spend more time on securing experts, panelists, and speakers and make them the focal point of your event?

Getting the participant learning experience right — planning and offering education sessions that go beyond surface learning and enable participants to find meaningful and mentally stimulating experiences — is one of the biggest challenges facing program organizers today.

The knowledge gap between the stage and the audience has shrunk substantially over the past decade. Conferences that are able to leverage the intellectual capital of the participants through facilitated learning experiences will deliver the greatest value.

The first step is dispelling outdated notions of what true learning is and is not.

  • Learning is a process, not a product. It requires the learner to understand and apply concepts to their problems and context. Learning isn’t application of a best practice.
  • Learning creates a change in our brains. It is a biological and chemical change.
  • Learning is not something done to attendees. It is something they do. The learner wrestles with how to adapt the information to their challenges or opportunities and considers the consequences of application. In addition, the learner must get comfortable with ambiguity.

Traits of Effective Learner-Centric Conferences

Learner-centric conferences provide education sessions where attendees act as participants in their own learning. Participants construct meaning and sense-making as they hear and consider content. They grasp how and why the content is relevant to their work. At least half of the session time is dedicated to participants processing the information through discussion, reflection, or exercises.

In contrast, speaker-centric conferences emphasize subject matter experts and their knowledge. Speakers are often rapid-fire and try to cover too much content, causing participants to reach a cognitive load limit.

In learner-centric conferences, organizers secure presenters and facilitators that focus on designing real-world learning experiences. They facilitate discovery-based, experiential, and collaborative activities for participants to actively construct their own knowledge.

The conference community and ecosystem — including content creators, exhibitors, planning team, practices, processes, programming, speakers, sponsors, strategies, suppliers, technologies, tools, vendors, and volunteers — all intentionally contribute their part to the overall learning experience.

Learning conferences are havens where participants consider, assess, and practice new patterns of thinking, while nurturing new mental models on how to do their work.

Dave Lutz, CMP, is managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.

Get the Learning Foundation Right

Experimenting with new session formats, technology, or group-based activities is smart, says Clark Quinn, author of Millennials, Goldfish & Other Training Misconceptions: Debunking Learning Myths and Superstitions, but it must be “on top of a quality foundation,” he writes. “If we invest first in making sure our learning and performance initiatives are sound, then we can and should explore new approaches. But get the foundations right.”

In other words, sessions must engage learners in higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) — like elaboration, judgment, analysis, evaluation, and creation. Using HOTS helps our learning solidify and stick. Recall of specific facts and identification of concepts are low-level thinking skills.


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