6 tips to enhance your learning at any conference

When I arrived home after attending my first American College of Rheumatology Annual Meeting, my wife asked me what I learned.  I had attended five full days of lectures including  the “review” course (which was new material for me), as well as a variety of scientific, plenary, Meet the Professor, and concurrent abstract sessions. But when she asked me that question, I could not come up with a single thing that I had learned.

It took me four years and a fellowship in Medical Education to fully understand the problem–we learn remarkably little from lectures.  Active learning produces significantly better results.

This may be disappointing to hear, especially when you realize that the bulk of any conference is a series of lectures.  Fortunately, there are some evidence-based strategies you can leverage to get the most learning out of your next conference.

  1. Take notes by hand, not on your laptop.  Writing by hand is slow, and it forces you to summarize what you hear and make it your own–greatly enhancing your learning. In contrast, those that take notes on a computer usually transcribe what is said, and have a harder time recalling the material.  Taking pictures of the slides, a common occurrence at these conferences, is even worse!
  2. At the end of a lecture, identify the main topics you learned, and generate a question and answer based on this material.  For instance, if you attended a lecture about lupus,, ask yourself “How does the kidney get damaged in lupus?” and then try your best at answering it.  Research shows that generating and answering your own question greatly enhances your learning–much more than reviewing your notes.
  3. Tell others about what you learned.  Teaching is one of the best ways to organize and solidify the material you learned, as well as identify gaps in your knowledge.  If you created questions with AskUp, you can see and answer questions created by your peers, who are often better at explaining complex ideas than the experts themselves.
  4. Review your questions and notes on a regular basis.  One of the big problems of large conferences is the overwhelming amount of material presented in a short period of time. Learning is enhanced when it is distributed over time.  If you review this material several times over the next few months, you’ll retain much more than spending the same amount of time reviewing it in one day.
  5. Make an effort to attend hands-on workshops, if available.  These mall group events often allow for more interaction and active learning.
  6. Use the four-question technique.  Learners that are asked these questions after lectures outperform their peers in formal tests:

    -What important concept, research finding, theory, or idea did you learn?
    -Why do you believe that this concept, research finding, theory, or idea is important?
    -How can you apply what you learned from this activity to your daily practice?
    -What question(s) has the activity raised for you? What are you still wondering about?

    What strategies have helped you remember what you hear at conferences you’ve attended?

2 thoughts on “6 tips to enhance your learning at any conference”

    1. Thanks for the great reference. I agree with you that the pyramid is fictional, and perhaps I should have picked a different image. However, I do think that it’s an effective illustration that helps people understand that different environments may provide different levels of learning. Newer studies have revealed the poor value of lectures for learning. More active learning, as occurs when you go down the pyramid, have been shown to be more effective. Also, all my six recommendations have a lot of evidence behind them.

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