There has been a movement in conference and trade show education toward workshops and peer sessions and moving away from panel and lecture formats. The idea behind this has been that adults learn better by interacting with their peers and through hands on or project based exercises.
While there is evidence to support this, the time constraints many conferences face and experience level of the attendees may not be suitable for these types of formats. Sixty or even ninety minute sessions do not allow enough time to get to the meat of a subject in a workshop format. Peer to peer learning is appropriate when there is an abundance of experience and expertise in the room to work through a problem, but it’s not as appropriate for teaching new concepts.
Perhaps a better way to approach adult learning at our conferences is through Fleming’s Visual Auditory Kinesthetic (VAK) model. According to this model, people possess a dominant or preferred learning style yet it takes into account that some people have a mixed and evenly balanced blend of the three styles. Styles that are, as the name suggests, visual, auditory and kinesthetic.
Visual learners learn through seeing. They think in pictures and require a mental image to retain the information presented. These learners are your attendees who prefer when the presenters include charts, maps, pictures and videos in their presentations. This type of learner probably doesn’t understand why anyone would say that complicated charts contribute to death by PowerPoint. A presenter’s charts and graphics help them understand and retain information.
Auditory learners learn through listening. They think in words, not pictures. This audience actually likes to attend an hour-long lecture, but also likes to talk through issues and listen to what others have to say about the subject. They prefer presentation slides with bullets and words to representative images.
Kinesthetic learners learn by doing and touching. They will remember and process information through interacting with and exploring the space around them. They are going to get fidgety sitting through a lecture presentation or panel discussion and will be distracted, as they would prefer to play a more active role.
You can easily incorporate methods of reaching all three of these learning preferences into any session no matter the time allotted. Encourage presenters to drive their points home by including a strong visual representation of their message (visual) as well as repeating key points for emphasis or having the audience recite each key point (auditory). Allow time for the audience to discuss key points with one another (auditory) and provide colored markers (visual) for note taking. Include some roleplay (kinesthetic) during the presentation as well. Now you have all your bases covered, and your audience can learn in the style most effective for themselves.