CMP Series

Going-the-Distance Learning

We talked to learning experts about strategies that connect content acquisition to execution.

The more insights that brain-science and cognition research uncover about how we apply what we learn, the less it seems that the traditional conference education program is up to the task. Sure, your attendees can choose from numerous education sessions along multiple tracks over several days of a jam-packed agenda. But all too often, whatever great ideas they gather on site — about how to do their jobs differently and more effectively — slip through the cracks once they’re back in the day-to-day office grind.

Will Thalheimer, Ph.D.
Will Thalheimer, Ph.D.

“It’s that linkage back to the workplace that I worry about the most,” said Will Thalheimer, Ph.D., whose firm, Work-Learning Research, focuses on the connection between learning and performance. “I go to conferences a lot. What doesn’t seem to be happening is supporting people back at the workplace. We’ve all had the experience where we go to a conference and we’re excited…. We’ve learned a whole bunch of things, because we’ve gone to many different sessions. Sometimes we’ve taken notes, and sometimes we look at them. Oftentimes we just go back to our chaotic world and our jobs. What we’ve learned in the sessions doesn’t translate back to our real on-the-job work. Some things we remember, but a lot’s lost.”

While meeting professionals may think they’re responsible only for creating a strong educational program — and how attendees make use of that is up to them — Thalheimer disagrees. “That’s all well and good,” he said, “but obviously, you want to make sure that your conferences have actual value to people. If they don’t actually get something out of it, eventually that’s going to catch up to a conference organizer. [You want your participants to say,] ‘Hey, you know, I learned something at this conference, and now I’m putting it into practice at my workplace, and it’s been very successful. I’m going back there next year, and I can also make the case to my senior management that looks at what I do based on attending that conference. In fact, I want to send my whole team.’”

How can you do a better job of supporting and extending what attendees learn at your events? Convene spoke to Thalheimer — who presented at both PCMA Convening Leaders and the PCMA Education Conference this year — and to Peter C. Brown, co-author of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, to gather strategies based on their research. In keeping with our theme of reinforcing learning, we’ve highlighted some of their best ideas.

First of all, how do you see education being delivered during meetings in terms of how well it supports retention?

Will Thalheimer: Oftentimes our conference sessions aren’t designed with that in mind — conference presenters tend to default to wanting to cover a lot of material. They go shallow and not deep. When you go shallow, you can cover material, but what you can’t do is provide the kind of learning support that sets people up to remember when they get into particular situations on the job.

A lot of sessions these days incorporate small-group sharing. Does that help?

Will Thalheimer:It’s a good thing up to a point, because it does get people linking their workplace with the things they’re learning, making a cognitive link. That helps support remembering. What would be better is to not just discuss it, but also make simulated decisions using scenario-based questions, where they’re really practicing making the decisions that they learned, so that when they go to the workplace, they’re reminded.

We have this view of learning — that it’s information in/information out. Really, human beings don’t work that way. What happens is, you’re in a situation and the stimuli in that environment will remind you of things. When you go back to your workplace, it would be nice if the stimuli that you see there would remind you of what you learned in the conference. Now, for a speaker to set that up, they’d have to put people in situations and have them make decisions in those situations. That’s where scenario-based decisions are good — some kinds of exercises are good. Discussions get you halfway there, but they don’t really set up the situation/action/contingency the way it’s most effective.

Conference presenters should put people in realistic situations of some sort — whether it’s just to read a couple of paragraphs to get them thinking about a realistic situation, or developing a comprehensive exercise to put them in a situation, or even to present situations and have them talk about them in their table groups. The key thing is [to] get them thinking about that real-world situation. That way the contexts are aligned, so that when they go back to their workplace, the context itself will remind them of what they learned.

I’ll give you an example. I used to be a leadership trainer; I trained managers to be leaders. One of the things we taught was that as a manager, you want to bring your direct reports into decision-making. It will increase their buy-in, and you’ll get better information, and they’ll be more motivated, etc. I can teach that principle. That’s all well and good, but what we want those managers to do when they go back to their jobs and they’re in their staff meetings is to remember to bring direct reports into decision-making. We don’t want them to have this principle in their head; we want them to act on it.

If we can present them with realistic decision-making scenarios like this in our learning environment — “Okay, you’re in a staff meeting now and this is what you’re discussing. Should you make the decision yourself? Should you bring people in? Should you ask your direct reports what to do? Should you do some combination of those?” — when you do that, you’re setting them up so that when they go back to their staff meetings, which will be their real-world scenario, they’ll be more likely to spontaneously remember what they learned.

There is such a thing as a natural forgetting curve. How else can meeting organizers minimize that?

Will Thalheimer: People learn something, and then there’s a threshold. Right after a conference, they’re likely to remember some of the stuff they learned, but pretty soon they’re going to slide down a forgetting curve. There are some links across that divide — things we know can support remembering, like giving people realistic practice and spacing repetitions [of what they learned] over time. What reminders and re-enforcers can do is to keep people above that retrieval threshold. That makes it more likely that they’re going to use what they learned.

How can the once-a-year conference model help with that?

Will Thalheimer: One obvious solution to this is not to do a one-time event or a yearly event, but to spread learning out over time. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a yearly event. What’s ideal is, you’ll have a yearly event and then you’ll reinforce it over time as they go back to the workplace. This can be very simple. It could be something as simple as periodic webinars, but it could be something more comprehensive, more sophisticated, as well.

I like to talk about the notion of subscription learning. Learners subscribe to a learning thread of small, short nuggets, and those are delivered over time. One of the reasons I got to thinking about this was the research on the spacing effect that’s in the learning research. It shows if you repeat things over time, people remember them a lot better than if you scrunch those repetitions up all together.

I see real value in this for conference learning and a potential business opportunity as well, so you’re not only providing better learning or an additional stream of learning for your audience, but you’re also connecting with them throughout the year. That’s what marketers want to do — keep a good connection with people over time, so that they’re remembering and they are purchasing and feeling loyal.

You could get really sophisticated about this and say, “Okay, we’re going to have a subscription-learning thread on Topic A, and we’re going to cover this for six months. And then we’re going to have one on this other specific topic.” You could have diagnostics that help people decide which threads they ought to belong to. You could have some community learning. You could add video to this. You could personalize it. The sky’s the limit.

The subscription-learning idea is fairly new, so we’re out on the frontier. We’re trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t, but I think some of the basic ideas of learning design and of human design in general are going to play out in this area — that people like connections, and they like to learn something new. They want it to be engaging, short, and easily digestible. They don’t want complex models or academic wording. They want things that resonate with them that they can use right away.

How do you see conferences doing a better job of extending learning in the future?

Will Thalheimer: Number one, I think technology is going to get more involved. One of the things I noticed that some conferences are doing now is that participants [are automatically checked in when they enter a session room]. That is a piece of intelligence that you could use for learning. If I know that these 30 people were in my conference session, I could then provide them with additional reinforcements after the workshop, with that subscription-learning thread. I could follow up with them with diagnostics. I could see what obstacles they had when they tried to implement what I taught them.

One of the biggest problems we have in the conference world — and this was in my world as a trainer, too — is you go out there and you give people a great learning event, and you never see them again. That’s crazy, right? Because our learners are going to hit obstacles. They’re going to have successes. It would be great if we as the learning facilitator knew what those successes were so we could build on those, and we knew what their obstacles were so that we could rebuild our learning design so they would be less likely to face those obstacles or they would know how to face those obstacles — and in a sort of mid-stream course correction, if we knew what their obstacles were now, maybe we could provide some ways for them to get around them.

Also, it seems to me, in the conferences I go to, that the sessions are getting shorter and shorter. What that does is it helps the attendees sample what they want to go to. What it fails to do is to provide those learning supports to help people go deeper. I could imagine a hierarchical kind of design, where there are some short sessions that allow you to pick and choose where you want to go deeper. Then there are deeper sessions that follow, that help to give you those supports that help you remember, that help you take it back to your job.


Making Things Stick 

Peter C. Brown
Peter C. Brown, author of Make It Stick

Peter C. Brown came to co-write Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning as a result of a conversation with his brother-in-law, Henry Roediger III, who along with colleague Mark McDaniel — the book’s co-authors — are cognitive scientists who have spent their careers studying learning and memory. “Some years ago I retired from my [management] consulting practice to focus more on writing,” Brown told Convene. “I was between books and talking to [Roediger] about his work, and he was describing to me some of the pretty profound findings from his research and the ways in which they’d come to understand how counterintuitive effective learning strategies are. We wondered how we could get this information in front of people.”

Brown’s goal in writing Make It Stick, published last year, was to make the book “accessible and anecdotal, as well as firmly grounded in the science.” As someone who is fascinated by the “gap between an idea or a knowledge — something valuable that you pick up — and the real world in which you operate,” Brown found meetings and conventions to be fertile ground. Translating ideas participants learn at a conference “into actual implementation, things you would do on the ground — there’s a space there,” Brown said. When Convene spoke to him this summer, he was eager to explore that space.

What’s your impression of the traditional conference education model?

Peter Brown: Well, the current structure is one of listening, not one of engagement. So it seems to me that the critical issue here is how to engage people intellectually in the material, in a way in which they are actively trying to sort out what aspects of it are of particular interest or value to them — how it relates to their organization or what they are doing, the priorities in their organization. Doing a sorting, even while they are there, to find the nuggets that they think are most useful, that they want to bring back and really do something with. Then even start figuring out what that is. What are the steps? What is the bridge from having these things that they are excited about to actually using them in some way when they’re back at the office?

Do you think peer-to-peer learning has the potential to help build this bridge?

Peter Brown: I think peer-to-peer is a really great form of engagement. I think if we look at the research, we see that that kind of engagement [creates] the memory, because in peer-to-peer you’re reframing the problem and the solution back and forth to each other, in the context of what you already know. Does it help with implementation? Well, I don’t know. I don’t think [we have] research on that in particular, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. It’s just one piece, maybe, of the solution.

In your book, you talk about the value of weaving quizzing and feedback into the process of learning something new or when studying for a test. How might this be applied to conferences?

Peter Brown: Depending on the kind of conference it is, it would be interesting if the organizer or the speaker of the session were to let people know that here’s an important question that we’re going to address in this session. It would be useful if you could grapple with the question a little bit and see what you think might be the answer. Or [ask attendees], how would you respond to this issue? Then think about it before you come in and hear the presentation.

This notion of trying to solve a problem before being shown the solution leads to better embedding of the learning and better memory of the material later. There might be some way to ask people at the front end, in light of their own experience and their organization, to think through it a little bit before they come into the session.

In other words, maybe there’s something that can be done before they even come to the conference, like homework?

Peter Brown: Yeah, I can see it just being on the plane ride.  It could be: “Here’s your assignment for the plane ride into Cleveland. Think of the three things you want to get out of this conference by the time you leave. The issues you’re facing that you hope the conference will help you [solve].” Or it might be, “Here are three topics we’re going to be addressing in the conference. Spend 10 minutes on each on the plane, sketching out your thoughts, what you know, what you wish you knew, and how it relates to your organization.” Just anything like that, so that when they come into that conference, the mind has been kind of nipping at this a little bit. They’re not just sitting on the plane, thanking their lucky stars to be away from the office, [wondering] what’s going on at home, and who’s taking care of the dog, and all of that. They’re starting the work in their mind, of priming it a little bit, around the topics that are relevant to them and that are going to be covered in the conference.

I think the plane ride to, and the plane ride home, are two times when people can prime themselves and then solidify some of the findings from the conference. In the book, I talk about a biology professor at the University of Washington at Seattle, Mary Pat Wenderoth. She will be giving a lecture, and she’ll stop and ask questions in the lecture, and the students will turn to their notes, and she’ll say, “No, put your notes aside. Imagine your mind is a forest, and that the answer is in there somewhere. The more times you make a path to find it, the stronger that path will be and the easier it will be to find again later.”

It might be the sage on the stage, breaking up the presentation the way [Harvard physics professor] Eric Mazur does, where he’ll stop [during a lesson] and he’ll ask a question and ask people to raise a finger — two fingers if you think [the answer is] this, three fingers if you think it’s that. Then [he asks them to] get together with someone whose fingers are different than yours and talk it through for two minutes [on why it] is the correct answer in your opinion. Then come back to the lecture. But break up the presentation in a way in which you keep asking people to work out a little bit intellectually what they just heard, and then move on. So it doesn’t just wash through them, if you know what I mean.

It gives them an opportunity to reengage?

Peter Brown: It is a way. You might even say, “Was there something in the last 10 minutes that was of particular interest to you, as it relates to your world? Could you make a note of it, and a couple of thoughts that occurred to you during that, and we’ll come back to that at a later time?” To harness that stuff along the way, so that people don’t lose it.

How would that work with a large audience in a general session?

Peter Brown: Some of the questions I think would be great for people to be asking themselves — or maybe they are given a worksheet — are, how is this different from your experience? If you were to take this back into your shop, what would be the most important pieces of this? Three key ideas you’ve gotten out of the last hour that you think might be useful to you, and what would be a couple steps for each one, if you were to try to take action? People can start layering that up, through the conference and then at the end of the conference, whittle that list down to two or three things they really think they need to get done when they get home. Then on the plane, they could be working a little bit on how they might take action, or what they want to do with it over the next three weeks, or what have you.

I think that’s a mindset shift, because many conference-goers attend with the expectation that they’re going to sit back and just absorb whatever is presented.

And be entertained.

So what you’re saying is, if you keep going back to participants and asking them to think back to what has been presented and how to apply it, it forces them out of that passive mode.

Right. And one of the things that more professors use is frequent low-stakes quizzing — fairly simple quizzes where you will cast back to earlier stuff, and you can do that in a symposium or conference, where people are making these little notes along the way. As the event unfolds, and they go to different sessions, it would be great to be able to cast back to “What was a big idea from the session yesterday afternoon, and how does it relate to what you just heard today? Is there any synergy between those two things? Does it inform that? Or does it give you any more fuel for how you might make changes back in your shop?” This notion of not just leaving behind each session in your trail, as you go through the couple of days, but carrying those things forward and not [forgetting] about them as you learn new things or meet new people or have new ideas.

It wouldn’t seem difficult for conference organizers to train their speakers to be doing this on a more regular basis, to help participants connect the dots.

Right. And I had this thought: What if every conference had a learning coach, whose responsibility was taking this point of view — to help coach both the presenters and the participants in ways in which they could do the kinds of things we’ve been talking about. By breaking up the presentations, by creating these little exercises that would help people solidify what they’ve heard, engage their thinking of it with their own world.

I think one of the great things about peer-to-peer is, it is a form of engagement in which your takeaway of something is based on your world, and your partner is doing the same thing. Their world is maybe a little different, and you learn from each as you’re describing that. This even occurred to me that if you did this peer-to-peer thing in some kind of a sustained way through a conference, it’s possible when you’re back in your shop and the real world is unfolding and you’ve got all these other demands, maybe you sustain a very episodic relationship with that peer that you teamed up with. Checking in on how things are going and what you discovered when you tried to do something, what they discovered. So there’s a little bit of accountability to somebody with whom you have a little bit of rapport, going forward, after the conference.

It would be ideal if that weren’t left up to chance.

Peter Brown: Right. One thing that might be useful for people coming to a conference is to have a little mini-session on how learning works. [By explaining that] learning works by being mentally engaged and retrieving from memory and putting in your own words some of the big ideas that you come across here. You could say, “We’re going to run this conference a little differently than normal, because we discovered from what the science tells us that there are things that we could be doing that are relatively painless, that have a big payback, in terms of remembering and being able to implement later.”

What role does reflection play in learning, and do you think more programs should have more breathing space in the schedule?

Peter Brown: Reflection hasn’t been studied very much, but [Make It Stick’s authors] could see that reflection is a form of retrieval practice. It’s a form of synthesis, because things have happened subsequently. You’re thinking about something that worked or what it meant, or how it might fit into what you’re going to do next. You’re trying to synthesize different, maybe even competing, ideas. It’s also a form of generation, because you’re saying, okay, next time I encounter this situation, I’m going to try this other strategy, because I think it might work better. So reflection can be very potent in retrieval, synthesis, and generation.

Going back to Professor Wenderoth, she has students in her biology class write learning paragraphs, or draw schematics that illustrate how the different body parts that they’ve been studying interrelate. Those are forms of retrieval practice and reflection that are very powerful. I’m not sure how you structure reflection into a conference, except maybe through these kinds of exercises that we’ve been discussing. But I would say it’s potent as a strategy.

What other tools do you think meeting organizers can implement to keep what conference participants learned fresh in their minds when they return to their day-to-day jobs?

Peter Brown: There are lots of apps [for participants] where you can structure your own periodic quiz to arrive by email. Or you’re trying to remember certain things you’ve learned. Those are at a very basic level of making sure you’ve got some sort of space-retrieval practice to stay on top of something.

Have you uncovered any research that speaks to the way we learn in a face-to-face vs. an online environment?

Peter Brown: I haven’t looked at any research on this in depth, but I know one of the key findings is that online courses that have a way of fostering interactive exchanges and retrieval practice are more effective than sitting and watching a lecture. But I would think that if you’re mixing online and face-to-face, where you’re getting information online and then you’re engaging in some sort of face-to-face processing of that — retrieving it, discussing it, elaborating on it — that could be highly effective. I’m speculating that it would be, just from what we know about how learning works now.

In your book, you say that the notion of catering to different learning styles is not supported by empirical research. In fact, you say that going wide makes more sense, which is good news for those who develop educational programs in a meeting setting. Can you elaborate?

Peter Brown: Well, many people, and possibly even most people, have a decided preference. They believe that they learn better visually than when they have to read text, or when they hear a book rather than trying to read a book, or what have you. Some learning styles are kinesthetic. If they are engaged physically, they learn it much better than if they’re hearing and learning about it in some other form. So the premise is that if you are an auditory learner and you take a course that’s designed in a visual way, you wouldn’t learn that material as well as someone who is a visual learner who takes that course, and the visual learner wouldn’t learn the material as well if it’s presented in an auditory way.

It’s fundamental — research at that level does not support the notion that you learn better when the learning is delivered in a form that fits your preference. The science is careful to say it doesn’t mean that it isn’t true; it just means that the research that’s been done, that stands up to the rigor of appropriate empirical studies, there’s not a body that says it is true. There are even some studies that show that when a visual learner has to learn through auditory means, the added effort makes it even more effective. There are some contradictory studies.

Some people spend a lot of time and money trying to break apart didactic material into these different kinds of instruction. All we’re saying in the book is that effort would be better spent by finding ways to teach people how learning works, such as implementing space-retrieval practice. I say, if you’re passionate about your learning style, try to find stuff that fits it.

What other ideas do you have for conference education programs, based on what the research tells us about learning?

Peter Brown: I had a couple other thoughts. One of them was, depending on the kind of conference it is, whether there would be a place for a closing workshop session that asks people to reach back through the different sessions they’ve been in and pull forth from each of those sessions the most important ideas and integrate them a little bit, and maybe set some objectives: Which of these things are you going to try to take advantage of? Whose help you might need? Are they going to report back with their peers?

It’s that casting backward and pulling forward that helps you remember, for one thing. We want them to synthesize. In Bloom’s taxonomy, the first three steps — getting knowledge, developing understanding, being able to apply learning to solve problems — those to me are fundamental skills of competency in [the workforce]. But the other ones — analysis, synthesis, and evaluation — are the ones that lead to organizational change.

I think maybe in this closing workshop we’re doing more of those last three things. To ask ourselves — we’ve had these ideas that have come along, thinking back, bringing it forward, analyzing them a little bit, the relationships that would be involved. Synthesizing the different ones, and making a plan — I’m not talking about a big plan, it’s a simple little plan. Because what you really want out of this is some change to happen. If it’s too big, it gets in the way of going back and picking up on all the stuff you should have been doing when you were in your office, and just getting overwhelmed again.

That’s an interesting idea that goes against the typical conference that ends with a general session. How might this work?

Peter Brown: It could be the learning coach. Maybe that’s what the learning coach does: opens with one [session] and closes with one. How people learn at the end of this conference, where we’re casting back and bringing forward the main ideas that we like, and saying to ourselves, “Why is this relevant to my situation, and what would I need in order to go about doing something about it? Can I commit myself to some kind of periodic retrieval and elaboration, either in contact with one of my colleagues from the session with whom we discussed these things, or by setting up an app, like Quizlet, or something that commits me over a period of time to a periodic reengagement?”

At a great conference, you’re both the learner and the coach, especially in peer-to-peer settings. When you get back to the office, the roles flip; you are the coach and you are the learner. By this I mean you are bringing the new knowledge and ideas home, maybe dedicating a staff meeting to engage your team in a dialogue in which they interpret and reiterate the key ideas in their own words and you learn from them about how the ideas might fit your organization. You challenge them to reflect about these over the next few days, and what would be involved in implementing them. 

Then perhaps you reconvene in a few days to: 1) Harvest people’s suggestions and agree which ideas are right for action. What are the likely benefits? What obstacles? Who needs to be involved? 2) Write simple objectives, list tasks, and set dates to review progress. 3) Designate a point person for each objective to recruit necessary participants and to track and report progress at staff meetings.

Maybe this is getting into the weeds, but, as they say, there is many a slip between cup and lip.

Putting It Into Practice 


When PCMA held Convening Leaders 2015 at McCormick Place in Chicago this past January, SmithBucklin seized the moment. Typically the association-management giant sends one or two staff members to the annual conference, according to Carol McGury, executive vice president for event and education services. But with Convening Leaders in its own backyard — the company has offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C. — SmithBucklin sent 15 planners and exhibition and education specialists to the three-day event.

But the education didn’t end there. SmithBucklin has an internal process for spreading ideas and insights that staff acquire at conferences and educational events throughout the company once they’re back in the office. “Anytime we send anybody anywhere, they’re responsible for coming back and doing a written report as well as a visual presentation,” McGury said. “We do monthly town-hall meetings with our entire team, so then we have that mechanism for folks to learn, ‘Hey, how did that go? Any lessons learned?’” With so many staff attending Convening Leaders, SmithBucklin featured the ideas captured there at a separate Innovation Day. (Read more about lessons learned.)

The presentations are an opportunity for critical analysis, not a brain dump. “We’ll break up into teams to talk about some of the concepts” and how they can be applied at SmithBucklin events, McGury said. Care is taken to make presentations engaging. “We’re no different than any other kind of learner. We try to use visuals to make it easier for folks to learn. So instead of just talking about something, [staff] are showing photos of it.”

Presentations and written reports also are posted to SharePoint, Microsoft’s team collaboration tool. “The education team has their own internal blog where they share information,” McGury said, “so they captured a lot of their learnings and put it in the blog.”

SmithBucklin has approximately 100 planners, 25 education staff, and 30 sales professionals across its Chicago and D.C. offices. Those people, along with members of the marketing team and any staff who touch an event from the service perspective, all had access to lessons learned at Convening Leaders.

And the education will stretch even further. “For every one of our team, they may touch anywhere from two to three clients annually,” McGury said. “We had 15 people, and if they each worked on two to three clients and they brought that message back — to not only the hundred planners we have, but to the educators — that had a tremendous impact on hundreds of different associations. Almost every association we work with benefited from us attending PCMA.”

— Barbara Palmer


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Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.