Facilitated discussion adds value to conference learning experience

Talking with other participants about educational content while the material is still fresh in mind helps develop later application of that content to the participant’s work.

Planning a conference, workshop or training seminar and wondering how to avoid putting the participants through hours of sitting and listening? Want to make it engaging instead of “death by electronic presentation”? I experienced a simple technique at a conference this year that made it one of the most engaging and ultimately the most valuable conferences I have ever attended.

The technique is a simple one, often overlooked as we attempt to maximize the learner’s time by cramming in more and more content. It is a form of active learning, and the effectiveness of active learning is well-supported by research. The technique was the use of facilitated discussion of the concepts and information presented.

The agenda of this particular conference alternated between presentations and discussion. Presentations were made by university faculty doing research on non-profit governance, consultants who work with non-profit organizations, members of non-profit boards of directors, and executive directors of non-profits. Conference participants included all four groups. The discussion was aimed at bringing people together from all of these perspectives to talk about the current research, its value and shortcomings, and what kind of research is needed in the future. Learning firsthand about the value of this technique was a side-benefit, but it was sure effective.

Concurrent sessions consisted of 2-3 brief presentations about research and/or current techniques around a specific governance concept. Following the presentations, planned questions or discussion topics were used by a facilitator to get the group of participants talking about what they had heard. Sometimes small groups were used and results of the discussion shared with the full group. Other times the full group of 25-30 would talk together.

A stated goal of the conference was for participants to learn more about the research, and for researchers to learn about future research needs, including ways to improve the research to make it more practical and useful in the field. The discussion seemed to contribute to accomplishment of this goal.

The use of this facilitated discussion also had a beneficial effect on learning. We engaged our brains around the information we had just heard. There was lively discussion about the usefulness, or lack of usefulness, of the information. We talked about ways to apply it to work some of us were doing that was different than the applications some of the presenters had envisioned.

In future articles here on the Michigan State University Extension web site, I will share some ways that I apply this technique to my programming, both successes and failures. If you try it, or want to talk more about it, I invite you to email me at amrhein@anr.msu.edu. You can find out more about the conference I attended and the other work of the Midwest Center for Non-Profit Leadership at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s website.

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