Advancing Association Meetings By Exploring the Learning Brain

By Aaron Wolowiec • February 16, 2015

Think back to the last conference you attended. What did you learn?

Without key insights and takeaways, professional development investments are wasted. However, as more organizations offer continuing education both to support their strategic missions and to deliver business results, the threshold to meet or exceed the increasingly sophisticated expectations of attendees is changing.

Learning is now characterized by not only the acquisition of knowledge or skills, but by the retention and application of knowledge or skills in the work setting. By the way, your association scores extra points when it clearly describes the business measures that will change or improve as a result of an education program or if a specific return on investment can be attributed to its implementation.

Adult learners are a discerning and complex group. They are both pressed for time and goal-oriented. They bring with them previous knowledge and experience, but have a finite capacity for information. Moreover, adult learners have varied motivation levels, and they learn best when presented with a number of different instructional strategies.

Due to advances in neuroscience, brain research now reveals evidence-based strategies to guide effective learning experiences. Cognitive processing serves as the foundation for making new knowledge and skills stick.

On its journey through sensory memory, then short-term or working memory and finally long-term memory, most stimuli succumb to memory loss. This is particularly true when opportunities for practice and reflection are not afforded to participants during education programs.

Knowledge or skills that adequately grab the attention of sensory memory pass through to working memory. The rehearsal of knowledge or skills during the program allows this information to then pass through to long-term memory for consolidation and storage. Failure to retrieve and rehearse key insights and takeaways in the workplace, however, cause them to be lost from lack of use.

According to John Medina’s Brain Rules, people usually forget 90 percent of what they learn during a program within 30 days. To promote greater retention and application, following are just seven of Medina’s original 12 rules as applied to association programming.

  • The brain appears to be designed to solve problems.

Build and implement practice exercises that challenge learners. It’s recommended that practice time comprise between 35 and 50 percent of education sessions. Practice time includes practice activities, facilitator feedback and both pre- and post-assessments.

  • Move to improve your thinking skills.

Develop opportunities throughout the program to get participants out of their seats and moving throughout the room or venue. Consider flip charts, manipulatives, networking and role playing as excuses to get people on their feet.

  • The biological drive for an afternoon nap is universal.

The afternoon energy slump is real. It occurs right around 3 p.m. Planners should avoid scheduling heavy topics during this time and instructors should design curricula full of engagement and interaction when asked to speak during this so-called nap zone.

  • We don’t pay attention to boring things.

Audiences tend to check out after only 10 minutes of content. Telling personal narratives based on the instructor’s experience or creating events rich in emotion will help regain their attention.

  • Repeat to remember.

Leverage learning materials like slide decks and participant handouts to repeat new information in timed intervals throughout the presentation. Take breaks periodically to allow participants the opportunity for reflection.

  • Stimulate more of the senses at the same time.

Audiences learn best if we stimulate several senses at once. Integrate the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch into the instructional experience when delivering particularly complex concepts.

  • Vision trumps all other senses.

Visuals such as PowerPoint, Prezi, videos, handouts and job aids should not be underestimated. It’s said that if participants hear a piece of information, three days later they’re likely to remember 10 percent of it. Add a picture and they’re likely to remember 65 percent.

While there’s still a lot we don’t know, implementing a handful of these simple techniques when combined with quality meeting management can enhance the intentionality of an association’s professional development offerings.

In the largest of associations, meeting professionals focus on logistics (e.g., site and menu selection) while instructional designers focus on content. Ultimately, instructional designers create experiences that make the acquisition of knowledge and skills more efficient, effective and appealing. For small- to mid-sized associations, these roles are often combined with more emphasis placed on logistics and less emphasis on strategy and instructional design.

As associations gain expertise in analyzing, designing, developing, implementing and evaluating instructional experiences, they can improve process and procedure, as well as better coach and mentor speakers in the facilitation of quality learning experiences supported by neuroscience. As associations begin to approach their meetings and events with the mindset of an instructional designer, they can expect to:

  • Elevate the quality and sophistication of their education programs.
  • Create experiences that support both repeat and first-time attendance.
  • Earn consumer loyalty through membership retention and acquisition.
  • Improve their bottom lines via the purchase of association products and services.

About The Author

Aaron Wolowiec is founder and president of Event Garde, a Grand Rapids-based professional development consulting firm. Event Garde believes in dynamic, meaningful and compelling education and networking experiences rooted in quality instructional design and the latest learning research.