By comparison, according to the Economic Significance of Meetings to the U.S. Economy study conducted by PwC in 2011, there were 1.8 million meetings held in the U.S. that served over 205 million attendees.
Clearly, the meetings and events industry is responsible for more adult continuing education than the entire higher education industry. Meeting attendees are keenly aware of just how important meetings are to their professional development. According to industry research conducted over the past several decades, the top two reasons people attend meetings and events, and all other reasons pale in comparison, are for the educational programs and the networking. And in most of the research, these two are interchangeable.
But despite this enormous responsibility, the meetings and events industry does not do a very good job of educating adults. Most educational sessions or ‘formal’ learning at meetings amounts to little more than speaker-centric lectures supported by text-heavy presentations in large, impersonal environments set in classroom style. Most networking or ‘informal’ learning (which is actually more highly valued than formal learning) is left to chance at coffee breaks and cocktail receptions.
The reasons for this discrepancy are many. For starters, it’s not always clear who ‘owns’ learning at meetings and events. Is it the meeting planner, who primarily focuses on logistics? Is it the meeting stakeholder, like marketing or sales, who ‘owns’ the meeting content? Because it’s not always clear who is ultimately responsible for the attendee learning experience, and because several parties are often directly or indirectly involved in creating the learning experience, attendee learning suffers.
Another big reason is that very few stakeholders, from the meeting planner to the meeting owner, know much about what it takes to design, develop and deliver quality education. It’s simply not part of their skill set. Compounding this skill gap, educational programs are often developed by committee or subject matter experts who are no more versed in adult learning principles, instructional design, alternative presentation methods, or any of the other tools and techniques commonly used by learning professionals to create quality education. Given the hundreds of millions who rely on meetings and events for their continuing education, it’s shocking there are not more learning professionals working in the meetings and events industry.
The prevailing attitude among meeting professionals vacillates between learning isn’t ‘broken’ to ‘I don’t have time to fix it’, sometimes meaning; ‘I don’t know how to fix it’. But talk to meeting attendees, and you get quite a different story. Attendees generally know what they need when it comes to learning and are growing increasingly intolerant of irrelevant session content and ineffective presenters that waste their time. Attendee expectations are changing and those meetings that are not adapting are losing mindshare (and attendees) to other channels.
Finally, most meeting evaluation metrics don’t capture whether learning is ‘broken’, much less identify how to fix it. The ultimate measure of whether learning is taking place at meetings and events is whether it’s having any effect on individual or organizational performance. This is much more defensible measure of learning’s impact than whether one is ‘satisfied’ or not. This level of measurement is more common in other adult learning environments but has yet to catch on in the meetings and events industry. It is, in fact, the only way meeting planners and meeting stakeholders can truly determine whether the learning offered at meetings and events is working or not, and how to improve it.
Given these limitations, it’s debatable whether any real learning of lasting value takes place at meetings and events. There are very few studies available which determine whether a meeting had any noticeable impact on individual or organizational productivity and most meeting stakeholders can’t say with any certainty whether their meeting was objectively successful or not. So what are meeting stakeholders to do? What can be done to improve the quality of learning at meetings and events? Following are some good places to start.
Adult Learning Principles
Most of what we know about learning is based on our academic experience. But adults learn differently than they did when they were children in grade school and even our institutions of higher education have been slow to evolve from the didactic learning landscape that’s been in place for centuries.
Adult learning principles have been in use since the 1950’s as a result of the pioneering work done by renowned adult education expert, Malcolm Knowles. Adult educational programs should align with these Knowles principles.
- Adults are autonomous and self-directed. They need to be free to direct themselves. Instructors must actively involve adult participants in the learning process and serve as facilitators for them.
- Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, and previous education. They need to connect learning to this knowledge/experience base. To help them do so, instructors should draw out participants’ experience and knowledge which is relevant to the topic.
- Adults are goal-oriented. They usually know what goals they want to attain. They, therefore, appreciate an educational program that is organized and has clearly defined elements.
- Adults are relevancy-oriented. They must see a reason for learning something. Learning has to be applicable to their work or other responsibilities to be of value to them. Therefore, instructors must identify objectives for adult participants.
- Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a lesson most useful to them in their work. They may not be interested in knowledge for its own sake. Instructors must tell participants explicitly how the content will be useful to them on the job.
- As do all learners, adults need to be shown respect. Instructors must acknowledge the wealth of experiences that adult participants bring to the classroom. These adults should be treated as equals in experience and knowledge and allowed to voice their opinions freely.
Another aspect of adult learning is motivation. No amount of learning can take place unless learners are sufficiently motivated. At least six factors serve as sources of motivation for adult learning:
- Social relationships: the need for association and friendships.
- External expectations: to comply with the recommendations of a formal authority.
- Social welfare: to improve the ability to serve a community or mankind.
- Personal advancement: to achieve higher job status or secure professional advancement.
- Escape/Stimulation: to relieve boredom or provide a break in routine.
- Cognitive interest: to seek knowledge for its own sake.
Adult responsibilities place unusual demands on learning. These barriers mostly concern lack of time or money. But motivation can also be a barrier. What motivates adult learners? Typical motivations include a requirement for competence or credentials, a promotion, a need to learn new skills, or adapt to job or workplace changes.
The best way to motivate adult learners is simply to enhance their reasons for participating and decrease the barriers to participation. Instructors must understand why their participants are attending (the motivators) as well as what is keeping them from learning more.
Effective Learning Guidelines
Learning is primarily a social process that occurs continuously throughout life. Learning results from engaging the senses. In some people, one sense is favored more than others to learn or recall information but generally speaking, the more senses you can engage, the easier it is to recall learning and apply it to your job. Therefore, instructors should present materials that stimulate as many senses as possible.
There are four critical elements of learning that must be addressed to ensure that participants learn. These elements are:
Motivation. Instructors must establish rapport with participants and prepare them for learning; this provides motivation. Instructors can motivate students via several means:
- Set a feeling or tone for the lesson by establishing an open atmosphere that shows the participants they will help them learn.
- Set an appropriate level of concern, depending on the importance of the learning objective.
- Set an appropriate level of difficulty, high enough to challenge participants but not so high that they become frustrated.
In addition, participants need specific feedback about their learning results and a clear reward for learning (which doesn’t have to be monetary). The benefit of learning must be obvious in order for adults to motivate themselves to learn the subject.
Reinforcement. Reinforcement is a very necessary part of the teaching/learning process; through it, instructors encourage correct modes of behavior and performance. Instructors who are teaching participants new skills normally use positive reinforcement. As the name implies, positive reinforcement is “good” and reinforces “good” (or positive) behavior.
Reinforcement should be part of the teaching-learning process to ensure correct behavior. Instructors need to use it on a frequent and regular basis early in the process to help the students retain what they have learned. Then, they should use reinforcement only to maintain consistent, positive behavior.
Retention. Participants must retain information from educational sessions in order to benefit from the learning. The instructors’ jobs are not finished until they have assisted the learner in retaining the information. In order for participants to retain the information taught, they must see a meaning or purpose for that information. They must also understand and be able to interpret and apply the information. This understanding includes their ability to assign the correct degree of importance to the material.
The amount of retention will be directly affected by the degree of original learning. Simply stated, if the participants did not learn the material well initially, they will not retain it well either.
Retention by the participants is directly affected by their amount of practice during the learning. Instructors should emphasize retention and application. After the learners demonstrate correct (desired) performance, they should be urged to practice to maintain the desired performance. Distributed practice is similar in effect to intermittent reinforcement.
Transference. Transfer of learning is the result of training — it is the ability to use the information taught in the educational session but in a new setting. Positive transference, like positive reinforcement, occurs when the participant uses the behavior taught in the session.
Transference is most likely to occur in the following situations:
- Association — participants can associate the new information with something that they already know.
- Similarity — the information is similar to material that participants already know; that is, it revisits a logical framework or pattern.
- Degree of original learning — participant’s degree of original learning was high.
- Critical attribute element — the information learned contains elements that are extremely beneficial (critical) on the job.
When developing educational programs for meetings and events, it’s helpful to follow the SMARTIE method.
The “S” in SMARTIE stands for “student centered.”
This will help remind you to focus the learning classroom experience on the participants, not the instructor.
The “M” in SMARTIE stands for “motivation.”
This will help remind you to keep in mind the importance of answering adult learners’ ever present question: “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM)
The “A” in SMARTIE stands for “Activities.”
This will help remind you to set aside plenty of time for activities that will enable your adult learners to participate in learning and practice what they’ve learned. When learners engage in learning activities, they are able to internalize what they are learning.
The “R” in SMARTIE stands for “Reinforcement.”
This will help remind you to include opportunities for your adult learners to reinforce new knowledge and skills.
The “T” in SMARTIE stands for “Transfer.”
This will help remind you to check that the desired learning points have been internalized. Be sure to provide opportunities for your adult learners to apply their new knowledge and skills to their jobs.
The “I” in SMARTIE stands for “Information Chunking.”
This will help remind you to group the new information presented to your learners
in chunks of 5 – 7 new items. Be sure to provide opportunities to practice and reinforce this information before moving on to the next chunk of 5 – 7 new items.
The “E” in SMARTIE stands for “Environment.”
This will help remind you to be sure the setting for the learning experience is comfortable, conducive to learning, respectful of learners, and a safe place to make mistakes and learn.
A (Very) Few Words about Learning Styles
One of the latest trends in learning at meetings and events is to provide content in accordance with participants preferred learning styles; visual, auditory, or kinesthetic/tactile. Adults are believed to have a dominant style that helps them learn better or faster.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support the existence of learning styles. This is not to say that all learners are the same and that differences don’t exist. What does impact learning are dimensions like ability, background knowledge, and interest, which vary from person to person. Developing learning according to these dimensions, while not as easy as accommodating learning styles, will result in better knowledge retention and transfer to the job, which is really the ultimate objective of learning.