Going to a conference? How to make the learning last

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Have you ever participated in a professional development conference where you listened intently, asked a few questions, and dutifully took notes, only to discover that the most memorable parts of the conference (besides the cookies) were the conversations you had in the hallways or during lunch? That’s a risk in our too-busy and technology-saturated lives: learning and retaining what we’re learning seems harder. “We will forget most of what we learn at a conference by the time we get home for dinner,” bemoans Nancy Bacon, who has thought a lot about this in her role as Director of Learning and Engagement for the state association of nonprofits in the State of Washington (Washington Nonprofits).

Luckily, there are ways we can recalibrate our approach to learning. Here is more wisdom from Nancy: “Too often we make conference participation an isolated activity. We reluctantly fit it into our schedule and then march through the day with a conference bag hanging from our wrist until we get home exhausted and overwhelmed. We take pages of notes, which never get looked at again. Last year, I attended a thought-provoking conference with colleagues I admire. I misplaced my notebook on the way home, and when I tried to recall a single to-do item on my inspired list of tasks, I drew a complete blank. It was a complete sugar rush of excitement, with no stickiness to turn what I learned into action!” What our network is learning is that piling new ideas on top of new ideas, or bouncing from one training module to the next, or dipping in for a “one-and-done” webinar – without the opportunity to make sense of what we’re learning - is counterproductive. Our brains need context to organize what we are learning into action steps that help solve a problem or advance our mission. To help us all “learn better,” the Council of Nonprofits and many state associations of nonprofits in our network are intentionally incorporating adult learning strategies, such as reflection, into the design of learning programs. There are lots more ideas about ways to help learning “stick” that Nancy shares in a post highlighting the roles of reflection, team, and time. Here are our favorites:

  1. Reflect: Mid-way and at the end of the conference day: What do you find yourself continuing to think about? What ideas have stuck with you? Find a quiet place during the conference for at least 10 minutes. Write down what you are thinking about and the questions you have. What intrigues you?
  2. Team: Bring a team to a conference! Your team will help hold you accountable for what each of you learned; sharing what you learned with each other can make your team’s take away lessons all the richer.
  3. Time: Within the week after the conference: All you need is one hour – maybe less – to read through your notes and make a to-do list of ideas and action steps. Look at websites mentioned by speakers and review their presentations, identifying questions that you’d like to follow-up with. Within a few weeks following the conference, spend some time with your colleagues, board, or community members, sharing what you learned. What steps you might take together?

Reflection, team, and time are important factors for those designing learning programs to consider, too. Does the program design lend itself to peer-to-peer and team-oriented learning? Is there adequate time for reflection? How will the program encourage participants to extend what they are learning so it “goes home” with them and is translated into action? Here is one way to help attendees get the most out of their learning experiences: Take a look at this tool developed by Washington Nonprofits that offers attendees ideas for what to do before, during, and after a conference, to turn learning into action. Good luck in your own learning journeys! We hope you’ll stay connected to our network and find many interesting conferences to attend. Follow the social media of state association of nonprofits in your state, or one nearby, for announcements about member discounts for upcoming learning programs and annual conferences. 


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