In academia we are all familiar with the journey of conference attendance and presenting. Mine goes something like this… At the beginning of the year I look at the calendar and sketch out a conference or two I would like to attend. I check out their website and look at the themes. Think about how my research can be reshaped to fit the conference theme – though sometimes it fits like a glove! Then I schedule in deadlines to help push my research and/or writing along. Submit an abstract (or sometimes full paper). Get accepted (hopefully). Register, book travel and accommodation arrangements, tee-up other relevant research and work-related visits in the area and/or plan holidays. Then finally attend the conference, listen to many presentations and deliver my own.

Work plan

There is a lot of time and energy taken up in attending conferences and often we return exhausted to a mountain of work that was on hold while we were away. Sometimes (often?) we find that those good intentions of following up on those great contacts and ideas formulated during the conference never come to fruition. I always hope to turn a conference paper into a journal article but often realise that I received little feedback of use and I need too much time to do that. Then it falls to the bottom of my ToDo list. Does this all sound familiar?

Good practice

I came across an interesting paper this week titled Scientific Presenting: Using Evidence-Based Classroom Practices to Deliver Effective Conference Presentations. It discusses the above scenario, framing a successful conference output in terms of good teaching principles. The title of the paper suggests the use of science teaching practices though I would say these are general learning and teaching good practices and not limited to science teaching per se.

For some time now I have felt that conferences are really just opportunities for academics to lecture. Given the space and time restrictions, few presentations utilise active learning. I have occasionally witnessed some polling tools being used to increase engagement (and have used these myself) but have rarely gained much benefit to my research from their use at a conference.

In the paper, Corwin and colleagues (2018) base their discussion on the three pillars of good teaching: active learning, diversity and assessment (taken from a scientific teaching framework developed by Handelsman and colleagues, 2007). They map these onto three principles for delivering good conference presentations:

  1. engagement in learning
  2. promoting equity
  3. receiving feedback

I can highly recommend this paper as it provides a number of practical facilitation tips to enact each of the principles as well as a couple of vignettes describing the scenario, presentation goals and presenting strategies.

Engaging your audience

With a background in learning and teaching development, engaging the audience is always my primary goal at a conference. I’m planning to try a couple of the suggested techniques from the paper when I design an upcoming conference presentation on the design of compressed curriculum for block mode delivery. One will be to ask the audience to ‘make a prediction’. Instead of telling them the results, I’ll explain the methodologies and the research questions. Then I’ll give pairs 1 minute to discuss and predict what they think we found. (I say 1 minute but we all know it will end up being at least 5). In terms of feedback, I’m planning to distribute sticky notes with a few questions on them. I’ll ask the audience to respond and leave behind for me to collect. Simple questions suggested in the paper and ones which I have also used with my students such as ‘what is one thing that would improve this presentation?’ or ‘What do you consider an important next step that this work may take?’

I’d be interested to hear your suggestions for improving conference presentations and I’m planning to blog after my conference and let you know how it went.

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