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Maximizing Your Conference Experience: From Uptake to Output

Updated: Apr 9

Conferences, whether you're a first-timer or a seasoned veteran, are daunting. If you Google “how to prepare for a conference,” you’ll find essays with titles like “Surviving Academic Conferences Without Crying,” “Advice on Surviving Conferences,” and “Avoid Becoming a Conference Zombie” (Tobin, 2023). While the content of these tools might be useful, language like that doesn’t exactly lead to hopefulness among prospective conference-goers.

At our recent presentation at the 2024 TESOL International Convention & Expo in Tampa, Florida, we asked participants how they were feeling after two full days of conferencing. Here were their options:

1. Let's do this!

2. What? When? How?

3. There's only one way I'm getting through this...

What do you imagine the most common response was? If you guessed 2 or 3, you’re right! Most of the fantastic educators who attended our talk reported feeling anxiety-riddled, exhausted, overwhelmed, just as we expected.

Conferences as a “kaleidoscope of input”

Despite the feeling of overwhelm that often accompanies academic conferences, we all know of the myriad of benefits that attending conferences offers us.

Academic conferences help us to transcend the limitations of Teacher Twitter, asynchronous forms of communication, and coffee chats, allowing for deeper and more meaningful connections with longtime colleagues and new acquaintances alike.

Shey and Anna after their presentation at the 2024 TESOL International Convention in Tampa, Florida.

They allow us to break away from our daily routines, engage with others' inquiries, and participate in conversations about ideas that matter to us and other like-minded individuals.

In short, conferences are considered a chance to share and learn, gather new resources (Rimmer & Floyd, 2020), and foster belonging to a greater teaching community (Shannon et al., 2019).

Many teachers perceive conferences as an “unrivalled CPD [continuing professional development] opportunity,” offering a “kaleidoscope of input” to bolster their practices (Rimmer & Floyd, 2020, p. 7).

What the research says about PD input

A kaleidoscope of input sounds great, but there are some truisms that we have to consider about input…

Studies show that sustained professional development is more effective than “one-off” learning opportunities.

Studies show that sustained professional development (PD) is more effective than “one-off” learning opportunities (Hammond et al., 2017; Wilson, 2013; McConnell et al., 2013). Past research has found that “one-off” PD has little impact on teacher practice (McConnell et al., 2013).

Of course, many of us have become accustomed to trying to absorb content from ad-hoc offerings because that is what is most readily available to us, whether the district is providing it to us, or we’re joining hour-long webinars of our own accord. We're not trying to say that it isn’t worthwhile to engage in these one-off opportunities, especially if that’s all we have to work with. We’re arguing that being systematic with our approach to PD can yield better results.

We also know that effective PD requires time for reflection (Hammond et al., 2017; Mercer, Farrell, & Freeman, 2022). We need to give ourselves opportunities to think through why what we’re learning is relevant to our unique contexts and how we can make use of it before we move on to the next thing.

Challenges of conferences

Despite their benefits, conferences can easily be approached as isolated events, and their structure can make deep reflection challenging for overwhelmed attendees. With the multitude of concurrent sessions, colleagues to network with, and long days, there’s not much time to pause and reflect on what you’ve learned.

And while teachers may report strong gains from attending conferences, research tells us that actual outcomes may be limited in their scope and duration (Rimmer & Floyd, 2020). The "inspiration high" that comes with the excitement of a conference doesn’t necessarily convert uptake into output.

The greatest challenge is in translating the inspiration and ideas gleaned into tangible practices and thus long-term teacher and student learning outcomes (Aubrey & Coombe, 2010; Shannon et al., 2019).

So where do we go from here? How can we make the conference experience more meaningful and effective? How can we turn this isolated experience into stepping stones for personalized and continuous PD?

Step 1: Consider your purpose

Before attending a conference, consider your purpose. What are your priorities at the conference? What areas are you trying to focus on? Maybe you're conducting some research, looking for a job, trying to solve a specific work problem, just exploring, hoping to connect with others, or a mix of these approaches.

For the most part, the people we met at TESOL seemed to have some sort of goal in mind. They knew that they wanted to network, or develop a greater understanding of how to use AI in instruction, for example.

However, some individuals admitted they hadn’t thought about it thoroughly. But this isn’t a reason to despair! Even halfway through the conference we can shift gears and define a purpose that can carry us throughout our remaining time.

Step 2: Strategize session selection

There are several ways of approaching conferences, and with that, session selection.

If you enter a conference environment with a clear focus, it might be a bit easier to select sessions, choosing sessions that connect directly back to your focus.

But if you entered the conference with the intent to “learn a little bit about everything,” choosing sessions might feel a bit less directed. One way to get around this is to assigned one day or segment of a day to each area of focus (e.g. AI on Wednesday, SEL on Thursday, networking on Friday). Or if you really want to cast the net wide, you might try selecting one session for each conference topic or theme. By the end of the first day, you might have a better sense of how you want to spend the rest of the conference.

And if you're really having trouble choosing a focus, another approach is to "follow your friends around," so to speak. Maybe a colleague of yours is giving a talk and you want to support them. Or you really can't decide and go to whatever session your colleague has chosen for the next session. It's OK to latch onto others when we're feeling lost!

An arrow representing a spectrum from "a focused approach" to "casting a wide net" with the following quotes: "I'd like to solve a particular work challenge." "I have a specific research question in mind." "My friend/colleague is giving a talk!" "I'm looking to expand my repertoire." " I want to know everthing!!"
Strategies for session selection (adapted from Tobin, 2023)

Whatever your approach, make sure to reflect on where you are on the spectrum going into the conference, and try to be intentional about your choices as much as you can.

Step 3: Embed moments of reflection

The great thing about being a reflective teacher (or conference goer) is that it doesn’t take a lot to get a large return. There are several strategies for integrating reflection into a learning experience. We can split these into two categories: reflection in action (during the session) and reflection on action (after the session).

Reflection in action refers to in-the-moment thoughts that influence your behavior going forward—in this case, how you are participating in a learning opportunity. This is your first opportunity to start thinking about how the content you’re engaging with might make its way into your post-conference life. And the clearest way to do this is to take effective notes.

Let’s face it: simultaneous note-talking is hard! During sessions, focus on capturing key points that confirm, challenge, or expand your understanding (Tobin, 2023). Keep notes brief, noting down the presenter's name, session title, and a few pertinent ideas. Mark items for further exploration with a box. This active-listening approach helps maintain focus and minimizes distractions.

Once the session is over, it's time to switch to reflection on action. In other words, after the fact, take time to think about the learning experience. If you’re anything like us, you’ve left a conference with a million handouts and pages of notes and never looked at them again—or if you have, you couldn’t make sense of it.

To avoid leaving your conference experience to languish in the archives of your memory, try to reflect on a session not too long after its conclusion to ensure accuracy in remembering content. If it’s not feasible immediately following a session, do it at the end of the day.

Make it easier for your future self with some streamlined reflection (adapted from MacKay, 2019):

  • What ideas piqued my interest?

  • What were some common themes everyone was talking about?

  • What’s one action I can take from what I learned?

    • How can I tap into my Community of Practice?

    • What resources can I seek out for deepened understanding?

    • Who can I speak with who might be considered an authority on the topic?

Making space for reflection during the conference will bring us much closer to adding the final piece of the puzzle: bridging the gap between conference learning and extension beyond.

Step 4: Extend your learning

Bridging the gap between uptake and output—in our case, conference input and post-conference application—begins with intentionality. Walking through a simple set of questions (like those we’ve suggested below) can be the difference between visualizing a great idea and implementing it in our context.

Ask yourself:

  • How will you apply what you’ve learned?

  • How will you share with others?

  • How will you evaluate success?

  • How can you integrate your conference experience into your ongoing PD goals? What new interests or focus areas have emerged from this experience?

Bridging the gap between uptake and output—in our case, conference input and post-conference application—begins with intentionality.

Upon returning to our routines, it's crucial to actively integrate the inspiration and ideas gleaned from conferences into our daily practices. This is a part of reflection-on-action that is often overlooked. We’re too busy, or maybe we think we’ll naturally absorb what we heard at the conference. But this just doesn’t happen! We have to be intentional about it.

In the weeks following a conference, dedicate time to debriefing. Make a point of applying newfound knowledge to your work, reinforce connections established, and share insights that could benefit others. This effort ensures that the conference's impact endures beyond its duration.

For personal development

For professional collaboration with colleagues

  • Review and reorganize your notes to grasp important concepts, ideas, results, and references effectively.

  • Identify opportunities for ongoing learning and growth.

  • Continue networking: initiate conversations to further explore topics of interest.

  • Follow the "See one, do one, teach one" model: Learn a new strategy at a conference, apply it in your work, and then share your experience with colleagues.

  • Share the wealth: Exchange ideas with your community of practice, whether it be an informal gathering of other teachers, a formal webinar, an online forums, etc.

(adapted from Tobin, 2013)

Summing up

Quote by John Dewey: "We do not learn form experience. We learn from reflecting on experience."

We're with Dewey on this: Reflection is at the center of learning and, as a result, of a successful conference-going experience.

We want to give you some tools to help you reflect on your learning experiences!

Check out our newest release,

The Reflective Practice Starter Kit, complete with our favorite resources, created or curated by us, to dive deeper into the pool of reflective practice.

And if you're interested in hearing our own reflections and those of other attendees at the 2024 TESOL conference, check out our latest episode!

Until next time, friendshappy teaching and happy reflecting...

Anna and Shey in front of their poster session at the 2024 TESOL International Convention in Tampa, Florida.

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