We've all sat through those PowerPoint-heavy lectures while struggling to keep our eyes open. Is anyone really learning anything? Probably not. However, we don't have to throw the lecture format out altogether — after all, that's what attendees expect, and they can get a little peeved when you inject too much peer-to-peer learning. But there is a happy middle ground, as Beverly Wood, MD, and Dixie Fisher, PhD, both with the University of Southern California, demonstrated with a lecture that was anything but a snoozer at the Alliance for Continuing Medical Education annual conference, held in January in Phoenix.

Shake It up

One common mistake speakers make is to try to cram 10 days' worth of material into an hour-long lecture, Wood and Fisher explained. Attendees get cognitive overload — you know, that fuzzy-headed, “I know I just learned a ton of stuff but I couldn't tell you what it was” feeling that's all too common post-lecture. Wood explained that it will be a much better learning experience if the speaker picks three or four main ideas to get across, and puts them into three or four mini lectures of 10 to 15 minutes each. In between each mini lecture, they should insert some form of interactivity.

“Active learning is more than listening,” Wood said. In between the mini lectures, let attendees learn from each other by presenting a case study and asking each one to write down his or her solution, then share the solutions with each other. “If they don't apply what they learn, it won't get cemented into their long-term memory.” The way to get that cement to stick, they said, is to have attendees analyze, read and/or write, evaluate, problem-solve, and apply the learning.

One way to get people to synthesize the information is to ask them to take what they learned in that 10-minute mini lecture and boil it down to just 10 words. Stimulate them auditorily, visually, through introducing novelty, or by changing the intensity from relaxing to something needing more attention. Audience-response systems can be good tools to use, but not if the questions being asked have only a right and a wrong answer, said Fisher. Ask controversial questions, and have them talk to their neighbor about why they answered the way they did.

Training the Trainers

Some session leaders may be less than enthusiastic about changing their style, Wood and Fisher acknowledged. Some may not be familiar with these types of techniques, or they may not have time to incorporate them and still get all their points across, or they may just fear doing something different. To help facilitate change, what you can do is give speakers a format sheet that outlines what you expect them to do, and ask them to prepare several case studies that can be injected into the talk every 10 to 15 minutes. Another idea is to let them know that speakers who use these techniques generally get the highest ratings from attendees, which could appeal to their egos.

Goose Their Memory

“We work with two memory channels: One that deals with the written word and graphics, the other with verbal information,” said Wood. “Using both channels by including graphics increases learning and attention.” She explained that graphics can condense the information in the text, but don't use them as just decoration. Representational and organizational graphics can help people organize their thoughts. Visual jokes are good, but only if the speaker can pull them off (and not everyone can). “Sometimes you will remember a graphic better than the verbal information. And they don't have to be fancy — a line drawing works as well as an artist's rendering” for most lecture topics, Wood said. A diagram, for example, can help people interpret the information in a different way than they would just hearing the words.

“Remember that they don't learn during the lecture,” said Fisher. “They learn when they go home and review their notes” if you don't give them ways to glue that learning into their long-term memories there and then. “Talk no more than 15 minutes, then do something different that engages them. It's during those two or three or five minutes of engagement that they are learning by applying the information you just gave them.” And, she added, “The denser the lecture, the shorter it should be.”

According to Wood, the key question to ask your speakers is, “Can you walk into the room and do what you're going to do even if there are no learners in the room? If so, don't do it.”

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