Friday, March 9, 2012

My Conference Learning Strategy

When you attend a conference, either online or in person, do you have a strategy for getting the most out of it?  Sometimes it's not possible to attend all talks due to concurrent sessions. Hard choices have to made about the best way to use your time.

I have heard that some people choose sessions based on the syllabus. Talks that have very thorough handouts are skipped in favor of ones that have little on paper. I can understand that but at the same time it seems counter-intuitive to me. Perhaps the talk with the weak syllabus also has less substantial live content.

Over the years I have developed a quirky but very specific way in which I choose the sessions that I go to.

In-Person Conferences

1) Rock Stars - I hate to use that term but it fits. If I'm at a conference where Elizabeth Shown Mills or Dr. Thomas Jones is speaking I will likely not miss the opportunity to go to see them. I would even go so far as to watch the same talk multiple times at various conferences. There are some people you just need to hear if you have the opportunity.

2) The Geography Factor - In a time slot where there are no rock stars I will then fall back on geographic selection. If I'm at a regional conference in New England I will choose to watch the presentation by the speaker that comes from the furthest away. The logic is that I will likely have access to local speakers at some other point during the year. Speakers from far away are much harder to see in person. If they have made the effort to come from a great distance I will return the favor by attending their presentation.

Online Conferences

With online conferences we don't have the same physical restrictions as we do with in-person conferences. We can attend from the comfort of our home through the internet. An online conference still forces us to make choices. Are there concurrent sessions that we must choose from or is it a simple matter of prioritizing which sessions we watch first?

1) New Topics - My basic strategy for prioritizing online conference watching is to choose the content that I know nothing about. It may even be on topics that I will likely never research. Something new, however, will hold my interest more than a topic I already know about. And even if it seems out of my research area I will very likely get some new ideas or strategies that I can apply to my own research.

2) Same Topics - This may surprise you but after watching the topics I know nothing about I will head for topics that either I think I know everything about or I have already heard someone speak on.

For instance, last Saturday I heard a presentation by Walter Hickey of NARA Northeast Region (Waltham, MA) give a talk on the coming 1940 US Federal Census. Then on Wednesday, I listened to the webinar on exactly the same topic by Thomas MacEntee. Many of you are likely shaking your heads and saying that is a waste of time.

It's not really. The explanation I received of how high school is different from college is that in college you learn critical thinking. Critical thinking is necessary for evaluating sources to come to a more informed conclusion. 

When I watch a presentation on one topic and never take advantage of further talks on the same subject then I am learning with a one-sided viewpoint.  By hearing two speakers on the same topic I can evaluate better all the information I received.

I admit I was a bit hesitant to hear both Walter and Thomas present on the same topic. I worried that perhaps one speaker might disappoint me. In reality what I heard were two excellent presentations on the same topic. I learned that individuals will approach topics from different viewpoints and provide different solutions or suggestions for tackling research. I was amazed that two talks sharing the same basic limited subject could be so different from one another.

So in this strategy I would seek out presentations on topics that I've already been exposed to in order to help me better evaluate the information.

Hopefully I've given you some food for thought. What are you conference learning strategies like?


  1. Marian, I haven't been to a conference in a very long time--and I've never been to a genealogy conference!--but one thing that came to mind when I read your question was that I always appreciated being able to buy a copy of a taped recording of the sessions that I thought were exceptionally insightful. When conferences provided that service, it also helped when I was torn between hearing speaker A and speaker B in the same time slot (with no other recourse for alternate attendance). Also, that way, I could go back, later, and study the presentation in more depth, at my own speed, and refresh my memory on that presentation.

  2. Somewhere, sometime, someone told me that at least one conference session to attend was one that was "outside of your comfort zone." I always try to make room for one or two lectures that I really don't have any reason to attend. And I've found most of them very worthwhile.
    Sounds like you are doing the same thing by selecting topics that concern things you might never think you'll research. Hope to see you at a conference someday.


  3. Marian, I agree with No. 1 at in person conferences. Next, I look for something that will challenge me, so I look for subjects I don't know a lot about.

  4. Rock stars first. After that I love to learn about record groups am less familiar - or unfamiliar with. Hmm, something like using guardianship records....

    I might add that the more speakers I hear, I'm developing a list of speakers that I would make an effort to hear - call them crooners or folk singers. And a couple I will avoid...

  5. Clare Turncliff GunningMarch 10, 2012 at 9:12 AM

    Your timing is perfect. I am facing this problem this coming up weekend at the Family History Day that Ancestry and NEHS are putting on in Tarrytown, NY. I have been torn between which sessions to go to. I will take a new look at the schedule. This weekend with the Virtual Conference put on by FTU at least you can download all the syllibus and video presentations. You don't have to choose. That way I can go to the Roots Tech archive and check what I missed with that. Wooo too much genealogy sometimes.

  6. Marian, thanks for the great post. Very helpful.

  7. Great timing, Marian. I'm currently trying to pick sessions for two conferences--the Ohio Genealogical Society and NGS. With 10 lectures per time slot, NGS is particularly hard to plan for. I tend to gravitate toward topics that hold a lot of interest for me and speakers that I know are top-notch--although I've attended very good presentations by lesser known speakers as well.

    If I'm really stuck between two sessions, I usually choose to attend the one I think will depend more heavily on graphics and demonstrations (technology topics, for instance). Then I order a recording of the other one. When I listen to it at home, I follow along in the syllabus, just as if I was sitting in the audience. It's interesting to hear how others answer this--great question!