Turn a Talk into an Active Learning Experience


Attending a conference talk can expose you to new ideas or technologies, but you are passive during the presentation. In order to gain insight into new concepts, or be able to apply new skills, after the talk you will have to do the work of transforming your notes into an active learning experience. In this blog post, I explain how.

Step 1: Before the talk, set your intention.

Prior to the talk, you should decide what you want to be able to do with the information you encounter. Bloom’s Taxonomy offers a good framework for making this decision. Do you want to do one, or a combination of the following?

  • Remember
  • Understand
  • Apply
  • Analyze
  • Evaluate
  • Create

If you are attending several talks at a conference, you won’t have time to engage in higher order thinking skills for every talk, so be selective.

Step 2: During the talk, take notes.

Keep your notes focused on the larger ideas in the talk, not the details. If the talk is technical, you will be able to fill in anything you missed with documentation. Try to make connections between things that you already know that are similar to what the speaker is explaining.

Step 3: After the talk, write a set of learning objectives.

Learning objectives are how you break down a larger concept or set of skills into smaller goals. When writing objectives, use verbs that are aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Do you want to be able to discuss the basics of a concept? Write objectives using verbs from the knowledge or comprehension tiers of Bloom’s Taxonomy. For example: Identify and describe the benefits of Node.js

Do you want to be able to use a idea, concept, or technology in a project? Do you want to break something down into its component parts? Write objectives using verbs from the application or analysis tiers of Bloom’s Taxonomy. For example: Create a simple server using Node.js

Do you want to create something new, or discover deeper patterns and connections? Write objectives using verbs from the synthesis or evaluation tiers of Bloom’s Taxonomy. For example: Compare and contrast the benefits of Node.js with Ruby on Rails

A list of verbs aligned with Bloom's Taxonomy

Image from Fractus Learning

Step 4: Do each objective, then ‘Name the Steps.’

This process will be challenging and messy. You will have to figure out how do the task you descibed in each of your objectives, and then go back and Name the Steps. When you Name the Steps, you write down how to do the skill like you are preparing to teach it to someone else.

Step 5: Use your steps to practice each objective until you develop fluency with the knowledge and skills.

Your goal is to be able to complete each objective without your notes.

See it in Practice

On August 4, 2016, I attended a talk by Ryan Ciecalone called “Node for beginners, Why so Asynchronous?” Before the talk, I decided that I wanted to use the information to be able to explain why developers use Node.js, and to write working code from the concepts the speaker presented. During the talk, I took notes, and drafted objectives. After the talk, I spent 2+ hours following the process described above. See my work in this Github repo.