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How To Increase Your Understanding At Conferences

How to increase your understanding at conferences

Conferences can be busy times. We get overloaded with information. Maybe you find it hard to follow the talks at all, or maybe you find it hard after a certain amount of time.

In this post, I share strategies I use to absorb more information at conferences:

  1. Schedule smart: We all have a maximum capacity of how much learning we can do without a break, and how much learning we can do in a day. Ideally, we have this information available because we know how we study. If not, run an experiment at a conference and track your attention per half hour increments. When do you start to have difficulties staying with the presenter? How many hours of listening on a day can you stomach? Then, use this information to plan which sessions and presentations you will attend.
  2. Take notes: For me, taking notes is key. I’ve learned over the years that taking notes by hand (or on a tablet with pencil) works best, as I like sketching things and drawing arrows in my notes. Typing out notes works much less for me.
  3. Think of questions: To engage more with the contents, you can think of questions you’d want to ask the presenter. You don’t need to actually ask these questions, but just identifying questions will already help you understand the material at a different level.
  4. Relate to research: Try to find out how this research is interesting for your research. Are the findings directly relevant for your work? Is the methodology something that can inspire you? Could you use this information for teaching?
  5. Note down action items: What will you do with what you’ve learned? Maybe you want to try out the methodology they propose on your data, or check their test results against your model, or maybe you want to read the full paper after the conference. Jot down at least one action item for each presentation, and put this task on your schedule for after the conference.
  6. Follow up: If a presentation is particularly interesting for you, go talk to the presenter afterwards or send them a follow-up email after the conference. As you get to talk more about their research, you’ll gain an even deeper understanding of the work and its implications.
  7. Sleep: If you want to be fresh and able to learn, get enough sleep. Getting enough rest at a conference can be particularly challenging if the social program runs late into the enough. I will often have to make a conscious choice between attending an early session and attending a dinner, to make sure I don’t get too drowsy for the actual conference. I also try to add a buffer day when I have a difference in timezone between home and the conference to adjust to the jetlag (and to have a buffer in case something goes wrong with the flights).

These are some of the methods I use to stay engaged at conferences. How do you stay engaged?

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