Does Extreme Content Delivery = Learning? | Beth's Blog

Does Extreme Content Delivery = Learning?

Instructional Design

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How do you learn?  When you want to acquire a new skill or apply some new knowledge, do you learn by passively sitting and listening to an expert lecture for 90 minutes without a break and 150 PPT slides?   What do you actually retain?   And, what do you actually apply?   Or do you learn better when you get a chance to process the content every 15 minutes by thinking about it quietly or talking with a peer?   Do you concentrate better when you move around versus sitting for too long?

I know for myself that I don’t learn, retain, or apply when content is endlessly shared – even from expert – without a break.   If I can’t process what I hear by asking questions of the expert or checking in with another participate or sitting quietly and just thinking about what was shared, there is a point that I reach after about 15 minutes – it’s call “My Brain Is Full Up.”       I wondered whether or not I was just weird, so I have been looking to some of the literature that looks at learning design from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience.

Now that could be hard reading, but Sharon Bowman’s “Using Brain Science To Make Science Stick” has been a terrific resource.  If you are a trainer, you are working with the human brain every day and you need to know as much as possible about how humans learn and how to teach a topic well.   Understanding what holds people’s attention or breaks it can make the difference between delivering a session that is valuable or a waste of time.   The book offers several simple principles to incorporate:

  • Movement is better than sitting
  • Having participants talk is better than listening
  • Images are better than words for instructional aids
  • Writing is better than reading
  • Shorter is better than longer
  • Different delivery options are better than the same

Incorporating Movement

The book goes into depth about each of these principles and how to incorporate into a training session.   I’ve really taken to heart the movement principle.   Despite what people may say in an evaluation, brain science suggests that the longer people sit the less they learn.     The book offers some techniques to incorporate movement with the goal of improved retention and learning:

1.   Body Breaks: The book suggests incorporating some sort of movement or body activity every ten minutes.   One technique described that I use often is “share pairs,”  it makes people get it up, take that body break, and check in with someone.

2.   Walk and Talk: I do this a lot in half-day or full-day trainings.   Participants might do an exercise, but the results are on the wall for a debrief.   It is a more structured body break and incorporates more in-depth debrief on content.

3.  Wall Writing: This an exercise where participants will write specific responses on labeled charts on the wall at designated times.    It can be an answer to a question, a question learners still have, a summary statement, an opinion about the content, facts they want to remember, or how they plan to use the content.

What I’m struggling with how to incorporate body breaks with having participants being able to debrief in more depth, especially in the context of a 90 minute conference session.     During a recent conference session where I used share pairs to keep people moving, one of the comments on the evaluation was, “The share pairs were too short/frequent to get deep enough.”     Now that’s a design challenge – how to deliver an interactive session that can go in-depth with 80-100 participants in 90 minutes!

Talking VS Listening

The brain science literature suggests that learners understand and remember more when they talk about what they are learning.  However, there are some people who attend conference sessions or training to have information wash over them and are uncomfortable with talking or moving.    One comment in the evaluation from a recent NTC session, while in the minority, said it this way:  “While the presenters were engaging and had good information, there was too much time having attendees talk to one-on-one about their own experiences and situations.  I want to learn from the experts and the time I spent talking to peers did not give me any meat and minimized the time that the experts talked.”

The book offers some great reminders about how to make your presentations more interactive.   The best one, “Stop Talking:  The longer you talk, the less they learn.”    Even if you are just pausing for 60 seconds to give people a chance to summarize what they learned.   If you are going to incorporate group discussion, it is important to remember that there is low-risk and high-risk.  Low risk allows participants to collaborate on an answer to question and high risk asks one person to respond.   It is good to begin with low-risk.   The same goes for small group and large group discussions.     Give participants an opportunity to answer the questions as well as ask open-ended questions.   All these techniques incorporate interaction and better processing of your content.

In some instances, you might have extreme introverts – those who are highly uncomfortable interacting with other people to learn.  According to research, they represent 2-12% of the population in the US.   This was true for the NTC session, one person commented, “I’m an introvert, so partnering up with another person didn’t work for me.”     Another principle will work for them – “Writing vs Reading.”    You get people to quietly debrief in writing what they learned.  I like to use as a closer, but perhaps it could be offered as an alternative for the introverted in the room.

How do you learn best at conferences or workshops?  Do you want endless content or do you need some ways to process what you have learned?  As a presenter or trainer, do you allow the audience to process your content?  How?


43 Responses

  1. Pamela Grow says:

    Thanks for this, Beth. I’ve been studying how nonprofits best learn for the past few years, particularly via the online world. Last year I began introducing “eCourses,” content delivered in easily digestible chunks over a 4-6 week time period. But it still seemed like something was missing — and the eCourses are still a work in progress.

  2. Beth says:

    Hi Pamela:

    Your e-courses sound great! The book I mention above has lots of suggestions for delivering online courses and applying the principles. It can be done.

  3. Pamela Grow says:

    Just picked it up – thanks.

  4. Beth says:

    I’ve tried to incorporate some of these into webinars.

  5. Laura Norvig says:

    Yes! Beyond conferences and workshops, the shorter chunking and more frequent feedback is just what is being discovered and implemented in many MOOCs.

  6. John Kenyon says:

    Excellent, these are great interaction ideas. I admit I used to be one of that 2- 12% that disliked talking to others during a training, but luckily I grew out of that (way out LOL). I wonder how to let those folks debrief in writing while asking everyone else to get up and talk – I would think lots of folks would write vs talk given the option. Good food for thought.

  7. Karen says:

    I’m a trainer and currently co-present a 4 day workshop. I’ve been trained using Adult Learning Theory (Jane Vella), but this adds a couple of new ideas for me.

    We use small group (tables of 4) brainstorming or processing a lot. We’ve also added “creative” elements for the end of a section. These include: making a collage, sorting realia, writing a song together to illustrate some important points…fun stuff that helps them process and interact.

    I want to explore how we can add the “spare pair” idea!

  8. Beth says:


    Thanks for commenting. Do you ever get folks in your workshop who uncomfortable with this way of learning?

    It’s share pair … good for quick processing, not in-depth.

  9. Beth says:

    John: I used to keep these techniques separate … but may be just give people a choice. Maybe do a participant assessment up front about how people learn and have some ID system.

  10. Beth says:

    Laura: What is a MOOC?

  11. Hi Beth, your thoughts reminded me of this video:
    Extreme content delivery is sometimes the opposite of learning. Especially on the internet.

  12. MOOC – Massive open online course, such as
    Read more here:

    I took one course in coursera (about social network analysis, a very good one) and the shorter chunks and mini quiz were helpful. I guess you can’t learn otherwise over internet.

  13. […] How do you learn? When you want to acquire a new skill or apply some new knowledge, do you learn by passively sitting and listening to an expert lecture for 90 minutes without a break and 150 PPT slides?  […]

  14. Stephanie Rogers says:

    Very interesting research and thoughts. I teach both online webinars and in person sessions. I like the idea of pausing more for people to digest and having people write either on their own or on wall charts to summarize what they learn. With our online webinars I’ve added a “key takeaway” slide at the end where I activate a whiteboard function and ask people to share one thing that resonated for them from the training. If no one posts anything then I will write an idea to get the conversation flowing.

  15. Ron Platt says:

    The well known Harvard educator James Moffett synthesized Piaget’s learning model and stated that for true learning to occur (“discovering” the concept being taught as if it were my own) the learner must:
    Speak up
    Act out
    Write down
    their thoughts and interpretations of the concept. It is up to the teacher/trainer to figure out how to give the learners the time and structure to do those actions. Passively sitting accomplishes none of these.

  16. Stephanie Rogers says:

    Ron, excellent key points and reminder about our jobs as trainers. I’m going to work on making more time at least for writing exercises in my webinars.

  17. Beth says:

    Ron: Thanks for the lovely reminder about what is learning.
    Stephanie: I always make folks sit quietly at the end and write down “One idea that I will implement next is week …” For webinars, they type it into the chat and at face-to-face write it on an index card — both enter them into a raffle for a prize – chocolate or a book. Makes it fun. Then I do an analysis of what resonated and check it against instructional goals. Helps me make adjustments to the curriculum and learning design.

  18. […] Movement is better than sitting; Having participants talk is better than listening; Images are better than words for instructional aids; Writing is better than reading; Shorter is better than longer; Different delivery options are better than the…  […]

  19. Kezie says:

    Good stuff Beth, I’m currently studying and MBA at Ashridge Business College in the UK and the faculty readily use the walk and talk as well as the chalk & talk methodology. Students get frequent breaks to tease out thought processes or implications of professor briefings. As a speaker consultant I do intend to utilise this system also. Thanks for you post


  20. Abdullah says:

    Does these techniques apply for reading a book?

  21. […] How do you learn? When you want to acquire a new skill or apply some new knowledge, do you learn by passively sitting and listening to an expert lecture for 90 minutes without a break and 150 PPT slides?  […]

  22. Monica Song says:

    Thanks for sharing, it seems that’s exactly my style, very intensive, and I require constant talking and interaction with others, but i know maybe because i am too intensive and my mind moves too fast at times, and my tone is probably too challenging, i do disengage others – i feel very sorry about that, i am aware of the issue, but most of the time, can’t hold back once my brain starts to work 🙂 They misunderstand my intention, and I get hurt. Thanks for sharing.. I think i got to practice some self control. What suggestions would you give when i can’t hold back because i am simultaneous? Thanks in advance.

  23. Michele says:

    At our organization we require our instructors to complete a lesson template prior to training. They have to map out the steps of their presentation and include the learner activity/interaction level with each step (low, moderate, and high). If we see lots of “low” interaction levels, we kick the template back to them and have them focus on varying the interaction over time. We also emphasize the word “lecturette” and not lecture because we don’t want our instructors talking for more than about 10-15 minutes without transitioning into something more interactive for our adult learners.

    We recently held a three day introductory supervisors course. On our learner reaction scales following the course, the highest rated presentation of the three day course was a panel discussion on how to deal with challenging situations and difficult people. The panel was placed at the beginning of the third day and our learners were encouraged throughout the course to think of at least one question for the panel and write it down on a card to put in a marked box that the panel would draw from to begin discussions. We scheduled 1.5 hours for the panel with a break to be taken when the group seemed to need one. The group never needed a break and no one left the room during the panel. There was a ton of interaction and the cards were just conversation starters that led to great dialogue.

    Our learners indicated on their reaction sheets via survey monkey that they wanted more time for the panel and they especially thought that the story telling and experience sharing was the most valuable aspect of the panel. Learners also liked being able to direct their learning during the panel via the cards…autonomy is always good.

    One of the questions on the learner reaction scale was “One of your coworkers will be attending the BOSS course soon and they wanted to know what it was like, what would you tell them?” One learner said, “You are really going to like the panel discussion. I learned a ton from our conversation. Think of a good question and then come back and share with our team?”

  24. Falco says:

    Dear Beth, very interesting article to read. Also a great deviation from the ‘buzz-notion’ of different types of learning.

    You talk about research in your recommendations.
    Could you maybe list some of the academic articles/research that you based your writing on? (I’m an academic student, so I’m interested to look into the research you used in more depth)

  25. […] Does Extreme Content Delivery = Learning? [Beth Kanter] 0 Comments […]

  26. […] How do you learn? When you want to acquire a new skill or apply some new knowledge, do you learn by passively sitting and listening to an expert lecture.  […]

  27. […] How do you learn? When you want to acquire a new skill or apply some new knowledge, do you learn by passively sitting and listening to an expert lecture for 90 minutes without a break and 150 PPT slides?  […]

  28. […] How do you learn? When you want to acquire a new skill or apply some new knowledge, do you learn by passively sitting and listening to an expert lecture for 90 minutes without a break and 150 PPT slides?  […]

  29. tom says:

    Shop teachers state that the brain cannot absorb more than the seat of the pants can endure, in practice about 10 to 15 min. Then there the lesson is made real by having the students use it. Can this be adapted perhaps through feedback via typing and a review at the end of the lecture?

  30. Steve Orr says:

    Hi Beth

    A very interesting article. I believe that the book would be very relevant to me but unfortunately does not appear to be available in the UK yet.
    Going back a couple of decades I worked for a training company that dominated its sector; your article reminded me of it. The lectures were short with few slides. The majority of the learning occured with the delegates working in groups to solve problems, planning their own time, moving around and producing work to present as a group, verbally and in writing. There were always two lecturers who circulated regularly between the groups. I am very keen to return to this style which seems to have gone out of favour as the industry I work in has moved towards training with accredited exams at the end.
    I have got into online training relatively recently and have been thinking hard how to get this active style of learning into the online sessions. I look forward to reading more of your articles on this topic; and I need to work out how to get the book.


  31. MaryAnne says:

    Beth: I enjoyed your article, thanks. I’m an elementary teacher by training and was recently at a conference which was the best I have ever been at. The speakers used a lot of the ideas you speak of. You had someone make a comment about not having time to go deep enough. At this conference they gave us coffee breaks and lunch breaks but unlike most before each break we were asked a processing question and we were encouraged to use these “breaks” to talk through the ideas presented, more in depth. We were seated at tables so that we were separated from people we knew to encourage networking. We were always asked to discuss in groups as opposed to pairs so those introverts or shy people in the group could simply listen, at the end of the 2.5 days everyone in our group had participate. The best part though was that on one evening we were taken on an outing. If I had been told what we were going to do in advance of the conference I would have probably rolled my eyes. It was a completely fun event required no skill and was a lot of good laughs. During this time there was still lots of processing of the materials going on as well as networking. It was time that at other conferences would have been my own but in the end was very thankful for this activity. Hopefully some of these ideas are helpful.

  32. Falco says:

    @ Beth, thank you for your reply.
    That book seems kind of simple/limited though. Is there more “heavy”/academic material?

  33. Beth says:


    I’m sure there is, I tend to read practitioner material because I’m not a brain researcher.

    I like Jenson’s work –

    There is also: Ibrain

    Brain Rules

    The latter are bit more deep into the academic research of brains and how we learn.

    Also, I got a tip from a reader about this research from Johns Hopkins about brain-based learning. I haven’t dug into it yet, but would love to know what you think.

  34. Beth says:

    MaryAnne: I love the idea of having processing questions to discuss during the breaks. I’m going to try that. Also, the technique of small group vs share pairs …

  35. Beth says:

    Steve: The author’s web site is here: if nothing else – there are some wonderful articles and presentation decks with her ideas. Not the same as the full book, but …

  36. Megan Keane says:

    There are so many things to say about this post! As a yoga teacher in my “other” life, I learned how much I learn and understand kinesthetically. For any kind of teaching and facilitating, it’s so helpful to think of different learning styles when planning out sessions.

    One thought about the extreme introverts: A good way to engage them could be through role of notetaker (and for the visual/kinesthetic learners, this role helps with information retention too).

  37. Beth says:

    Megan – great tips there – thank you

  38. Lynne Kenney says:


    Thank you for a meaningful article. As a peds psych w an MA in PE, I was alone for a long time having clients move in therapy. But now as a brain-based interventionist speaking to ppl around the US, I find good news, movement is becoming more accepted. This article and others like it suggest that movement as a part of learning is becoming more widely encouraged. Yet, in many schools, we still expect children to sit and sometimes we punish them if they do not. We address why kids need to move in our book BLOOM released two days ago. If you have an article like this one for teachers, I’d love to pass it along. Going to read Bowman now ty.

    Joy, Lynne

  39. Stephanie Rogers says:

    Beth, I love the idea of entering people who share their key takeaways into a raffle to win a prize! Excellent way to motivate people to share their thoughts. I’ve really enjoyed all of the comments from everyone on this thread. Great discussion!

  40. Beth says:

    Lynne: Is there a title or URL for your book? Most of the inspiration for this blog post comes from adult learning literature, but I suspect there may be similar research for school-aged learning.

  41. Beth,
    Great piece which validates our team’s approach to our work and our consults to clients.
    Yes, interactive presentations are the way to go.
    I am curious what you and your readers think about this question:
    Why is the idea of an interactive presentation so foreign and unique to most of our business clients? If most of us like to learn interactively, doesn’t it make sense that we presenting interactively would be a ‘natural”?

    Other benefits of interactive presentations:
    -You don’t have to do all the talking
    -You don’t have to be as vigilant about learning every word
    -Listeners identify with peer experiences
    -You can ask for volunteers which empowers the listeners even more and leads to more fun programs.

    Thanks Beth!

  42. Sanjeev says:

    Highly useful tips & techniques & very relevant as well in any training context..