One Great Idea – Three Conferences Improved

Graphic showing discussion around a table

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Molly Marsh - AMR Management Services


As association meeting professionals, we know that for real learning to occur at our conferences participants must be active contributors to the educational experience. It’s a core principle of adult learning theory, right?!  But when you leave “time” in the agenda for discussion, reflection or group work so much can go wrong…how do you ensure there’s enough to discuss, but not too much? What about finding qualified facilitators? How do you collect the right information in advance to make the conversation meaningful? Sometimes creating a dynamic learning environment simply seems like leaving too much up to chance.

Enter the “Discussion Deck.” First implemented as a part of the 2016 National Association of Government Defined Contribution Administrators (NAGDCA) Annual Conference, the Discussion Deck session uses a small deck of pre-printed cards to facilitate small group discussion in a larger conference setting. At round tables of 8-10, participants pass around the deck, drawing cards with industry-relevant questions, topics or issues. One-by-one participants around the table select the most relevant or important issue for them and invite others at the table to address it. As NAGDCA’s Association Director, AMR’s Vice President for Client Services, Tracy Tucker has seen the positive impact first-hand. The session “breaks up the conference schedule so attendees aren’t just sitting listening to someone speak to them. Rather, they have the opportunity to give input, guide conversation and change topics.”

One of the benefits of the #AMRculture of collaboration is that great ideas like this can be shared for the benefit of many associations. With the flexibility to scale to virtually any size audience, customize to the specific needs of the association or event and structure high-quality peer-to-peer engagement, this solution was a great fit for the Nursing Organization’s Alliance (NOA) Fall Summit too. “We had previously provided a list of about five-seven questions for discussion, but this gives many more options in a fun and unique format that most attendees have not seen before,” shared NOA Account Executive Laura Singler. Laura became a champion for the model, sharing the idea with another client team as the National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO) planned the 2017 State Training Coordinator’s Conference.

The great piece about each of these examples is that they were able to tweak and adjust the model to fit their unique needs and audiences. For example, gathering the questions for the decks is one of the biggest challenges and each group approaches it a little differently. NAGDCA’s conference committee drafts questions, while NOA staff uses their subject matter expertise to identify them, and NASPO used a hybrid model with volunteers developing the bulk of questions and staff filling in the gaps. Can’t come up with 52 questions? Budget too small for all the printing? Scale it down and do smaller decks with more-focused questions. No session model or format is one-size-fits-all, but this is about as close as it comes.

Look out, if your association is serious about high-quality engagement of adult learners without the drawbacks of “open-ended” sessions, the Discussion Deck could be on it’s way to a conference near you!

Molly Marsh Cropped Photo
Molly Marsh

Degrees and Credentials:
Certified Meeting Professional (CMP); Bachelor of Arts, Transylvania University

Association Management Professional Since:

What inspires you about your work?
I have a passion for the world of professional associations and the essential support, resources and connections they provide for members. I am an adult learning and meeting design nerd –I am continually inspired by the chance to design face-to-face meetings and innovate content strategy with new techniques, technologies and ideas.

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