Skip to content

The thing with interactive conference sessions

I’ve gone to a good number of conferences, both online and offline over the past decade or so. You likely have too. Many of us often blog about our experiences soon after the conference is over. I’ve read about many of your experiences quite recently even. As someone who organises offline conferences, I’m often curious as to the types of sessions that people like and don’t, and why. It’s not something I’ve seen blogged much about. So at the risk of being shunned by my entire PLN (sidenote: I’ve watched more episodes of Breaking Amish than I care to admit), I’ll tell you mine.

At most language teaching conferences (where teachers are the main audience, as opposed to administrators or academics), there’s an expectation on the presenter to be less “present-y”, in other words, not boring. This expectation leads to a wide variety of attempts to be ‘not boring’ through participant involvement. Some work. Some don’t. I have to admit though, that unless I’m going to support a friend or it’s the only EAP-related session I have to choose from, I almost always avoid any session with descriptors like “interactive”, “peer-led”, “group…work” or any indication that I’ll be expected to get up and move around. But why? Aren’t I, as a teacher, supposed to love interaction?

Participant-driven sessions don’t always work out as they are pitched to. This is when you get to the session on the topic you’re interested in, you are faced with the leaders telling you to group around different tables based on a common interest of a subtopic. Instead of them leading the session, it’s about you and your peers driving discussion on the subtopic for an allotted amount of time. Sometimes there’s a leader at the table; sometimes it’s simply attendees. If you find the topic isn’t so great, you’re expected to get up and move to a different table (cultural baggage can often preempt this from actualising). After a prescribed amount of time, everyone gets up and tries a new table or the session ends. Sounds great, but in my experience, it breaks down.

You never know who is going to join the table you go to. They could be true peers with a similar level of knowledge or people quite inexperienced who join for interest’s sake, just to get information. The depth and quality of discussion is greatly affected. If everyone does share similar experience, the first bit tends to be spent comparing your teaching situations (e.g. logistics of the program, types of courses, student body, etc). This is necessary discussion, but doing this over and over gets tedious. Beyond this chit-chat, there can be too many cooks at the group, keeping discussion rather surface-level. Four seems to be the max for quality. Otherwise, meatier discussion can be had over beer in a pub with a colleague. In both situations, the discussion can feel largely like a interview with people you hardly know.I rarely come away with anything new or any particular take-away to share. 

Interaction for interaction’s sake isn’t necessary. When I sit down in a session and the presenter exclaims that everyone is going to work together on activities after hearing about the topic, I cringe just a little as I’m taken back to school projects gone horribly wrong due to an imbalance of prior knowledge or effort invested. Maybe I mistakenly go to sessions where I think attendees will be well versed in the topic, but they aren’t. Maybe I want to hear more about what the presenter thinks, rather than the attendees, considering they’ve been brave enough to lead a session on this topic. Maybe it’s because I’m on committees at school and TESL organisations, or work in a team environment in the course I teach already, where I fill my collaboration quota. Probably a combination of these three.

The participation and experiential learning I do like at a session is individual. I find value in the Q&A with the presenter as questions the audience has while listening to the presentation can be best answered by the leader, not the participants. I love the experiential learning I can do at my own pace and at my own skill level with the tech tools I chose to bring to the session, not slowing down for those that didn’t. This is one reason I love webinars and online conferences: their type of interaction allows you to chat with other participants if the discussion is engaging, participate if you find it useful or multitask without being rude.

Listening to a talk isn’t always passive or ignoring the brilliance of the audience. One downside often heard of presentation-style talks is that the attendees just sit passively listening to the presenter speak.  That’s not my case. I like plenaries because I listen to someone I want to hear speak for an hour without much interruption. I like the opportunity to both be a little entertained, but also engaged in the topic that they are the expert about. I like the fact that while I listen to them, questions about some things they say swirl in my head; ideas pop up about how the information they give is relevant to me; I can look something up online that I don’t know or has inspired me, or take notes. All these things I can do in a plenary (or a presentation-style session) without the constant interruption of group work.

So what’s my point? It’s not that interaction is bad. It’s not that all sessions like those above I’ve been to at every conference irritated me. There can be a very valuable and purposeful reason to interaction and great takeaways. However, giving some thought on why you do it, how it’s best executed and whether it’s worth it given your topic is necessary to consider. I’d rather everyone not feel interaction is key because it’s the current thing to be -not boring-.

Otherwise, as I said at the beginning of what hopefully does not border on sounding like a rant (don’t worry–I’m typing this without the least bit of rising blood pressure), the conference organiser in me would like to know what types of sessions you really do prefer to go to.


Please take a moment to rank your favourite (1) to least favourite (6) type of session.

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

I think there can be a place for all types of presentations as long as it is clear in the conference guide what you are attempting to do. In my case, there was an attempt at being interactive (alas, a major fail on my part) in order to give participants time to work with the tools while hearing about them. It didn’t work (in part) because of the lack of people who were able to take advantage of the situations (ie. no mobile devices).

That is where the interactive presentation falls apart. There is a major dependence on the audience to take part in the session when they should have the option of being less actively involved. Also, I made too many assumptions about the level of understanding of my audience. I wanted people to be able to use things to find out what fit their situation, but instead I feel they left with nothing.

Thanks for trying to help others in my session. I wish it would have gone better. Oh well, I can learn for that to help improve my next presentation. Maybe I’ll just stick with slides and a handout.


What I prefer, both as a presenter and an attendee, is something between the presentation and the workshop as you outlined in the options above. I enjoy presentations with practical ideas and the chance to try a few of those activites out but I often get bored if the presentation is a monologue, especially if the research is on the academic side, and I also dislike the workshop format of minimal input, work in groups for half an hour and then give feedback.

With workshops, the problem lies in the conference format. For a workshop to be truly effective, a 45 minute/1 hour slot is not nearly enough. The best workshops I have been to have been dedicated ‘training day’ affairs which run for 3 or 4 hours – plenty of time to inform attendees about the topic, discuss, brainstorm and share ideas.

Julie Moore

Like you, Tyson, I generally steer away from sessions that suggest too much audience involvement. I go to a session to hear what the presenter has to say, not to have a chat that I could equally have in the coffee break.

Having said that though, from a purely personal point of view as a freelancer, some really great networking opportunities have come out of having to chat to the person next to me in a session as part of a rather awkward pairwork activity. At least twice, major bits of work have come out of just that scenario 🙂


I went to one of these workshoppy things with a well-known presenter at a TESL Toronto evening last year. The presenter kept telling us how he wouldn’t be talking much but we’d be doing all the work. Then he’d give us a few minutes in groups but interrupt us before we could really get started. It went on like that and then time ran out. Waste of time.

Most of us don’t know how to run a workshop, probably because it’s hard and takes a lot of practice, and we don’t do it very often.

Jennifer MacDonald

Completely agree! My pet peeve at TESL conferences is when the sessions are too “TESL-y”.

My take on it is that teachers who do a lot of task-based teaching are used to working lots of time for input/output into their English classes, and so they want to do the same in their conference presentations. Except they forget that they’re teaching a completely different type of content: language in the former, and information related to teaching in the latter. So while you could argue that any type of conversation is language input/output and will drive language learning, it’s not necessarily going to drive learning of whatever information related to teaching the presenter is trying to instill in conference attendees.

Give me a presenter/lecture by an expert any day. 🙂


Hi Tyson,

In general I dig each of the session types when they are really well run/done. Teachers, in general are pretty good at presenting information, so I think, in general presentations end up seeming a bit more polished than some of the other conference session types. But a good facilitator and good audience can make for an amazing workshop experience. But it does seem a bit hit or miss. In my limited experience, panel discussions seem to go awry more often than the others. People defer to each other and avoid stepping on each others toes and nothing much of anything gets said or everything gets said without much of a point to it all.

Looking forward to the final results of the survey.


Hi Tyson,
Finally someone said it! While I enjoy the social aspect of interactive sessions (e.g. meeting fellow teachers, talking shop, testing out new ideas, having fun coming up with insane versions of the utterances we “learners” are “supposed” to make), the language that the participants produce doesn’t really reflect the language that our learners would use in the classroom (perhaps, unless, those learners are also teacher trainees).

And I agree with you! “I like the fact that while I listen to [speakers], questions about some things they say swirl in my head; ideas pop up about how the information they give is relevant to me; I can look something up online that I don’t know or has inspired me, or take notes. All these things I can do in a plenary (or a presentation-style session) without the constant interruption of group work.”

I no longer feel guilty when I whip out my smartphone to check something on the internet, jot down an idea or read the tweets on the session going on in the next room. I’m currently experimenting with this same level of “attention” tolerance in my own classes (as she ducks from the flying terracotta pots).

Claudie Ganer

I do feel guilt…I feel rude , disrespectful, mean…even though my phone is under the head is down, I am “not fully present”. If the presentation is boring/not useful – I can always vote with my feet. Follow up question – jot it down…I Tweeted during a presentation – and got so excited about connecting with some people who were in the same room that I virtually ignored the rest of the presentation. Multitasking is a two edged sword…

David D

Bettry – my pet peeve too! happens more often than I can count. Probably also occurs for reasons Dave outlined (though not all the time).

I question, if you like the lecture format, why not just watch it on video beforehand? Rewind, repeat, pause. A much better experience. Then, the whole session at the conference could be conversation, question and answer etc…. (but I guess then presenters wouldn’t be able to keep cloning their talks….). .

The problem isn’t sit and listen vs participate. The problem is that given today\s technology – there is no need for the regular stand and deliver presentations except if you want to create a professional development culture/community that is “rock star driven”. And that’s what we have now in ELT. Too much time is spent presenting knowledge/information live when it could be done better through video. Put it up on video, share with the world and make the face to face personal dialogue, being local, engaging, constructivist.

Give me a conference where every presenter (big or small) is required to record their presentation in video beforehand. Attendees can then watch and decide if they’d like to learn more and attend their conference session. When they arrive in the room/hall, the focus is on in depth exploration of that subject, be it Q and A, discussion or participation/workshopping …. that would truly be constructive.

I heard through the grapevine IATEFL is planning something along these lines but don’t have specifics.


Nice post, Tyson. For me, the real skill in a presenter doesn’t come in forcing attendees to participate or be interactive, but rather in shifting that choice to interact or not into their hands. Presentations that allow for interaction but don’t require it are the sweet spot on the conference weekend.

Jenny Claire

Hi, Tyson! Your post caught me offguard. Because I’m the type of participant who is seeking for interactive sessions. I haven’t attended much interactive sessions so I can’t confirm your observations. But you’ve got a good point there. How do we get a good middle ground? I also join different webinars. And I also find them very helpful.

Your post couldn’t have come out at a time more right for me. Now that I’m playing serious with this idea of organising some kind of an open space 5-hour event aka offline teacher hang-out, I can see it fall into one of the least supported types of sessions according to the survey. My thinking was: It’s going to be an event with a difference, well for ELT teachers here in Moscow that I”ll manage to get to come, that’s for sure. Then I read your post and my thinking was: I 90% agree with you. Does it make the end of event?

I’ve read these guidelines on open space technology in general ( and some other posts, and many of the guiding lines seem to make sense. Yet this risk of falling into you’ve-wasted-our-time mess (probably even without succeeding at being entertaining) is clearly visible.

So, you’ve put me at a stand. And I’m grateful to you for that. I just love timely opposition.

P.S. As for my preferences at conferences, it depends on the presenter. I”m afraid I never check the session type. Unless it states it involves drama and stuff – my all-time fear!!)))
At JALT the BEST session to spur my thought was Scott Thornbury’s one. Never before had I had that many insights in that many different topics during 60 minutes. All typed in my iPad notes now, it’s like an achievement for me)
Another point I wanted to note – the misery of being a presenter at a session you actually wouldn’t mind attending! At our presentation on feedback&reflection with Mike and Kevin there were several moments I felt like stopping and rushing for a pen and paper to jot down great ideas that were being discussed. Never did that, regret a lot now.

Thanks for the post, very much!

Hi Anna – It’s always good to get another point of view regarding one of our upcoming ventures. Sorry to raise doubts when you are just starting out though. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, just go ahead with it and see how it works for you guys.

I’d love to have gone to Scott’s session. I do love everything he has to say; I eat it up like cookies.

As for copresenting, I’ve only done it in an information-giving style presentation, so I knew all the info that was come from my partners. It would be interesting to feel what you felt in your session with Mike & Kevin.

[…] read Tyson Seburnt’s excellent post “The Thing with Interactive Conference Sessions” several times before my talk this week. I really agree with this post. My experience with […]

Claudie Ganer

The poll does not differentiate between the respondents’ backgrounds, teaching areas, levels of experience and reasons for attending conferences – so I don’t know how much you can read into the results.

As you say “I have gone to a good number of conferences over the past decade” – and your perspective (and mine) is that of someone who has “been there, done that”. The teacher I am today is not the (raw) teacher I was 13 years ago when the first workshop I attended was Fran Marshall’s “Early Bird” – workshop (thank you, thank you, thank you, Fran, RIP).

However what I needed then is not what I look for now – what I put up with then by way of (sometimes hokey) activities is not what I enjoy now. But there are others at different stages who do.

Have to agree though that I do not attend a PD workshop to practice present perfect for half and hour! Choosing a workshop is a crapshoot…win some/lose some.

Haha. Flipped conferences! Not a terrible idea for some topics, I guess. But then we would get into a discussion about what type of video/webinar we like….simple lecture with slides or all the bells and whistles (a la Lance Dublin).

Great thread though – makes me think about my student’s feelings when I set up a task/project…Interactive for interactive sake can be VERY BORING!.

Nathan – Interesting issue about BYOD (Bring Your own Device). We presume that EVERYONE is connected – NOT! Maybe in the future TESLON will have a set of tablets to borrow. Then you will have to spend part of the time showing some how to turn them on….

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x