Conference Discussion Format

Revision history: Original version 2018-02-03. Revised with input from Kate Sanders, 2018-02-04.

This writes up the format for discussion that I have used several times, such as at SNAPL. However, the original is not due to me: I learned about it from ICER, the International Computing Education Research Conference, via Kathi Fisler. I understand that credit for the physical layout is due to Mary Sullivan, who suggested it to the ICER 2011 chairs, and for discussion at tables, Sally Fincher.

There are several problems worth addressing in the conventional q&a format at a conference:

The ICER format brilliantly addresses all these problems.

Instead of arranging the audience in the conventional rows, people sit around (circular) tables, facing one another. You want about four to six people per table: enough to enable discussion, not so many that there's not enough time per person. You may need to load-balance the room a little to avoid ending up with tables with too few people.

Suppose, conventionally, you have a 30 minute talk slot, with the speaker expected to finish in 25, leaving 5 for q&a. Instead, give the speaker about 22 minutes. Reserve 4 minutes for “table discussion” and 4 for q&a. Similarly, 25 can be broken down into 17 + 4 + 4. And so on.

While the speaker is speaking, audience members rotate their chairs to face the speaker. (Make sure the chairs are light enough to enable this. If you have someone with mobility issues, place them facing the speaker the whole time.)

When the speaker is done, during table discussion, everyone turns back to face the table. During this time, they have a private, table-local discussion. The speaker has no role, though they are welcome to walk around and listen in on the conversations, and maybe also answer any quick clarifications that are needed.

When this time is done, a conventional q&a begins.

So, what's different?

All the magic happens during table discussion.

Of course, at breaks, suggest or require people to switch around tables. That way they get a different set of perspectives for the next session. Also, people who may not be rubbing along well have a natural way to separate without social awkwardness.

This process works poorly if several people at a table are more engaged with their email than with the discussion. Why people travel all the way to a conference, spending money, dealing with jetlag, etc., just to read the same email they could have read from the comfort of their room, I have no idea. But they do. Consider nudges or rules to get people to engage.

Finally, here's the litmus test of when the process has really worked: it's when a person stands up and asks, “We were wondering...”. Notice the we. That's a sign that the table came up with a question. Usually such questions are rich, interesting, and reflect the combined inputs of several people.