Especially for larger conferences, planning ahead can mean the difference between a productive and satisfying conference experience and being completely exhausted by the second day.
Conferences are a way to learn a lot of information in a short amount of time, an opportunity to socialize and make new friends in your field, and a chance to check out a lot of products and materials from vendors all in one room. To make the most of these experiences, there are a few strategies you can use:
1) Choose what you want to attend before you set foot in the conference center.
Especially if you are the representative for your school or department, you will want to get input from your colleagues about which topics are of most interest in general to the group, but deciding what are the must-see sessions will help you budget your time and make concurrent session lists a bit less daunting. You can look at all the offerings at a given time to see what topics are of interest, or you can begin by circling all the sessions you would like to see, and then prioritizing sessions if there are any time overlaps.
For instance, I know for sure I would like to see the session, "East Meets West: Soka University of America's New MA Program" presented by Jay Heffron and Fenwick English, so my schedule from 3:15 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesday of the NCPEA conference is decided.
Looking at the types of sessions being offered at the conference can also help you decide what to attend. Some presentations are time sensitive, while others, like exhibitors and poster displays, can be visited whenever is convenient for the conference attendees. However, if you would like to talk to the poster creators, you will want to attend the poster presentations, which are generally at the opening of the conference. For NCPEA, for example, the posters are one of the first sessions:
Do not be afraid to leave a session if it is not what you thought it would be about! Checking out presentations on unfamiliar topics or concepts can expose you to new ideas in the field, but your time is precious. If you are not sure a session topic will meet your needs, sit toward the back or side so that you can sneak out quietly so as not to disturb the presenter or other attendees.
2) Know the conference layout.
Using your must-see sessions, determine your 'travel" time. Some relatively small conferences use only a few rooms which are usually close together. Some conferences are spread out over 3 or 4 buildings. If you do not plan ahead, you could spend most of your day trying to get to sessions. You need to budget in eating and socializing, too!
For the NCPEA conference, although some sessions will be in a different building, the concurrent presentations and roundtable discussions will be in Broome Library. For my must-see session, I need to be on the second floor:
The "East Meets West" presentation is the last of the day, so I do not have to worry about what to attend afterward, but I do not want to miss a minute of it! So I will look to see if there are sessions I really want to see on the 2nd floor first at 2:15 p.m. (there is a concurrent session in 2480 that looks interesting). If I decide to attend a session on the 1st floor (there is a great roundtable topic being discussed in room 1756 at 2:15), I will leave a little early to give myself time to find a good seat for Dr. Heffron and Dr. English's presentation.
If there are no sessions at 2:15 p.m. on Wednesday that catch your eye, it might be a good time to take stock of what you have experienced so far at the conference.
3) Plan yourself "processing" breaks.
There are always updates to conference schedules, and a processing break is a good time to see the cancellations/additions, or just to rest for a bit between sessions. If you try to attend too many presentations back-to-back, you will not remember as much of what you heard and saw. A break will give you a chance to go over your notes and update them as well. Many conference programs have a section in the back for notes so you can keep all your conference materials together. There is also usually a list of presenters and their contact information which you can use as well: I like to mark the contact info of the presenters I saw with keywords to remind me what I might like to ask them more about.
It is a good idea to take notes on more than just content. One of the best ways to develop good presentation skills is to observe others: you can identify what works with the kind of information you are sharing, and develop your approach from there.
4) Take advantage of mixers and networking sessions.
The friends you make today could be your colleagues tomorrow!