Increasing Your Teaching Conference Return on Investment

Updated: May 22, 2019

Todd Zakrajesek

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Teaching conferences typically have a strong collegial feel and in my experience are highly motivating. Hearing, examining, critiquing pedagogy from multiple viewpoints enriches strategies and solutions to issues in higher education classrooms. These conferences have helped me to become a better educator and every time I have left a teaching conference I am excited to implement what I have learned.

Attending an academic conference is an investment. In addition to the registration fees and travel, a conference takes you away from family, work, and friends. Given your investment, it is essential to maximize your benefits when attending a conference to establish a good return on investment. Following are a few suggestions based on both my attendance at numerous conferences and the conferences I have directed. Conferences will provide you with a wide variety of potential opportunities. Take advantage of as many as you are able.

Select the Right Conference for You

To discern which teaching conference to attend, review your personal teaching philosophy and statement of your teaching values. Compare and contrast the conferences which you are considering attending. Identify those with written mission statements and values that reflect your teaching philosophy. Next, consider format. Are you looking for an experience that is smaller, with a more intensive workshop format similar to an institute, or a larger event with multiple presentation formats and numerous presenters? I prefer conferences with about 350 – 500 participants as it allows enough variety to learn many new strategies, but also small enough to have more of a community feel. I often feel lost at events with 1,000 or more attendees. That said, this is based on personal experience. Some prefer larger events.

Make sure the content is of interest to you. Although conference themes will change from year to year, conferences tend to have similar types of sessions. If the current program is not available when selecting which conference to attend, read past programs from the event.

Reduce Conference Costs Where Possible

Once you have decided upon a conference to attend, register early to save costs by registering at the early registration rate. Make your room reservation at the event hotel as soon as possible that covers all the days of the event and travel days. You can cancel the dates you don't need later if necessary and booking early will ensure you get the conference discount rate. Discounted hotel rates are only available as long as rooms within the conference block are available. It is common for the rooms at the conference rate to be gone months before a conference and for most conference contracts, 30 days before the start of the event unsold rooms from the group block are returned to the hotel to be sold at prevailing rates. In addition to the discounted conference rate, notice if booking a room through the conference provides for discounted parking, free internet, and even discounts to the hotel restaurant.

Check to see if the conference offer team discounts or discounts for students, fellows, adjunct faculty, early career faculty discounts, postdocs or retired faculty members? If not listed on the conference website – call the conference helpline and ask for such a discount before registering. Also, do a bit of online scouting ahead of time and consider making dinner reservations. When a conference comes to a hotel, the restaurants in the immediate area often fill, and you may find yourself eating at a more expensive restaurant than you had intended.

Prepare for the Conference

Approach the conference as if it is a "flipped" experience. Do your homework ahead of time so that you can have meaningful conversations while at the conference itself. Review the conference program online and download the conference app. Select the sessions you plan to attend and a second choice in case your first choice turns out to be different than you expect based on the abstract and session outcomes. As you create your own personalized conference schedule, select topics with which you are both familiar and unfamiliar. What do you want to know about at an introductory level or what topic(s) do you want to delve into at a deeper level by attending more than one session on the topic? Develop an action plan.

Choose sessions to attend that:

• align with your teaching methods and goals;

• introduce new/innovative approaches;

• address contemporary issues that you have not resolved in your class;

• address topics that align with your department or college concerns;

• advance your repertoire of teaching strategies; and

• appeal to your passion for teaching.

Navigate the Conference Purposefully

As you develop your personalized schedule identify one or two sessions that look particularly interesting and email the speaker in advance of the conference. E-introduce yourself as a conference participant and request a time to meet to talk about the topic, after the presentation. Take note of the presenter list – are there faculty presenting or attending who are from "benchmark" or "reach" institutions, with whom you can seek out and talk with about a pertinent curricular issue? Check the program for book authors whose work has made an impact on your teaching – plan to attend their session and perhaps extend the conversation afterward.

Once you arrive on site, it can feel a bit daunting to "jump" into the mix with confidence. Start small. It's helpful to introduce yourself to others seated next to you before each session starts. As the conference progresses, you will recognize faculty members who are choosing the same sessions that you are choosing. Take a moment to introduce yourself and converse about the theme of the sessions you have been attending. Share what you have found helpful and what they are enjoying about the conference. Perhaps invite that person to continue the conversation at lunch.

Note the sessions that are of particular interest to you and show up for those sessions five to ten minutes before the session starts. In all the years I have been directing conferences I have seen several instances when a session was more popular than expected, and participants were not able to find a chair, or even to get into the room. However, I have never seen a session completely full ten minutes before the start time of that session. If the session is crucial to your conference experience, be sure to find a seat early.

The pace of a conference can be grueling. It's natural to want to make the most of every minute, attending sessions, taking notes, and networking. That said, it is easy to become overwhelmed with excess stimulation and learning. It is totally acceptable to miss a session or two each day. Give yourself permission to take a break from being in sessions. Schedule short breaks from sessions to answer emails, return phone calls, make notes, organize handouts, and simply hydrate. Try to get some fresh air and just sit and relax for a bit. Many conferences offer a dedicated lounge or quiet space set aside for attendees to recharge their batteries (both electronic and personal!).


Networking is an integral part of the conference experience and can happen both formally and informally. Once you commit to attending a specific conference, start networking before your arrival at the conference.

Check out the conference organization on social media platforms and "like," "follow," and "subscribe" to the organization's offerings as a way to receive pertinent information and stay informed as the event approaches.

As you review the program for selecting sessions, make note of those presenters who you admire and may have already impacted your teaching practice. Seek out such presenters, attend their sessions, talk with them after the session in person or via email.

Bring with you ample copies of your business card to exchange with other attendees/participants with whom you would like to talk further or share resources. When you exchange business cards, write on the back of their card any topics you discussed or resources you will share. Make note of meet and greet opportunities, book signings by authors, or receptions held during the event. Make an appearance at social events, and networking opportunities planned by the conference organizers. Be social. Be authentic. Perhaps even set a goal of a minimum number of new colleagues you will meet throughout the conference.

Implement what you learned

Take notes during sessions and schedule a set time for daily reflection. Consider what content you heard each day and how it pertains to your teaching, research, and service. What ideas can glean from presentations, keynotes, and conversations which you can put to immediate use? Identify how can you implement new ideas. Which of these tips or activities can you incorporate into future coursework or curricular development? Also, identify to whom you should speak in the near future about potential collaborations, additional information, or suggested references for further reading. Lastly, consider which campus colleague(s) to speak to when you return to your home campus about specific recommendations and takeaways you gained during the conference.

It's important to recognize that the department or college who funded your travel has a vested interest in the success of your conference experience. I suggest that you write a brief thank you note acknowledging the financial support as well as what you gained by attending the event. It is a nice touch to offer to present the information you acquired at a brown-bag lunch discussion for your department.

I enjoy attending, sharing, and networking at professional conferences. Interdisciplinary teaching conferences have had a tremendous impact on my career. Books deals were struck, research collaborations began, and lifelong professional friendships formed during teaching conferences. But for all the potential conferences hold, the experience is only as good as the effort put into planning, attending, organizing and implementing what is learned, to shape/expand your professional development. Included in this blog are just a few tips to get you started down the path of a rewarding conference experience.

Increase the return on investment whenever you attend a conference by planning for the event as carefully as you plan your teaching throughout the semester. And if our paths cross at a conference, please do say "hey." I am always grateful for opportunities to expand my teaching and learning network.

Discussion questions:

1. What do you most look forward to when you attend a professional conference?

2. What is one way in which you could increase your conference return on investment? If you are planning to attend your first academic conference, how will you maximize your potential return on investment?

3. This blog had a word limit and as such could include only a few tips for attending an academic conference. If you were asked to add 500 words as additional advice to this blog, what would you include?

For further reading:

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