My use of slides in teaching

Over the past two years I have drastically changed the way that I use slides while teaching. (Some students still see some “old style” slides because I haven’t finished replacing all of my teaching materials — it takes a lot of work!) I have noticed that in course evaluation comments many students appreciate my presentation style, but some criticize it. One of the criticisms I’ve seen a few times is that my slides are not very helpful *after* class.
I think, from the comments, that the students want me to provide them with a lecture outline that they can use as a set of pre-written notes to study. That sounds nice, and might be a good idea sometimes, though I worry that providing everything (the readings, the lecture, the lecture notes, the sample problems and sample exams with solutions) pre-written is not good for learning: where is the *active* learning that research has shown to be essential? In any case, I don’t feel an obligation to provide lecture outlines and notes that I have written (though some student comments suggest that they think they are entitled to this).

Norman teapot: afforandanceThe obligation I do feel is to teach effectively, so that students learn successfully. And I have been convinced that the very standard approach to classroom slideware is ineffective. The standard approach, of course, is to provide a detailed set of bullet points: essentially, a lecture outline with notes. Many faculty more-or-less use the slides as their script, if not quite reading from them nonetheless going through each bullet as displayed. Gosh, as students sometimes say on a related topic: “I read the reading assignment in the textbook — why just repeat it in class?”

The problem is deeper. First, putting a detailed outline and notes on the screen, and then talking through them creates a cognitive overload that decreases learning. Second, it promotes passive learning, which is less effective than active learning.
In my new presentation style I have worked hard (and believe me, it takes a lot longer to develop one of my new presentations than to prepare a standard bullet point outline presentation: I basically have to do the former first, to figure out what I want to say, then start from scratch to prepare the accompanying illustrations) to support learning by using multimedia material to complement the spoken words. I present material to illuminate, provide associative material, or provoke.

Leverage with incentives Some concepts are better understood (at least by some learners) visually, so I illuminate with a graph or a figure or an animation. Other times, I provide material — often with cultural references (though I perhaps overdo this, since many of my students are foreign and may miss some of the cultural references) — that I hope will trigger associative links, prompting students to more active processing and elaboration of the material. Yet other times I try to provoke them (with humor — often self-deprecating since that’s usually less likely to offend *others* — sarcasm, surprising mental leaps or associations), again to get them to think differently and more deeply (or simply to wake up :).

I use a mixture of visual and auditory material. Get the good stuff in The visual includes photographs, words (but rarely more than one sentence per slide, and often just one word or phrase to EMPHASIZE a point, not repeat verbatim what I’m saying), paintings, graphs and figures, etc. I occasionally include a video clip, but I’ve not developed good skills at finding video illustrations appropriate to my lectures. Pity: dynamic visuals usually attract attention better than static. I do make use of color, contrast, size and other variations to increase the impact of my visuals. For auditory material I often use clips of popular music (sometimes classical or jazz), but have also created a few auditory demos.
These presentations do not make for good outline/lecture note handouts! I agree with the students on that. But I think they make the lectures themselves much more effective. I also provide the students with readings, sometimes supplemented with pre-lecture “reading guides”. I put some lecture notes in the “presenter notes” section of my slide files, and then publish collapsed versions of the slides with the notes to provide partial lecture outlines.
Yes, I could do even more class preparation than I already do, creating in addition a lecture outline / notes document to handout (or post after class). But I don’t want to do that instead of my more kinetic, dramatic, and complementary visual presentations. I think the loss in cognitively active learning in the lecture would be a much greater loss. So, I put the priority on trying to give effective lectures, rather than bad lectures accompanied by slide outlines to review after class.
And finally, I really do believe that students learn better if they take some lecture notes, take notes on the readings, and then after class, use those (and the slides, such as they are, and the audio or video recordings of lecture that I usually make available for my large lecture classes) to make one’s own annotated outline. The activities of reviewing, distilling, organizing and summarizing are precisely the sort of learning activities we know are most effective.
I don’t mean to claim that I have any special genius at lecturing in large classes, or that my way is necessarily best. I think (and my course evaluation scores over the years support this) that I am a better than average classroom teacher, but that there is substantial room for improvement. That’s why I keep reading the research on teaching, and keep working to improve my pedagogical methods over time. I’ve put a lot of hours into analyzing, critiquing, and ultimately completely changing my visual presentation aids the past two years, and I’ll keep putting time into improving my lecture skills.


5 thoughts on “My use of slides in teaching

  1. I agree with your overall conclusion. Out of everything that flew at me in 500, I remember your presentations the most.
    Interesting that people want additional notes. I never take notes in class. In fact, I am often doing something entirely different; lately it’s been drawing in my Good Designs notebook (suggested by Mick). It doesn’t seem to interfere with my ability to learn. Sometimes I feel it actually enhances learning, by keeping me awake and actively switching between tasks (art works much better for this than email/Facebook). If I do take notes, it’s usually a reference I want to look up later.
    During your presentations I rarely did additional tasks, because I felt much more engaged. I liked the video/art even when it didn’t seem to match, because if I noticed it wasn’t matching I was already critically thinking about the lecture topic.
    You might want to talk to Mick about video, etc in your presentations. He has been mentioning wanting to experiment more with that in future 682 classes. In general I find that lecture is boring and unhelpful when it isn’t interactive. This makes it unmemorable for the longterm. I appreciate your lecture style because it encourages me to pay attention and think about the material, not write it down mechanically.
    Instead of providing lecture notes, which I would personally never read, you could provide a list of questions that students should be thinking about during lecture. Ixchel does this for readings in 530. It amounts to about 6 questions on a single sheet of paper. That way students would have a guiding sheet, which they seem to be asking for, and it would still be interactive (since they’d have to fill it in). This I might actually use, at least during lecture to reinforce what I’m thinking.

  2. While I’ve never experienced your lecture style directly (I took 502 with Yan & Gary), I’m happy to hear you’re using slides more visually. Truthfully, I was a little taken aback when I got to SI and found that most of the professors use slides like a script, as you said (It’s also endemic in Public Policy, too). I teach a workshop on PowerPoint over at the Ford School, and I struggle to teach my students that lecture/talk slides are primarily intended to enhance the audience’s understanding.
    For those students who bring laptops to class, it may be worth showing how they can add comments and “presenter notes” to PowerPoint slides (and, I assume, Impress and Keynote ones, too). That way, you get the get of both worlds: an engaging lecture together with a set of notes from which one can study.

  3. I learn almost exclusively through text. I’ve been in grad school long enough for reading plus background knowledge to get me through assignments and exams, but I would have a much harder time if I hadn’t already developed those external strategies before coming to SI, by using standard-format text-based slides to help me judge what kinds of things instructors wanted me to get from readings.
    But I have no difficulty believing that this isn’t a common learning style, and that it’s more important to meet the needs of most students than the few (or very few) students who don’t learn in more standard ways. And as an instructor, I know that the consequence of having lecture slides duplicate verbal material is that many students skip class who otherwise would not, or don’t psy attention in class who otherwise would not, including a lot of people who would learn far more if they were there and listening.
    This is an example for me of an HCI-type (and general SI-type) issue that’s hard both for us and our clients: I am not my users, and I am not a typical user. I know it’s best for others that I have to adopt non-text-based slide formats or fail assignments, because pressure helps me override my intuition in ways I wouldn’t otherwise do, and gives me practice at targeting my presentations for people who are not me.
    (Although I’m not going to pretend I don’t find it frustrating, and probably always will.)

  4. Bart, I’m sympathetic, and concerned about different learning styles. Indeed, I have a visual learning deficit (type of learning disorder) which makes it very difficult for me to parse complex patterns). Might seem strange that I use so much visual material in class, but simple visuals are not a problem for me. (Whereas complex text — more complex than slides, I mean densely written text — is a problem, because our comprehension apparently depends a lot on visual pattern processing and mental imaging. As a result, I am a slow reader.)
    The research on cognitive variation is one of the reasons that I embrace *multiple* media: assigned readings, spoken lectures, visual illustrations, audio demos, lecture + discussion, etc. I figure the more different channels we use, the better on average everyone will be (precisely because of individual differences). This has to be balanced by cognitive load issues, of course.

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