Slides and Chalkboards

I have two questions, both in reaction to Margaret Soltan’s insistent complaints about PowerPoint usage in university classrooms.

1. How common is repeated, regular PowerPoint usage by professors in higher ed classrooms? (E.g., not the occasional usage to show visual material, but the routine use of it for lectures.) Do we have any systematic idea? Does it differ significantly between less and more selective institutions? Between disciplines? (I’m fairly sure that usage is heavier in the sciences and social sciences.)

2. What’s the difference between bad usage of PowerPoint in lectures and bad lectures that involve hand-outs, overhead transparencies and writing on the chalkboard? Are we just complaining about old wine in new bottles here? Is the real culprit professorial droning at classrooms of 200+ students followed by recite-repeat-and-forget examinations? I think it’s at least plausible that the technology is just giving us a new reason to pay attention to a pedagogy whose effectiveness has been suspect for two generations.

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22 Responses to Slides and Chalkboards

  1. topometropolis says:

    In mathematics, teaching via PowerPoint is extremely rare — almost everyone still uses chalkboards (or, if it is all that’s available, whiteboards). While it’s nice to be able to put up a slide from time to time with a chart or graph to supplement the board, chalk is by far the superior media for teaching math as it allows you to unveil each equation or theorem bit by bit. Otherwise it’s just information overload.

    I do get the impression that, among the sciences, mathematicians are pretty atypical in this, but I don’t have any hard numbers for you

  2. Dance says:

    With you all the way on #2. We need to be talking about the lecture course, not about PPT.

    Re actual use–The numbers probably need to be tracked both by classes/profs using PPT and by students experiencing PPT—the shift to online evaluations could actually enable some decent numbers on this in the future, but I doubt schools will take advantage of it. I suspect it’s pretty high in history, particularly when you look at the large World/US/Western Civ surveys that Swarthmore probably doesn’t offer. My friend at a mid-ranking state uni gets pressure on evals to use *more* PPT.

    The issue is less selectiveness and more class size, I think. Exactly *how* does one teach even 80 students at once without succumbing to passive data transfer? What alternatives are there? Selectiveness is somewhat related, in that it’s easier to rely on selective students to read and understand the basic text, offering room for non-lecture in class time.

    Personally, I’d be kinda okay with the “verbal textbook with downloadable slides” AS LONG AS profs actually saved students money and time by then not requiring a textbook. That’s a form that could justify the droning/passive data transfer of big lecture courses, at least for me. (I’m actually going to sort of try this out in the fall, we’ll see how it goes)

  3. prof.e says:

    What I think is interesting is that the Stanford student who wrote the original email understands that the point is not whether PowerPoint is used, but how. Unfortunately, that’s harder to quantify than the number of classes that use PP in some way.

    I do think that, in fact, the introduction of PP and other technologies is causing this generation of graduate students (or at least inviting them) to think reflectively about their pedagogy in ways that earlier generations (OK, mine; or maybe just me) did not. After all, it seems now that many more PhD’s are graduating having some training in effective use of PP in the classroom. But how many PhD’s in prior generations had some training in the effective use of the chalkboard?

    (If I’m wrong, and it was only my graduate school that ignored this, I apologize.)

  4. k8 says:

    I’ve seen it done well and not so well in the humanities. PP is useful in large lecture halls b/c it can be difficult for all students to see/read the chalkboard. Plus, if the instructor has handwriting as horrid as mine, there is another advantage. Having said that, I’m selective about what I choose to place on the slides. If I wouldn’t write it on a board, it probably won’t go on PP. Just as I wouldn’t write an entire lecture on the board, I won’t be including an entire lecture on PP.

    Nobody has really trained me to use powerpoint, but I’ve learned from experiences as both a learner and an instructor. And, it helps that some aspects of my field are concerned with visual rhetorics.

  5. CMarko says:

    I just got done with a history class I was taking at the University of New Mexico–Gallup. The professor used a powerpoint lecture for every class, but he did it really well: the lectures were engaging, he included lots of visuals, and he kept the pacing slow enough that we could take notes. He also posted the slides on Blackboard before class and encouraged us to print them out and take notes on the printouts. I think that helped alleviate anxiety for students who did not have strong note-taking skills.

    The professor is probably over-qualified for this particular academic institution, but even so, it’s an example of good powerpoint usage at a less-than-selective college.

  6. Doug says:

    Beyond PowerPoint, though it’s in there, Laura offers up a list of 10 ways technology has changed teaching in the last five years.

  7. lauram says:

    I really struggled with the usefulness of powerpoint in the classroom. I didn’t want to use it. The students begged. And I started using it for all my classes, except for political theory. I’ve found it very useful for definitions and terms in the intro class, quick hyperlinks to websites/videoes on youtube, charts and maps, handy outlines that I would have written on the board anyway. The student say in the class evals that they love the slides.

    I think the trick is to not be so dependent on them. Forget the stupid transitions and backgrounds. Have discussion periods.

    Political scientists use PP a lot. I saw a job talk last week and the guy almost didn’t get the job because he wrote on the board, rather than use PP.

  8. hestal says:

    I retired from developing large-scale computer systems in 1995 after 30 years on the job. Before that, 1962-1965, I taught math in a large high school in Fort Worth, Texas. The school was in a wealthy part of town and the students were college-bound. At night I taught a course on how to take SAT tests.

    While I worked in computers I maintained my teaching credentials. Texas started requiring that all teachers pass an exam, and I took it. I don’t remember the percentage of those who failed, but it was double digits. The test was very simple and essentially was designed to see how well the teacher could understand what he read. I believe that most people in the sixth grade back in the early fifties would have passed it.

    When I left computers the Plano, Texas school district, one of the best in the state, had a shortage of math teachers and I volunteered. I received a six-weeks assignment at one of the smaller high schools to replace a teacher who was having unexpected surgery. Before she left I met with her and she explained what ground needed to be covered. She was the chairman of the department and she explained the rules. I asked her for a copy of the text book, and she told me that I would not need one because they didn’t use one — they made their own, she said, to conform to new state requirements. But I asked again so she dug out a copy of the official book.

    I taught in a room that had blackboards on every wall, but I couldn’t use them. I was required to use an overhead projector, and I was required to make my own foils. The acting chairman would bring me a copy of the handwritten lesson of the day. She and others would compose it after school the preceding afternoon. My job was to teach that lesson by using the projector. The foils did not provide enough room to show the lesson and I kept putting up new ones as I went along. The students had to copy furiously because they had no textbooks. Well, they had texts but they didn’t use them. So I had to put back up foil three while I was working on foil four so some could catch up. So I slowed down.

    It did not take long for me to decide, without asking, to change this process. I pushed the projector to one side and started using the blackboards. This made things better for all. The students had to copy, but most, often all, of the material was constantly visible. And after the first period, the material was instantly visible to the later classes. I was told to stop by the acting chairman. I tried to explain, but was cut off. She told me to stop or she would send me to the principal’s office. So I went down and he told me to stop.

    My next effort was to rush to the copy room each morning and make enough copies of each day’s material so that each student had one. I handed them out at the start of class. The students really liked this approach. But I was told to stop because the copy expense was too great, and there was not enough time each morning to make copies for all the classes.

    My next effort was to tell the students to find their texts and bring them to class. Each morning I would look at the day’s materials and find them in the text. I would write the page numbers on the board and the students liked this approach even better.

    By then, the administrators realized that I was a troublemaker so they decided to tough it out because I would be gone soon.

    The text book contained the same material that I taught thirty years earlier. I still had my texts from those days. And it was the same material that my mother had learned back in the early 30’s. The material had not changed. The students had not changed. Society had changed and the administrtors had changed.

    There were other problems. One of the worst was that I didn’t see my students every day. Some came on MWF and others on TTh. If a student took a lesson on Tuesday and missed Thursday, he would go 6 days without seeing his teacher. That’s too long. Much too long.

    And them there was the state test. My job was to spend a week showing movies to those students who were not taking the test. Each day, all day, I showed a videotaped movie. 2.7% of the entire student body’s annual classroom hours were spent watching movies.

    I checked around and found that not all high schools followed the same procedures that I saw, but they all had been seized with the idea that they had to do something in order to meet the requirements that were forced on them by legislators through the school administration. There was a distinct feeling that the school district was being run by D.C. and Austin.

    But I had two honors classes and those students learned the material. They were bright, attentive, and a force of nature. That hadn’t changed either. I concluded that at the end of the day, these kids would be okay. For the other 60% I was not so confident.

    But the lesson I learned was that no one was resonsible, or if they felt responsible, they had no authority. I had seen the predicament in the business world many times, but the danger then was that a business might fail. The danger was greater in the schools and no one was responsible.

    One last item. When I started teaching I was admitted to the teacher’s lounge and I had an impression that people were having fun; the liked their jobs and their jobs liked them. But in Plano it was not the same. I saw some teachers crying. It was hard to take.

  9. peter55 says:

    I would say that 99.99 % (or an even higher percentage) of computer science professors use either MS Powerpoint or Latex-PDF documents projected from a laptop via a dataprojector. MS Powerpoint is not great for mathematical symbols, which is why some use Latex-PDF. Latex is a mark-up language for document processing designed particularly for mathematical symbols.

  10. ccagle says:

    I’ll second what a few other commenters have said: my students actively and vocally demanded Power Point slides for lecture. I feel my lecture course is challenging enough that I really should offer them any tool I can provide.

    Also, given my field (film studies), Power Point has the advantage of synthesizing the conceptual material provided with film images that illustrate the concept. It’s not a replacement for moving-image clips, but the format has its distinct pedagogical value.

  11. jim says:

    I originally trained as a mathematician, so I have lots of experience being lectured to while the teacher was writing on a blackboard. At worst, the teacher would verbalize what he was writing, at the speed he was writing it, while giving his full attention to the blackboard. Sometimes he would do so quietly, as though his soliloquy was solely intended for the blackboard.

    At least with powerpoint, one faces the class.

  12. jim says:

    So I guess I’m going in reverse order here, answering the second question first. As to the first question, anecdotal evidence is that powerpoint usage is essentially universal in the sciences. (I’m using “powerpoint” as generic for a sequence of computer displayed text and images; the actual tool may well be Microsoft’s PowerPoint, but may be Apple’s Keynote or OpenOffice or pdfs or even html in a browser.) Normal scientific professional discourse (say at conferences) involves displaying equations or data or graphs and talking about them, which behaviour transfers over to classroom use very easily.

    The interesting question is not amount of usage. It’s mode of usage. How many instructors simply read their slides? Soltan sometimes implies all do. I can hold myself up as an exception, but I don’t know how typical I am.

  13. nord says:

    Well Tim, I’d like to turn the tables … how common are crackberries in the classroom among the current crop of swarthmore students? when I was there, cell phones were rare – only the volunteer fire fighters carried beepers the size of books to get the 10 second head start before the alarm went off by the field house. Now with mobile data, students have a lot more ways to be “easily distracted” … add lap tops and students can probably google a coherent argument about any random author they may not have read/understood completely…

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t see too many Blackberries out in the open during class time. It’s not that uncommon for cellphones to ring (mine has done so twice during the last year, so I’m hardly in a position to criticize) but students just turn them off. I’d say about a quarter of the students, at the most, have laptops open during class session. Of them, I’d say about half of those are using them for note-taking and useful googling of information; the other half, I suspect if I came around to where they were, they’d be emailing, IM’ing, etcetera.

    This bothers a lot of faculty, but again, I think it’s a bit of a red herring. Where laptop use in classrooms is widely employed to distracting ends is probably in very large classrooms built around the droning lecture/PP slide presentation. At which point, why is the professor concerned with the level of intellectual engagement in the audience, given the pedagogy at hand? Moreover, students who are zoning out or disengaged in a smaller, more discussion-oriented class don’t need technology to do so.

  15. Britta says:

    Actually, one of the best classes I took at Swarthmore relied heavily on powerpoint, although in this case it was the students using it, not the professor. It was a biology class taught by a prof on material (for the most part) outside his field of training, so he ran it as more of a guided reading. Each week, two students were responsible for giving a presentation on that week’s reading as well as doing further outside research on the topic. The class was seminar style (3 hours once a week). The presentation was expected to be about an hour, and then the rest of the class involved student-led class discussion of the material. The class was limited to 12 students, was highly competitive to get into, and was a mid/upper level course. We were then graded on our presentation (both content/research, powerpoint presentation, speaking skills) and discussion leading skills. I’ve found that aside from learning the course material, gaining the ability to put together an interesting concise presentation has helped me well after college.

  16. Timothy Burke says:

    I like that. I’ve thought about trying to get students to prepare Keynote/PP slides for presentations, just as a skills exercise, but also to raise an open question about what the best way to present information to others actually is.

  17. Western Dave says:

    One question, one statement, one aside. First, since when was Stanford (or any other big research uni) noted for the quality of its undergraduate teaching? Generally, good undergrad courses are the exception not the rule. Second, incorporating powerpoint effectively is tricky but there are a few guidelines that help. Put as little text on a slide as possible, minimize effects, work with visible colors (no red and blue together! They vibrate). A lot of this stuff is hard for us text based types who aren’t used to thinking visually. Find a friend who understands design and have them make a template for you if you are having trouble. Also, be sure your slides are readable from the back of the room. Finally, the aside: CMarko, what the heck are you doing in Gallup and taking courses there? Was the teacher guy with the beard who was born in Rehoboth? I’ve been working on a book on the Grants-Gallup area so I’d love to know why you are there.

  18. CMarko says:

    I graduated from college last year, joined Teach for America, and got sent to New Mexico. I’m living and teaching on the Zuni pueblo, about 40 minutes south of Gallup, and I take education classes at the university. The class I mentioned was actually a class I took for fun, rather than one of my required courses; it was a New Mexico History class taught by a guy I know named Caleb. He doesn’t have a beard, and I don’t think he’s from Rehoboth.

  19. Timothy Burke says:

    Those are good guidelines, David. It seems to me that the absolutely key thing is to avoid speaking the slides literally. They’re best as definitions, key concepts, images: the kind of thing you’d stop your flow of lecturing to write on the chalkboard. They’re not the lecture itself.

  20. jim says:

    “[T]he absolutely key thing is to avoid speaking the slides literally.” Yes, yes, yes.

    I, too, have students give presentations. Before they give them, though, I do a half-hour or so piece on presenting. Show some clips of TED talks, mostly people using slides well; talk to why these work; show Al Gore drying, turning to look at the slide, hoping that’ll remind him what he’s to say next; tell them they’re not Al Gore, they can’t get away with that; show a clip of Lessig telling the Jon Else story (when he says Fox Studios, a slide comes up, “Fox Studios”, when he says the Simpsons was only on for three and a half seconds, a slide comes up “3.5 seconds”, when he says Fox asked for $10,000, a slide comes up “$10,000”) then ask them what three things Lessig wants you to remember. I end with two slides. One says just “DON’T READ THEM” in as large a font as will fit and I tell them that if you start reading your slides, your audience will, too. They can read silently faster than you can enunciate, so they’ll get to the end quicker than you, and then they’ll switch off. The other is this:

    Look at him. Even his co-presenter looks bored.

    There’s a very strong anti-pattern which looks at the slides as an aid to the presenter. If not his script, at least his notes. Don’t succumb. The slides are for the audience. They’re to provide emphasis to, to illustrate, to augment what the presenter is saying.

  21. Western Dave says:

    Not Caleb. I was thinking of Bruce the department chair. If you eat meat, have a green chili cheeseburger at Earl’s for me. Or a steak at the Ranch Kitchen. If you don’t eat meat, well, get used to the Oasis.

  22. Dance says:

    I found this discussion of “sliduments” very applicable to classroom teaching, summing up a lot of what’s been said here.

    I followed the link from this discussion of the Lessig style.

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