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Archive for August 2nd, 2009

PowerPoint is a presentation tool.  While it may seem absurd to blame a presentation tool for the boredom of countless college students, plenty do so.  A July 20 Chronicle of Higher Ed article implores professors to “Teach Naked,” (free of technology), and asserts in its headline that “When Computers Leave Classrooms, So Does Boredom.”  First of all, boredom in college classrooms likely dates to the 19th century, long before computers came along.  As a student, I had plenty of professors who used no technology at all and managed to be incredibly boring.  There is a basic methodological lesson here: correlation does not equal causation.  The fact that a professor who uses PowerPoint is boring does not mean that PowerPoint is to blame.  Rather, the blame lies in the presentation style that PowerPoint (and other presentation software – you’re not exempt from the possibility of boring presentations just because you use Keynote) has helped popularize – bulleted lists of facts.  This presentation style can be found everywhere from corporate boardrooms to the nightly news, and seems designed to ensure that you can get the information you need without paying attention to a single word the presenter is saying.

Now that we have established that PowerPoint itself is not to blame for boredom in college classrooms, let’s take a closer look at the argument in the Chronicle article.  The article centers on José A. Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, and states early on that:

More than any thing else, Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool. Class time should be reserved for discussion, he contends, especially now that students can download lectures online and find libraries of information on the Web. When students reflect on their college years later in life, they’re going to remember challenging debates and talks with their professors. Lively interactions are what teaching is all about, he says, but those give-and-takes are discouraged by preset collections of slides.

If you are a boring professor who relies on text-heavy PowerPoint slides to lecture to your napping students, it seems likely that ditching PowerPoint might shake things up in the classroom.  Rather than arguing for the end of the lecture, however, the article appears to be arguing for the end of the reading.  The fact is that the sort of discussion-focused class time that Bowen describes would be possible if students completed their reading assignments.  Imagine if a textbook chapter was assigned as a reading and the professor and students could spend class time delving into the issues raised by the reading.  It is more likely that the majority of students have not done the reading because they know the professor will spend the class period rehashing the main points of the reading because the professor knows the majority of students will not have done the reading.  Yes, this is what a self-fulfilling prophecy looks like.

So lectures are boring because professors spend too much time rehashing the readings, which are so boring that students cannot bring themselves to complete them.  But students want to be entertained.  Ditching PowerPoint in order to shake up the status quo doesn’t solve this problem, though, because it focuses on shifting lecture material outside of the classroom, to podcasts and videos.  For example, this quote:

Kevin Heffernan, an associate professor in the school’s division of cinema and television, has also created podcast lectures—essentially narrated PowerPoint slide shows—for students to watch before class. During class he shows movie clips from his laptop and has students discuss them based on the background lectures.

“I don’t have to explain to them how film censorship in America changed in 1968” during his class session on Midnight Cowboy, says Mr. Heffernan. “They have that information from the online podcast.”

What’s this?  Something that students can look at outside of class that introduces them to the important points of a topic so that they can discuss the topic in the classroom?  That is what readings are supposed to do! Of course, if your students are currently bored by your lectures in which you rehash boring reading material, I fail to see how they are going to be excited about the prospect of watching you narrate PowerPoint slides from the comfort of their dorm room or sorority house.  As much as you would like it to happen, they are not going to call their sorority sisters over to the couch so that they can all watch your fascinating lecture on hegemony before discussing it over dinner.  My guess?  They’re going to find your video lectures just as boring as your previous readings and in-class lectures, and they’re not going to watch them before class.  Sure, they might spend a few hours trying to glean the key points before an exam, just as they did before with the textbook readings you assigned.

I can see that you are curious about something: If your students are not watching your videos before class like they’re supposed to, why are they participating in discussion?  The answer, of course, is that you are coming to class with different assumptions and enough of the students have watched the videos (the same students who always did the readings) to get things going, after which the other students will have heard enough to make points that are at least somewhat related to the topic at hand.  At the same time, the shift of all lecture materials outside of the classroom causes your students to be curious about something else: if all of the lecture materials are available outside of class and class time is spent discussing them, why do they need to go to class at all?  The discussions that you find so engaging will essentially become a waste of your students’ time because they have other things to do and if it isn’t going to be on the exam it may as well have not happened.

Another problem with shifting lecture material outside of class time is that it greatly increases the time demands on professors.  Professors who do this must now spend an additional 3-12 hours a week (depending on course loads) recording their lecture materials so that they can spend their course time doing other things.  Unlike lecture notes, which can be tweaked from semester to semester but do not always need to be completely redone, these recordings will need to be completely redone each semester in order to change even the smallest detail.  The ease of blaming PowerPoint sure has created a lot of extra work for professors!

Each semester when my students are about to fill out their evaluations I argue for the importance of constructive criticism.  If they tell me they hate something but don’t tell me what a better alternative would be, I’m not going to be able to do much about their complaints.  As a result, I’m not going to complain about blaming PowerPoint for problems that run much deeper in academia without offering what I think is a better solution (clearly, any jackass who starts giving people job market advice almost immediately after receiving a job always thinks that his way is a better way).  If the goal is to ensure that students are engaged participants in the classroom while continuing to believe that class time is valuable, we need to do several things (so you don’t have to pay too much attention, I have provided them in a bulleted list!):

  • Require readings that provide background for discussion and hold students accountable for the completion of these readings.
  • Keep things fresh by mixing lectures, videos, discussions, and exercises in the same class, just as those focused on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning have been telling us to do for years.
  • Allow students to focus on what is happening in the classroom by relieving some of the pressure to take extremely detailed notes.
  • Demistify exams and assignments by telling students what your learning goals for them are and how your exams and assignments are designed to help you measure their progress toward those goals.

Regarding point three, one way to do this is by recording class sessions and making them available online after class.  A number of professors do this, including Tina Fetner of Scatterplot fame.  This gives students the option of reviewing their notes after class to fill in any gaps or revisit confusing topics.  This is probably a good solution in a large class like Fetner’s (she had 475 students in her intro class last fall).  In classes of all sizes, this approach may prevent students from seeing going to class as a worthwhile way to spend their time.  Why go to class if you’re guaranteed not to miss anything?*  Of course, if 25% of students in a class of 475 skip, the rest of the students will probably enjoy the extra elbow room.  If 25% of students in a class of 21 (my current intro enrollment for the fall semester) skip, however, the classroom dynamic can be significantly altered.  Students in small classes are also less likely to have problems hearing others due to noise from those around them, which makes this option appealing for large classes.

Another potential solution is the use of “Guided Notes,” which, “provide all students with background information and standard cues with specific spaces to write key facts, concepts, and/or relationships during the lecture.”  The use of guided notes forces students to pay attention and take notes but does not force them to write down everything that is said, word for word.  As a result, they are freer to participate in class discussions.

Obviously, while podcasts and guided notes, along with keeping things fresh and explaining why exams and assignments exist, can help with student engagement in the classroom, neither directly addresses the problem of student engagement outside of the classroom (indirectly, of course, one hopes that students who are engaged inside the classroom will be more likely to be engaged outside of it).  While this is a difficult problem, it existed long before the rise of PowerPoint and classroom technology.**

*I know that professors include lots of things like quizzes, attendance policies, participation grades, etc. in their syllabi to ensure that students will come to class, but if we are truly seeking engaged students, encouraging students to be physically present in order to take a quiz, sign an attendance sheet, or even ask a question, after which they check out mentally because they know a recording of class material will appear online is probably not the best approach.

**I use PowerPoint in class almost daily.  I use it primarily to provide students with definitions of class concepts, but I also use it to display pictures, diagrams, and guidelines for in-class exercises (basically, as a substitute for the “slate chalkboards or overhead transparencies filled with hand-scrawled notes that students struggled to decipher” of the past) and as the basis for my guided notes.  If my class sessions are boring I am positive that the fault is my own, not PowerPoint’s.

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