Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tired of bullets?...

You're not alone.  There is a small but growing segment of teaching as well as speaking who find PowerPoint to be less the magic bullet (heh) it seemed to be a few years ago.
Teaching with PowerPoint has a different pace and structure than teaching with chalk or markers. It’s not just about overall fast vs. slow (though that’s part of it), but about when you go fast and when you go slow. When I use the board, I write down the major points, terms, definitions, etc. That forces me to slow down at exactly the moment when I’m making a big point and students should be attending closely. Once the critical information is on the board, I can elaborate, discuss with the class, ask questions, etc. while it hangs up there behind me for students to refer to. And since writing slows me down, I don’t give as much emphasis to relatively minor points — giving students an additional cue as to what’s more and less important. (“Don’t ignore this completely, but it’s not as central as what I said earlier.”) You can reproduce this kind of pacing and structure with PowerPoint, but in practice it’s difficult to do during a live performance in front of a classroom. You have to write your presentation with delivery (not just content) in mind. Otherwise it’s just too easy to blow through major and minor points at a constant pace.
Another point that she makes… I still use PowerPoint in my big introductory classes (though I make my own slides from scratch, use animation to help regulate my delivery, and try to avoid the mind-numbing bullety templates). I always have a few students ask me to post the notes before class. I don’t — I post them after class, but honestly, I have sometimes wondered if I’d be better off not posting them at all. Carolyn modestly writes “while [posting notes] is great for a lot of students, it doesn’t work for me…” but I actually think this describes most students. A lot of students misread their internal cues — if it feels like they are expending a lot of effort then they think they must be struggling with the material. Actually, though, if the professor is presenting challenging material, then you shouldn’t feel relaxed — relaxation is a sign that you’re probably thinking superficially or zoning out, not that you’ve quickly mastered the material.
I also found it impressive that Carolyn reached this conclusion on her own. Because frankly, it’s fundamentally very difficult to introspect into your own learning processes. A few years back, when I started moving away from PowerPoint, I got feedback on my student evaluations from people who wanted more PowerPoint. When I talked with students who felt that way, they thought they’d be able to focus more on the material if they didn’t have to bother taking notes. I realized that reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what note-taking does for you. I’ve been getting less of that feedback lately — maybe because I’ve gotten better at using the board, or maybe because recent students have been around PowerPoint longer and see its limitations more clearly. [More]

Having spent a lot of time watching other PPT presentations (mostly mediocre, IMHO) I think a new balance needs to be found. Teachers and presenters are getting lazier and I think the audience is following their example.

At the very least, after you finish your PPT, halve the number of slides and bullets and you'll be about right, I've found.

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