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07 January 2008


Mary Anne Mohanraj

Hmm...teaching comp, lit., and creative writing, I don't think I've ever gotten a comment that I should include more pictures. Which is odd, given that I generally don't include any, or use the blackboard hardly at all. (I do feel like I should, because I know that some percentage of the population are more visual learners than auditory learners, but I have to make a real effort to prep anything visual at all; it's so against my normal talk-talk-talk instincts). But in any case, it's weird that my students don't seem to care/notice and yours do...is there a specific question about the visual stuff on the evaluation?

Jackie M.

I think I disagree on the Power Point bullets/pedagogy thing.

Okay, so, Chris just got back from the annual meeting for the recipients of his current NSF fellowship--the responsibilities of which include an education/outreach component--and he was pretty excited by Bob Mathieu's science education talk. The most important thing to do in any lecture, according to Mathieu, is to start straight off by telling your students exactly what it is you want them to learn during the next hour, and how that fits into the larger picture of what you want them to learn for next test. Which means, if what you want is for them to put the pieces together themselves, then the absolute best thing for you to do is to tell them that at the beginning--not just that you want them to put pieces together for themselves, but what the pieces are, and how they fit together. Right when they sit down and pull out their notebooks/laptops.

And yeah, I suppose they'll all make lists of facts, and then you'll worry that you're spoiling your punchline... but Mathieu says don't worry. Most students have to hear things more than once to learn them, let alone put them into context... and now at least you've got them paying attention to the context. Otherwise, it's just a firehose of facts--and that is speaking from my own damn experience. As a student.

(The other thing Mathieu was harping on was making sure that you test for the thing you claim is most important, ie., if you claim critical thinking is more important than facts, don't give them multiple choice tests. Because students are focused on grades. And if you test facts, then clearly facts are the only things that really matter in the course.

Oh, oh! And then! Chris says Mathieu pulled out these little fill-in-the-bubble flow charts as examples of teaching/testing the bigger pictures. How the various concepts in, say, cosmology or star formation relate to each other. And, oh my god, I wish _I_ could take Mathieu's tests. Because I bet I'd learn stuff I never knew I never knew about astronomy... anyway. That sounds like exactly what you're trying to do with your courses, tying all these concepts together to make a bigger picture.)

Susan Marie Groppi

Those are great points! And it sounds like it was a great talk. I'm very careful when writing tests to make sure that I ask questions that relate directly to what I told them was important for them to learn, and I do make a point of telling them over and over again what those things are. (I commented a few times in lecture last semester that I'm not subtle about the course themes--if something seems repetitive, it's because it's important.)

I think there's a distinction (even if only a thin one) between telling them up-front what the teaching objective is and giving them a list of points to tick off during lecture, though. I'm not worried about building dramatic tension or anything--that's good theater but not always good teaching. To give a concrete example, though: last semester, when we had our set of lectures on Ptolemaic Alexandria, I started off by telling them that we were spending so much time on Alexandria because a few important course themes were all showcased in the history of Alexandrian science. I went through what those themes were (the impact of state support of science, the relationship between science and religion, and the benefits of blending multiple knowledge traditions) before we got into any details, and I checked back in with them at various points during the Alexandria lectures. At every point, the students knew (I hope!) what the structure was, what the content was, and what was expected of them.

What I didn't do was give them a pre-printed list of the major content points that would be coming up in the lectures. And, I don't know, maybe that would be of some benefit. I've had experience as a teaching assistant in classes that did that, and sometimes it seems to work okay. But sometimes it results in student laziness, a kind of disengagement from the course content, and that's what I'm trying to avoid.

Susan Marie Groppi

Oh, I forgot to answer Mary Anne's question! Sorry about that.

I think a lot of it comes down to expectation. The PowerPoint thing is very entrenched, especially in science classes, and I teach a lot of science majors. Every other class they take makes extensive use of PowerPoint, so it stands out for them when I don't. So if your students aren't taking classes where this happens, then their expectations are different.

But it's not all expectations. Especially in the survey class on the history of science, there's a lot of value to the visuals. I wouldn't dream of talking about anything geographical (trade routes, population migrations, or even regional influences) without using maps, and when I talk about individual people, I've found that the students have an easier time keeping the names straight if they've also seen a picture. (Even a grainy one from a Soviet-era postage stamp!) I don't know if the content you're using in your classes would benefit from visuals in the same way.

Bill Preston

I happened upon your blog through your recent comments on the Asimov's board...

I teach English to middle school and high school students; I'm with you about PowerPoint. I have only ever seen it used badly in presentations (Is there a good use for it?), students who prepare presentations with it *almost* invariably spend more time with design bells and whistles that with information, and my own style of presentation, like yours, is to use visuals in a supplemental or complementary way. I suppose if I had kids taking actual notes, I'd think differently.


Marshall Perrin

I'm coming to this conversation a little late, but just in case your still paying attention to these comments, it's worth pointing out that not all scientists are on the Powerpoint bandwagon, either. I can't call it a movement, but there's at least a school of thought that agrees completely with you about its potential to dumb down academic thinking. The unofficial ringleader of all this is Edward Tufte, an author, professor, and graphic design demagogue from Yale. I highly recommend all of his works, and in particular his "The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint" essay.

In my own talks, I try to use Powerpoint/Keynote primarily as slide projectors: presenting data and images, not text and bullet points. I'll show a figure taken from some paper, and that one figure will fill the whole slide as I talk about it, with no other explanatory text on screen. Or if I do put text on screen, it's usually backup explanatory material like citations and references, which I generally do not read aloud. There's nothing worse than waiting for someone to slowly read through bullet points you read in the first 5 seconds the slide was up... I don't always pull this off as well as I'd like - crappy slides are easier to make than good ones, and we're all pressed for time - but it's something to strive for, anyway.

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Susan Marie Groppi

  • Susan Marie Groppi is a historian and an editor, currently living in Berkeley, California.


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