Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Note on Powerpoint and Teaching

While in the midst of finishing up an upcoming blog post on mentoring Junior Faculty, I wrote up the following. It seemed like a topic that is more generally interesting and that such detail doesn't belong in that other entry, so here it is all by its lonesome.

I'd like to talk about powerpoint (or any other presentation software), animation and teaching. For years, I avoided teaching with powerpoint, because I like to scribble on slides -- my slides are typically the outline of what I want to talk about and are mostly reminders for *me* so that I remember what I want to tell the students. However, there is information on them that you don't want students to have to frantically scribble down, so you think, "Hey, I can give them copies of the slides, and then they can listen to me instead of scribbling frantically." This is the beginning of the slippery slope. Once you hand out notes, the students believe that they are proxies for lecture, and if they are not, they will complain bitterly. Even though I very clearly explain that the notes are for me and are provided as a service and are not a replacement for lecture, I've been totally reamed for "having four blank bullets on a slide and only filling in three of them during the discussion in class." I kid you not.

Anyway, I finally transitioned to powerpoint when I got a tablet, because then I could have pretty slides and scribble on them. The first year I did this for my OS course, I spent way way way too many hours building meticulous animations of a context switch. You know ... I am 100% convinced that those animations wasted a ton of my time and benefited absolutely no student and probably harmed some. All the literature confirms that students do not learn by passively watching or listening to you -- passively watching you step through the animation, even if you explain it ever-so-eloquently, is absolutely not the same as forcing them to figure out what the steps are. Yup -- it will take a lot longer if you make them figure things out, but you know what -- they'll actually understand it better. (You may argue that with the picture perfect animation they can step through them later and without you there actually understand what's happening. While that may be true, one in twenty students will do it, while pretty much everyone sitting in a classroom has to pay some amount of attention if you're constantly making them explain what is going on.)

I do devote time to trying to make my slides and explanation as clear as possible when I am recording material for students to screen in advance, but I am working hard to avoid spending significant fractions of my waking moments building fancy animations. In my opinion, animation bad; making student think and discuss what things must happen, how they happen, why they happen, etc. is significantly better.

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