Welcome to Class!

Drop the PowerPoint and focus on each and every student.

Posted Oct 18, 2018

12019 / Pixabay
Source: 12019 / Pixabay

As with anything, college lectures have changed in many ways over the years. When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut in the late 1980s, lectures were pretty much delivered by someone speaking at the podium for 80 minutes straight - with instructors choosing to underscore some highlights with good old chalk on the board.

By the time I got to graduate school a few years later, the “overhead transparency” emerged as the cool, cutting-edge technology. About a decade after that, the computer projector started to show up in classrooms around the world - and PowerPoint slideshows started to take over. A few years later, YouTube was born - and then TED talks emerged on the scene. In this context, multi-faceted lectures have become all the buzz.

New instructors are often encouraged to break up the 80-minute slots with a combination of PowerPoint slides, videos, discussions, lectures, etc. We are told that the current generation of students grew up with media sources that are pretty much helter-skelter in terms of an individual’s attention. A teen these days might scroll through Instagram and find 100 totally unrelated yet equally interesting items. He or she might jump onto YouTube and watch seven 2-minute videos on a broad array of topics. Following that, our modern teen might complete a good 15 minutes of Buzzfeed quizzes. Young instructors are often told that since this is the new reality, “lectures” need to be similarly multi-modal in presentation, lest we risk not connecting with our students at all.

With this all in mind, below are two lessons from across the years that I've learned about giving lectures.

Lesson Number 1: Don’t take yourself out of your lectures by over-relying on technology.

I’ve been teaching at the university level since 1994 and have taught at seven different universities across the world, so I guess I’ve seen a lot. One not so great lecture that still stands out in my mind was delivered by a junior faculty member at one university I taught at who truly let the PowerPoint slides do the teaching. As a somewhat senior faculty member, I was asked to provide a peer observation for this young buck. When asked to provide a peer observation, by the way, I always say yes as it’s an opportunity to both (a) learn something new and (b) provide helpful feedback, even if fully affirmatory, to someone who’s aspiring in the field of higher education.

The topic was one of the relatively “science-ey” branches of psychology. You know, one of the classes that students are frightened of and need to be forced by the curriculum to take. I entered the classroom and sat in the back so as to be unobtrusive. Once all the students entered, the instructor did something that seemed strange to me. He turned off all the lights. It was early in the morning, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready for that.

The computer turned on and was being projected onto a screen at the front of the room. Today’s topic was going to be all about a relatively technical set of concepts. The behaviorists who came up with this stuff years ago all wore white lab coats and made these concepts seem as much like “hard science” as possible.

Well, the instructor’s approach did not exactly make the material dance. The 80-minute class period consisted completely of the instructor showing PowerPoint slides to a group of 30 young adults in the dark at about 8:30 in the morning. The slides, which I would later come to find were prepared by the publisher of the textbook for the class, were pretty self-explanatory, so the instructor’s role was largely to advance the slides by hitting the “next” button on the mouse and, at times, reading the words that were on the slide.

I caught myself nearly falling asleep a few times. And, looking around, I was not alone in this regard. Several students were snoring.

As I see it, there were three problems with this approach to teaching - each of which, by the way, is highly mendable. First off, while it may help to make the PowerPoint more visible, turning all of the lights off during the entire class period is, well, just not a great idea! By doing so, you take yourself out of the equation and have the entire focus on the screen. University professors are hired, partly, because they are experts on material and are deemed as interesting conduits of said material. Students need you to make the material sing and dance. They need you to look them in the eyes. They benefit from each lecture being something of a conversation with them directly. Once the lights go off, you’ve lost all of this.

Second, I suggest taking any ancillary materials provided to you by textbook publishers and throwing them into the trash! Relying on these materials, again, takes you, the instructor, out of the equation. As time-consuming as it may be, developing your own materials to capture the content will bring your particular perspective and narrative into the equation. And the more that you take steps to do this, the more your students will connect with what you have to say.

Finally, let’s give PowerPoint a rest, shall we? Back at the University of Connecticut in the late 1980s, the most influential professors I had used nothing more than a piece of chalk to get the concepts across. Via this method, I learned about empiricism versus rationalism in philosophy. I learned how to conduct an Analysis of Variance by hand. I learned how about how natural selection operates and how it applies to questions of humanity. In each case, the ingredients for learning were simple: One highly expert and passionate instructor, a piece of chalk, and about 30 somewhat-eager, bright young people looking to advance in their understanding of the world.

To my mind, PowerPoint is a mixed blessing. The modern over-reliance on PowerPoint technology in the world of teaching has the capacity to take the teacher out of the equation. My advice on this front is simple: Bring yourself into your classroom. Your students will be the beneficiaries.

Lesson Number 2: Don’t leave any student behind

I have been teaching classes in statistics to undergraduates since 1996. I love teaching statistics and always enjoy the challenge of getting students who think that they won’t understand the material to actually master it. And even to enjoy it.

One semester, I had a somewhat-unique student in my class. This student, let’s call him George, sat right in the front center. His attendance was impeccable. He was a pretty big guy and he had a very loud voice. And he pretty much had zero impulse control. You couldn’t miss him!

In spite of being a little bit different, George was a bright young man, capable of understanding abstract concepts.

Starting on Day 1, the second that I’d say one thing in class that didn’t fully exactly and completely make sense to George, he’d shout out. “What does THAT mean!?!?!?” “Makes no sense!!!” “What the heck - how is that even possible!?!?!?” And so forth. I’d say that he’d blurt out something along these lines about 5-10 times each class period. It was a teaching challenge, to be sure!

But you know, I liked George. And as someone who always tries to teach with compassion, I made a point to see the bright side of George’s behavior. My job as an instructor is to get the students to understand the material. If George, a bright and hard-working student, didn’t understand some idea, my guess was that a dozen or so others in the room were probably right there with him. I came to see George as the ultimate litmus test as to whether I was making crystal-clear sense in my presentation of the material.

Near the end of that particular semester, my teaching of this content skyrocketed in terms of quality. Each statistics lecture I would give, even if on the most pedestrian content, suddenly would become the best lecture I’d ever given! In fact, it was after that semester was completed that I decided to write my own textbook in statistics. And that book is, essentially, written in a narrative form assuming that the reader is - you guessed it - George!

The lesson here is this: In presenting material in a lecture, you are interacting with a large group of individuals. I say that you think of each lecture as a conversation between yourself and each and every one of those people. And if one of them seems confused or put off, stop your class dead in its tracks and talk to that person and fix things. You just might find yourself developing into a lecturer who comes to shoot for crystal clarity for and connection with all students. And I promise you that students will appreciate this approach.

To this day, I give each and every lecture as if George is sitting there, front and center.

NOTE: This post is (with permission) based on material that I contributed for the article Top Tips on How to Make Your Lectures Interesting published in Times Higher Education (10/18/2018)