I was being consumed by slide creation, animation, and summarizing lessons into bullet points. I was working with the text material for hours before each class. Once the file was complete I was spending more time uploading it and converting it into multiple formats to make the slides readily available for the students. It took me far too long to realize that making really great powerpoint files is not really great teaching. My students were trying to tell me. Your students might be trying to tell you.
If you’ve ever attended a faculty event you’ve certainly heard, and perhaps even joined, the chorus of frustrations over “students these days”. They don’t complete the assigned readings before class. They don’t participate in class. They don’t take any notes. They spend more time texting in class than they do paying attention. Etc. Etc. I’ll confess that I used to sing along with that song but I don’t any more.
I took all of this as feedback. Clearly, what I was doing as the leader of this learning environment was not giving me the desired results. I realized that I was encouraging these behaviours. I was enabling the passive learning approach that was frustrating me. By preparing a detailed summary of the reading material, providing that summary to students, and then lecturing about that very same content, I was ensuring that I was the only active member of the class.
I want an active learning culture in my classroom. I want students to come prepared to use the new information they read about. Lectures with PowerPoint as AV support are not going to deliver this type of learning community – so I fired PowerPoint.
Here is what I concluded:
1. I spend more time summarizing the chapter into PowerPoint slides than students do reading it.
2. If my lecture repeats what is in the text, why should they read before class? Why read the text at all? I’m making reading unimportant to them.
3. If I share my PowerPoint files with the class, why should they take notes? Aren’t the key points already there? I’m making note taking unnecessary.
4. If there is no point to reading, and no point to taking notes, why come to the class at all? I’m providing no valuable learning experience in the classroom that they can’t get somewhere else, on their own time, on their own terms.
5. If I’m doing the preparing, and the majority of the talking, and they don’t need to take any notes, that leaves them having to listen. Listening to anybody for 3 hours straight is boring. I’d text too.
I broke my ppt habit and stopped lecturing, but it was not without some growing pains. At first I felt very ill-prepared without that ppt file at the ready. I appreciate the great sense of comfort that comes from knowing there are 40 slides of really key info ready to support me should I forget to say or do something I’d intended to. With a slideshow as structure I felt comfortable that I could predict what would happen in class. Predictable is boring. So here is what I do now.
1. Explain the approach to the class in the first week.
The pattern goes like this:
1st – Students complete the reading assignment
2nd – Teacher prepares and facilitates class activity which applies/demonstrates/explores/challenges course content
3rd – Students reflect on and record their experiences/conclusions
This type of learning environment is unnatural to most postsecondary students. To make certain that they are ready to get the most out of our learning community I set clear roles and expectations. It is their job to complete the assigned readings prior to class. If at any point in their reading they do not understand something, they need to ask for help. They can find me during office hours, practical or virtual, they can tweet the question with the course hashtag so the entire class can engage in the conversation, or they can pose the question at the beginning of the class.
2. Limit my speaking time
If I return to lecturing text content I make the preparatory reading student’s have done seem like a waste of time. I restrict my speaking to 10 min intervals. In these 10 mins I explain the activity, and its objectives as they relate to the reading. I highlight key text sections that should be referenced during the activity and I get them started. When the activity and wrap up discussion is complete, I summarize the key learning outcomes. Again, I limit this to 10 minutes. In a 3 hour class the schedule looks something like this:
10 min Reading assignment Q&A, Activity Intro & Instruction
25-30 min Application Activity
10 min Summary and Reinforcement of key outcomes
This pattern allows me to integrate a wide variety of activities and experiences into each class. During each activity I can work with small groups of students or even individuals to answer questions and assess understanding & progress. This allows me to build stronger relationships with students which keeps them interested and engaged in the learning community.
3. Capture Key Points & Discussion Dynamically on Blackboard/Whiteboard
Since I don’t have prepared bullet lists of key points, the important elements of the lesson develop through contributions of the class. As someone mentions something important, or raises a good question, I summarize the information on the board. Since I am taking notes that cannot be electronically distributed, they take notes. At first this takes a little coaching. “Keep in mind that this is really important stuff and at the end of the class I’m going to erase the board. You’ll want to capture this.” Very soon however, as soon as put something on the board, most are making a note of it. I have board plan for each class that I use as a guide. This way I ensure all key points hit the board and yet I can maintain the dynamic nature of the class generating the ideas and me serving as the recorder of their conclusions.
4. Use other ways to keep it visual
Although I don’t use PowerPoint, I like visuals and regularly integrate them into my class. If I am using a textbook, I find the companion CD with text images to be helpful. I can easily project a particular image and use it as the basis of discussion. If I want a more structured presentation I use Prezi. Since it is web driven I can easily share the presentation link with the class, embed the presentation in the class blog/website and I don’t have to worry about format issues. (Which version of PowerPoint, MAC vs PC, Keynote conversion, proper packaging of embedded media etc.) It also allows for seamless integration of YouTube videos and other web content.
5. Time and Place for Reflection
I explain to the class how important it is for them to capture their ideas and experiences from the class. Early in the term I prepare summary worksheets to guide this process. As they get used to the process, I don’t need to provide such structure and they begin to summarize as best suits them. When mid-term exams arrive and the question is posed “What should I study for the exam?” my immediate reply is “your notes”. I use the question as an opportunity to reinforce how important those notes are. I explain that anything that we worked with during a class activity is clearly important. With these two guidelines they can judge for themselves what is important.
6. The Lesson Plan Grid and Board Plan
I used to rely on my slides to make sure that I covered all of the important things I wanted to convey. Now I have a lesson plan table for each class. The grid follows the BOPPPS model. Under each heading I include a quick summary of my plan, estimated time allocated, a list of required materials, files, links etc. and a place for me to add notes after the lesson for continuous improvement purposes. This page and my board plan are my maps for the class. They keep me on track for time and topic and prevent me from lecturing to bullets.
It has been a tough switch. I still have to be ruthless with myself when I begin to fall back into old habits. Overall, I’m very pleased with the results. I had near perfect attendance in 2 of 4 sections last term. Text books appeared in class with notes in the margin and rainbows of sticky tabs fluttering from the pages. Classes were noisy, busy and productive and I attribute this to the activity driven focus.
Students are attending, reading before class, and actively learning during class. Good riddance to lectures and PowerPoint.