Problems with pacing in a large lecture course

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgScene 1: a few days ago
(SW notes that most pencils in the room have stopped moving or have slowed down)
SW: OK, so moving on, we see … (flipping to next slide)
(A hand goes up near the back of the auditorium)
SW: Yes? Did you have a question?
Stu Dent 1: Could you go back a slide? I wasn’t done copying it.
SW: OK, but remember I post most of these slides on Blackboard, so if you don’t get all the details in class, you can review and fill in your notes later.
(Stu Dent 1 lets out a dramatic sigh, quite audible at the front of the auditorium. There’s also a bit of mumbling among students in that back corner.)
SW: Is there a problem?
Stu Dent 2: It’s just that this happens a lot in this class. (Mumbled agreement from that corner of the room)

Scene 2: a few days later
(SW notes that most pencils in the room have stopped moving or have slowed down. She prepares to move to the next slide.)
Stu Dent 3: Does this have anything to do with [the topic of the next slide]?
SW: Great question. In fact, it’s exactly what I was about to tell you about. (Flips to next slide.)
Stu Dent 4: Wait. I wasn’t done writing.
(SW goes back to the previous slide. She waits patiently for the last few pencils to cease. Meanwhile she notices Stu Dent 3 look bored and roll her eyes and another student sending text messages.)

As the two scenes illustrate, I’m struggling with pacing in my introductory class this semester. I’ll admit that I am using powerpoint, even though I’ve been told that it is evil beyond all evil. I’m sure that there are better ways to reach ~100 students at once, but I’m not sure what they are for this introductory science course. (I do try to mix lectures up a bit with think-pair-share, etc.) I’m applying for a summer workshop on teaching large classes, which I hope will give me some good ideas, but in the meantime our teaching center on campus seems to offer workshops that focus more on the tech and less on the teach. And the message I get from my colleagues can be best summarized as: “There’s plenty of time to revise your classes after you get tenure.”

So back to the pacing dilemma…how do I strike the right balance between keeping class moving so as not to bore the heck out of the good students, while going slow enough that I don’t overwhelm the slow-note-takers or can’t-write-while-listening people?

I thought that putting most of my slides on Blackboard would solve these issues, but apparently it didn’t. I suppose something like pod-casting the class could also work to help the slower note-takers. So could posting all of my notes (not just ~50%) on Blackboard, but I’d like to keep strong incentives for people to actually come to class.

One thing I’d like to do is teach them how to take better notes in less time than it takes to copy things word for word from the slides. I’ve thought about doing a lecture where I have the powerpoint up on the screen, and I’m also taking notes as I go along on the adjacent board. Has anyone tried this? Or have you found other effective ways to teach note-taking skills?

What other things should I be doing or trying to find that happy medium in lecture?

I want to write more and think more about teaching, and maybe the newly revived Teaching Carnival will be the impetus to do so. Although it looks like I may have just missed the deadline for the February 23rd edition being hosted at Planned Obsolence.


  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 23, 2009

    So back to the pacing dilemma…how do I strike the right balance between keeping class moving so as not to bore the heck out of the good students, while going slow enough that I don’t overwhelm the slow-note-takers or can’t-write-while-listening people?

    The good students are the ones to focus on, as they have a chance of actually mastering the material. You are making a horrible mistake by allowing less-competent students to derail the class by indulging their requests for you to return to slides you have already covered. These less-competent students are probably never going to master the material anyway. Teach to the top 25% of your class, and the rest will just have to figure out a way to get what they can out of the course.

  2. #2 AM
    February 23, 2009

    I have had really good luck with posting, before class, Powerpoints with holes in them. I usually eliminate perhaps six key words from each slide. The students can print them out and then fill in the holes.

    Pluses include that research has supported that students learn as much from filling in the holes as from taking complete notes, and that students who are grumpy about not writing quickly enough can deal with the problem by printing out the slides. Of course, many choose not to, but then you can point out to them printing out the slides would fix the problem, and keep going the faster speed that you like without guilt 🙂

  3. #3 george.w
    February 23, 2009

    My Powerpoint slides are usually photographs with no words. I show ’em a clear picture of whatever it is, and talk about it with that picture on screen. I hand out one sheet of paper with brief explanations and resource links, and am happiest if there isn’t a whole lot of writing.

    Bullet points are the evil, not Powerpoint.

  4. #4 WhySharksMatter
    February 23, 2009

    I’m a fan of posting modified versions of the slides in advance- slides that have important figures and outlines, but not all of the information. That way, it won’t take students forever to copy things down, but they won’t be bored by you reading exactly what’s on their slides.

    Also, in terms of the balance between the keeping the good students from getting bored and keeping the less good students from falling behind… in a large lecture class, your best bet is to teach to the largest group possible. The students who have trouble can talk to you or their TA to get caught up, and the good students can talk to you later to get more information on the lecture if they want. Our job isn’t to entertain, it’s to teach.

  5. #5 Kim
    February 24, 2009

    I use a combination of Powerpoint and chalk when I use Powerpoint at all. I don’t use it to teach note-taking skills – I think there are a lot of different effective ways to deal with material in lectures (including not taking notes at all, and using the textbook instead). But I do use the combination of chalk + Powerpoint to slow myself down, and make use of interaction with the students. (I use chalk especially to draw pictures step-by-step, and label them as I go. Or to make lists.)

    I also use maybe five to ten Powerpoint slides during a 50-minute class. (So it’s not really a Powerpoint lecture – it’s a chalk lecture with a few images on Powerpoint. It’s got a really different feel and pace from a professional talk.)

    But honestly, at a school with any research expectation at all, I wouldn’t try to figure out how to effectively teach a class larger than 50 students. It’s really hard to do (and I solved the problem by moving to a school that has maybe one classroom that’s big enough for a 100-student class), it takes a lot of time, and there aren’t many ways to show that you’re doing a good job.

  6. #6 Geoff
    February 24, 2009

    (caveat – not a prof yet, but I am a former high school science teacher. My TAing experience convinced me that teaching intro undergrads is much like teaching high schoolers)

    Comrade PhysioProf’s response represents, well, a first step. Facing the fact that you are a human being and do need to eat and sleep, starting out with “Teach to the top 25%” can be an OK compromise position – your first semester teaching. (and, frankly, even that places you heads and shoulders above those faculty who couldn’t care less if anyone gets anything out of the course. Who then cover up for this by just mapping the universally low student scores onto a bell curve…)

    But ideally, one looks to improve upon that from year to year. You are posting your material to Blackboard – that’s a good next step. It’s OK to move at the faster pace, asking students to refer to the Blackboard posting. There is no way to pace your class for everyone (though I suppose you could have a little “thinking ahead” question at the bottom of each slide). Or, with a little prep time, make a “notes scaffold.” Blackboard host a copy of the notes, before class, with blanks, with key points removed. In a concept map, say, remove the connections between concepts. That can actually make for good “think-pair-share” – predict what will go in the blank.

    Teaching the students to take notes is a good idea, if you can fit it in. Face it – many of these kiddoes never learned in high school how to take in information and quickly filter it to it’s main points. That’s a difficult task for an expert in a field, nevermind a neophyte! (which, incidentally, is a big part of the point of having an instructor… get the information “predigested,” organized into a sequence that builds logically)

    Plus there’s the issue of having the skill or time to then reprocess notes afterwords!

    You can use the “think-pair-share” format for teaching note taking, actually… go through some chunk of information, and then have them summarize to each other not only the key points, but also how they identified those key points (“It was in bold print” is an acceptable response, though there are many better ones). Show a few examples of note taking, by all means (and again, be prepared for the more advanced students to roll their eyes. There will always be a distribution of abilities… but this sort of “meta teaching” gives the lower 75% the chance to get up to speed)

    When I was teaching, I would start out the year giving students rather complete handouts, with a few “fill-in-the-blanks.” As we went through the year, the number of blanks would increase. At the beginning of the year, I would give a brief summary of everything we covered at the end of class. As the year progressed, I would slowly shift the summary burden to the students (first, give them a little time to write their own, then have them share. We’d make 5 or 10 or however many bullet points were necessary). Eventually, I weaned them off of printed notes scaffold, but still kept the summary discussion. Sometimes I would replace it with “write your bullet points / three line summary” on a sheet of paper, which I would collect, as a sort of quick anonymous poll (amounted to 15 minutes of reading), sorting into “spot on,” “got the big picture,” and “clueless.”

    Pre-reading assignments are another idea, particularly if you can afford the time to start the semester off giving some sort of “fill-in-the-blanks” structure to help them learn how to preread. Eventually wean them off of the fill in the blanks to “give me the 10 bullet points” to, hopefully, they’ve just gotten in the habit of prereading (hah, who am I kidding…) (again, my point being that they’ve never been taught these things… we have a system that’s based on teaching the kids who happen to figure out the meta stuff on their own. But the meta… the “how” of learning, can be taught!)

    All of these things take time to develop and implement. That’s why it’s best not to try them all at once – you’ll burn out! Pick one, spend a semester getting it down, making it a habit, and getting the tools, etc. made. Then pick another, and another. Then, when you’re both happy with how things are going and meeting your job requirements, you can take it easy and just make use of what you’ve developed. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen on teaching (unfortunately, I don’t remember where I saw this) is to try to get a guarantee that you can teach the same course several times, so that you can see the payoff to initial investment.

    Whoa, I just spent way too long on that. Back to work! I hope there’s some nugget of usefulness in there.

  7. #7 Alex
    February 24, 2009

    You are making a horrible mistake by allowing less-competent students to derail the class by indulging their requests for you to return to slides you have already covered. These less-competent students are probably never going to master the material anyway. Teach to the top 25% of your class, and the rest will just have to figure out a way to get what they can out of the course.

    I don’t know the extent to which teaching evaluations matter at ScienceWoman’s school, but if they do matter then the last thing an untenured person wants to do is piss off 75% of the class.

    FWIW, I actually agree with you on the principle here, Comrade PhysioProf. But sticking to principle is not always a great way to survive.

  8. #8 dr. lisa
    February 24, 2009

    I have been running into the same difficulties. I post Powerpoint slides of the lectures in advance and tell the students to treat them as an outline of lecture and to take notes ON them. However, many students choose not to print out the notes. I never used to post my notes until students requested them, and I only acquiesced because their note-taking skills were so poor to begin with. You have my sympathy!

  9. #9 Jenn, PhD
    February 24, 2009

    I haven’t had a chance to read through the other comments, so forgive me if this is repetitive… as an undergrad, nearly all classes with powerpoint slides provided copies of the slides in advance (then, as a printout with 3 slides per page with note taking space beside the slides, now, I would just put them online and let the students choose if they print them or not). I always found this format super helpful (even though most of the slides still came as figures from the course textbook….)
    I like the idea about doing a lecture where you take notes together with the students. Note taking is a skill that needs to be learned over time, it could be that many of the intro class students haven’t figured it out yet, but slowing down your class to appease the write-down-every-word-on-the-slide crowd is not the way to help them get it…

  10. #10 dreikin
    February 24, 2009

    I’m one of the slow note-takers, but I’d say go at the faster (note that wasn’t ‘fastest‘) pace. It keeps the faster students on track, and forces the slower ones to figure out better ways to take notes. If you feel like you’re forcing them to flounder, and you do the typical don’t-cover-much-but-the-syllabus first day class, add a short tutorial on note-taking to that class. I learned/figured out better note-taking skills/methods for myself by not being able to keep up with the older forms*

    PodCasts would be cool, and unless there’s a reason all the students need to be in class, it could help to lessen the class size by allowing overworked students (who may be trying to fit classes in between trying to support themselves) and those who just need to pass and don’t care otherwise to skip without much penalty. This would allow you to focus on those who care/are interested enough to come anyway – and the ones who care but are overworked will prolly be able to benefit from e-mail, if that’s not sufficient. But be sure to mention which slide you’re on, and if it has any special effects/embedded movies/multiple parts, where on the slide you are. Come to think of it, it would also be of great assistance to those who miss class from illness.

    On the other hand, blackboard, in the one implementation I’ve seen of it (UCF), is a pain in the arse and horribly slow, though not as bad as it could be. I know there are some very good free/open source systems available, and it might be worth looking into them, if you want to complain to the techies..

    *and some exploration with tech – basketnotes combined with the powerpoints on a laptop works very well in some classes, and graph paper on a clipboard instead of printed slides or lined paper in a notebook/binder works quite well. Which is used depends on the class, of course

  11. #11 Academic
    February 24, 2009

    Since you’re working on powerpoint, I would do everything I could to get the notes to the students before hand. Even encouraging students to print off a 3 slides per page notes handout can be a good first step. However, it’s also good to have blanks on these slides so that students with questions don’t just read ahead and disengage.

  12. #12 Psych chick
    February 24, 2009

    One easy trick can resolve this: put less information on the slides.

    Students seem to want to copy everything they see on the board. If you put less on the board, there is less for them to copy.

    I’m fascinated with how many people say you should keep posting the powerpoints online. I suppose this depends a lot on your student population, but at my aspiring R1, attendance is a problem in psychology classes, and it’s even more of a problem when notes are posted online. A number of us have found a medium correlation between attendance and grades, and when my colleagues have posted notes online, the correlation continues and there are just more lower grades.

    We have many transfer students, and so I think quite a few have no idea how to study. With notes posted online, they don’t think they need to hear my examples or read the textbook. That may work in some psych classes, but it doesn’t work in mine.

    For those who upload partial notes, how long does it take for you to make those notes for each class? How do you decide what to eliminate?

  13. #13 rb
    February 24, 2009

    if students can’t “copy” it down, you have too much text on your slides, which encourages them to copy…rather than take notes. so, either provide ppt to them before hand or be sure to use less text. If you have a black (or white) board in the room use it as you project the slide. that will help you with pacing.

  14. #14 Natalie
    February 24, 2009

    I agree with Psych chick – put less information on each slide. Many students think that if its on the board, they must write it down. Therefore, put only key points on the board.

    Personally, instead of making slides available to my students, I just give them all the vocabulary words (since that’s a big chunk of writing) to help them keep up but still give them lots of incentive to come to class.

  15. #15 Rachel
    February 24, 2009

    I couldn’t disagree more with those who say you have to teach to the faster crowd. This is one of the biggest problems with the way that science is taught. You cannot teach science the same way you teach history – as a bunch of stuff to memorize. The lecture method focuses on memorization and absolutely stinks. It caters only to that top 10 or smaller percent of students who can keep up and who probably know just about everything we are saying in our introductory classes anyway. By the end of the college experience, less than 1% of the students sitting in those introductory classes have gone on to get advanced degrees in our field. What does this mean for/about our teaching? What does this do for diversity within our fields? No wonder so many women drop out of academic ranks. Classically we teach the way that we were taught and it’s hard to break that cycle but there are far more interesting and effective ways of teaching than lecturing. If the students in the class are so caught up with writing down the notes, then take the notes away. The focus isn’t where you want it – it isn’t on understanding the basic science concepts and principles that you want them to learn. Lecture method is comfortable for those students who are in the top 10% of our classes -they’ve mastered the art of paying attention to just the right information and they probably have better study skills outside the classroom than the rest of the students in the class. Why should we leave behind the rest of the students? I don’t know about your field, but in mine, all of the concepts build on each other and you need to remember and understand all of the past information in order to apply it to the concepts that are to come later in the class. Finding ways to help students understand the connections between the concepts and information that we want them to know and internalize is when real learning occurs.

    Try this, find a data set or model that exemplifies the concept that you want students to understand. Generate a list of guiding questions for students that relate to the data set or model, such as “what trends do you see in this data set?” “Can you come up with a rule for ______ phenomena?” Include in the questions examples from related data or models and ask students to apply their rules or trends to these situations. And provide opportunities to practice the new found knowledge. Then, post your set of questions on blackboard, instructing the students to bring the questions with them to class. During class, display the data set or model on your PowerPoint slide. Give a little introduction to what you are going to do as a class and any set-up necessary for the slide. Ask students to work in groups of 2 or 3 to answer the questions that they printed off from Blackboard. Allow only a few minutes for the students to do this activity. Then have a summary discussion where you solicit answers to key questions about the concepts from your students. Your role is to assist students in answering the questions that they are struggling with. At the end, you know that everyone was paying attention, you have feedback on how well they understand the concept, and the information came from them – not from you. And, students in classrooms (even the very large lectures) will come to class prepared and having read the textbook because they know they will have to be involved in the learning process sooner than the night before the exam. I’ve also found that giving homework assignments that relate to material that has not yet been covered in class helps students to come to class more prepared. I set up forums for students to ask each other questions about homework, especially since their schedules don’t often mesh with my office hours and teaching schedule.

    You will probably get more and many wonderful ideas on how to improve the lecture experience for your students at your workshop. I think that it is wonderful that you are going because that tells me you are concerned about helping students to learn. Try not to let either group frustrate you for now.

  16. #16 Danimal
    February 24, 2009

    Passout hardcopies of your slides before class. Then there is no need for all the note taking. If not practical, Email your presentation before class, and let the students make a hard copy.

  17. #17 John Hawks
    February 24, 2009

    I think you need to ask whether the students’ expectations are actually rational. I’ll give it the worst possible spin:

    Students believe that the word-for-word text on your slides is material for exam questions. Their experiences in other courses probably confirm this assumption.

    You are reinforcing this assumption by making sure the slides are available on Blackboard. You have made your expectations clear, that students should download the material even if they already take excellent notes because (you say) it will save them writing. How can students interpret this? A natural conclusion is that the word-for-word text will be fair game for exam questions.

    Not all students have the ready resources to print out many pages of lecture slides, at as much as 10 cents per page. They are already paying beaucoup for the textbook. And because of the text on your lecture slides, they are convinced that their textbooks will do them little good on the exam.

  18. #18 Tinkering Theorist
    February 24, 2009

    Are you joking CPP? It’s hard to tell sometimes. If you had said 50%, I could see your point, though I still disagree. The best prepared/motivated 25% of the class can do extra reading or think more in depth about the concepts and how they apply to what they know already if they have a bit of extra time. Or they can just appreciate that this class is not as hard for them so they can focus on other classes this semester.

    Anyway, back to the actual question, if the notes are on blackboard I think it’s fair to move along. Is it free for you to ask an administrative assistant to print stuff for you before every class? If it is, you could print the slides with the blank notes section underneath, so that the students would already have the exact words copied but would only have to write notes about what you said about it or other insights. Some people may not learn as well without writing it themselves, but they can still go back to the notes and write out anything they want later. In future classes if you have time, you can do the notes slides but blank out a few key words in the printed version, such that people have to fill in the specific parts that are most important. Those types of notes worked well for me in undergrad.

  19. #19 squawky
    February 24, 2009

    Wow – I’m bookmarking this post for future reference, as there are a lot of thought-provoking comments…

    My experience with a few of these:

    I use PowerPoint, with a copy of my slides (6 per page) posted online 24 hours before class. I’ve tried (based on past student comments that all I do is read my boring slides) to remove as much text as possible and focus more on figures and images. Still, I see a lot of printed slides with no notes on them floating around the classroom – but at least I can go at whatever speed the interested students would prefer.

    I have to wonder if the students “in the back” who aren’t copying fast enough aren’t really paying attention – they start taking notes when they realize you’ve switched slides, not when you actually switch them. Reminds me of a class I TA’ed in grad school…. the prof. spoke for almost 20 minutes before writing something on the board. Only when he picked up the chalk did most of the students start writing – the opening of all those notebooks was audible.

    Having slides online is helpful, but it does present the problem of students assuming that all the important information is on those slides. Unfortunately, they tend to find this out only after the first exam – no matter how many times I say something is important or write it on the board. (I post study guides for exams as well – but only because I practically had a riot in one of the first classes I taught when I told them I wouldn’t be dedicating a class before each exam for review. I still get complaints about my study guides because I put everything I might ask about on them – not a “10 of these 20 questions will appear on the exam” short list, as apparently other profs at my university do.)

    I try to use the blackboard/whiteboard to supplement my slides, but it can be hard in some classrooms (between the screen, the multimedia station, and the various pieces of furniture in the room… I have maybe 15% of the board to work with).

    I tried the “remove a few important words” technique in one class, and I was very frustrated with it – if I did not read the slide [i]word for word[/i], inserting the missing answer, then the students would stop me and ask what word they were supposed to fill in.

    I’m trying to throw in more “hands-on” activities in class, letting them work with collecting their own data (or making their own pictures, etc.) – but once the class gets too large, these are hard to do. With too many small groups, I can’t help all of them fast enough (so many either get lost or spend the time doing something else), with large groups the interested students do the bulk of the work and the rest are again lost (they may get the answers from someone else, but they aren’t learning from it). If I give them too little time to do the work, I lose the students who are having difficulties (thus they are more tempted to copy the next time), and if I give them too much time, the faster students end up bored or distracted (a break is fine, but once half the classroom is socializing, it makes it even harder for the students having problems). There’s a balance there that I have not been able to find yet.

    I’m trying to incorporate more of an interactive style – showing pictures and asking questions before presenting a lot of text – and mixing in repeated concepts so I can bring back important topics (repetition is key). I can’t engage every student in every class period, realistically, but I can try to get as many as I can.

  20. #20 John Hawks
    February 24, 2009

    I think you need to ask whether the students’ expectations are actually rational. I’ll give it the worst possible spin:

    Students believe that the word-for-word text on your slides is material for exam questions. Their experiences in other courses probably confirm this assumption.

    You are reinforcing this assumption by making sure the slides are available on Blackboard. You have made your expectations clear, that students should download the material even if they already take excellent notes because (you say) it will save them writing. How can students interpret this? A natural conclusion is that the word-for-word text will be fair game for exam questions.

    Not all students have the ready resources to print out many pages of lecture slides, at as much as 10 cents per page. They are already paying beaucoup for the textbook. And because of the text on your lecture slides, they are convinced that their textbooks will do them little good on the exam.

  21. #21 Disgruntled Julie
    February 24, 2009

    Allow your students to access the slides BEFORE class, not just after. This was the biggest determiner in whether or not I was more focused on trying to write down what was on the slide and blocking out the lecture, or whether I could focus on what was actually being said without being stressed over whether I was getting it all written down. I would always have that token professor who would say that (s)he would put slides up and then never would, so if I didn’t have a copy of the slides in my hand regardless of the class, I never trusted that the professor would follow through and post the lecture, and felt the need to get ALL the information down. If I had the slides with me, I could actually focus on understanding the material.

    Walking into class, with a printed out copy of the slides, meant that I could listen to the professor, and instead take notes on any additional information that was being said, rather than exactly what was being regurgitated directly off the slide. And for those students who feel that they no longer need to pay attention since they have the slide? Well, that’s their loss — to be honest, they probably weren’t paying all that much attention to begin with, if they trusted that the slides would be posted after the lecture anyway.

  22. #22 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 24, 2009

    Are you joking CPP?

    Absolutely not. Aiming classroom pedagogy at the top 25% of students is the correct thing to do. I’d much rather have some less-competent students have more difficulty than have some more-competent students not be given the opportunity to learn as much as possible. If they are sufficiently motivated, the less-competent students can get help from the TAs.

    And in relation to some of the other points being raised:

    (1) For a one-hour lecture I generally have about ten slides. None of the slides have text on them.

    (2) My lectures are not at all a recitation of facts for memorization. Rather, they are designed to provide the students with appropriate conceptual frameworks for understanding the facts that they should be gleaning from their textbook.

  23. #23 Jeff
    February 24, 2009

    There is not much point in aiming solely for the top of the class. The top of the class doesn’t actually need you even. They can read the book or your posted notes and learn everything they need to learn. It’s the ones in the middle and the lower end that are unable to get what they need on their own.

  24. #24 Rachel
    February 24, 2009

    Just coming back with a link for you and others. Descriptions of many teaching methods

    still don’t agree with CPP, which is unusual for me. I strongly feel that this is a big reason that so few women end up majoring in science. A professor standing up and talking about 10 slides in a 50 minute period does nothing to engage the students in the intellectual process even if you ask the well formulated question. This is especially when you are planning from the beginning to only include the top 25% of the students in your class.

  25. #25 Alex
    February 24, 2009

    Aiming classroom pedagogy at the top 25% of students is the correct thing to do.

    I wish I was in a department where you sat on the tenure committee.

    I don’t use many slides, mostly problem-solving on the board and demos, but anybody who thinks that lecturing is just about talking about stuff is missing the point. I’m always throwing questions to the room, asking them to think stuff through, asking for suggestions on how to approach a problem, and polling them on what might happen. I’ve formalized some of it with clicker questions, but even before I decided to join Campus Crusade for Clickers I was trying to engage them in lecture. Strangely, my honors class is less engaged than my regular class.

  26. #26 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 24, 2009

    A professor standing up and talking about 10 slides in a 50 minute period does nothing to engage the students in the intellectual process even if you ask the well formulated question.

    Where on earth do you get the idea that I am proposing that faculty should “stand up and talk about slides”?

    I’ve formalized some of it with clicker questions, but even before I decided to join Campus Crusade for Clickers I was trying to engage them in lecture.

    What the fuck are “clicker questions”??

  27. #27 KS
    February 24, 2009

    (Not speaking as a prof, but as a grad student.) I took a class where it was team taught (over 100 students). One prof used power point (provided ahead of time), the other used overheads that he filled in the blanks during lecture. I actually learned more from the prof that didn’t use power point. He explained more, talked slower, looked at the class more for input. As a result, I took better notes and learned more. Writing stuff on the board/overhead keeps you at the same pace as your students. Providing handouts of complicated schemes and pathways can help keep things moving. But, there is a tendency of students to stare blankly or go on auto-pilot when provided pages of power point slides. If it is all there in the slides, why pay attention in class?

  28. #28 Kate
    February 24, 2009

    Not surprisingly, you are describing what I went through last semester, and the comments on this thread are similar to comments I received when I wrote about this last semester as well.

    After a semester of teaching >500 gen ed students in a science course, I have to say that one of the more important things I learned was that I had to grow a thick skin. The faster students and slower students will both be dissatisfied with pacing. Some students will email and email about when the slides are posted. Some students wish they were posted in ppt, some in pdf. And some students don’t like your new haircut.

    It sounds like a hopeless situation from what I’ve written above, but it’s not. I think the key is to figure out what is pedagogically sound technique, provide clear rationale to the students (and provide it again and again as needed), and be confident in however you choose to run your class. It’s about context: I can’t do in that giant gen ed what I’m doing in my 200-level 75 student class, or my 400-level 12 student class. And student evals are ALWAYS lower in larger classes unless you’re handing out crack cocaine and A pluses. The key is to figure out your priorities: what do you really want your students to know at the end of the class/unit/semester? Then given the format how do you best deliver that info and best create interactions between students and between students and content?

  29. #29 JaneDoh
    February 24, 2009

    This discussion has been really interesting and helpful. This is my first year on the TT, and I taught a 200 level class in physical science designed mostly for life sciences type-majors who need it as a prereq (enrollment is ~150-200). 90% of my students are only in the class because they have to be. Their biggest problem is that SUBJECT requires some decent math skills in order to understand it at this non-intro level. Most of my students have REALLY poor math skills, even though integral and differential calculus are prereqs for this class. Furthermore, most of the life sciences classes at this level can still be motored through with rote memorization, so that is what most of my students try to do.

    I use Powerpoint with a tablet, so I can write on the slides. The slides contain figures, data, and/or key equations, and I write important points directly on the slides. In lectures, I often go through specific examples, do some derivations of key concepts, and show them small movie clips to illustrate the concepts where appropriate. I ask questions, let them try to figure out the answers, and then we step through together. This is about all I have time for right now, as I am trying to get established at an R1-type school. My teaching evaluations will be part of my tenure decision, though, and I consider it an important part of my job. I really want to improve.

    Compared to when I was an undergrad (no notes given out at all), my students have lots of opportunities to help them keep the pace–I put up all my Powerpoint slides, and classes are recorded in sync with the Powerpoints so students can go back for what they missed. I give them weekly online assessments worth a small % of their grade to “help” them keep up in the textbook. I find all these extra props have eroded their study skills, but since this is what is expected for a class of this level and size at my university, I feel like I have no choice but to provide it, or get awful evaluations.

    I find my biggest issue in teaching the next level above intro class is that my students don’t retain anything from their prior classes, which kills the pace as well. This is why their math skills are so poor, I think, since they are clearly bright enough to master the material. Worse, I am penalized for expecting them to know the material in the listed prereq classes. My students WANT to be spoonfed everything. They dislike everything but the lectures on the basics, the worked examples, and the video clips. They HATE the exercises and the derivations. The ask for more lecture (and worked problems) and less time on everything else. It makes me depressed and less motivated to work on incorporating non-lecture based teaching into my class. Anyone else in the same boat?

  30. #30 Alex
    February 24, 2009


    Clicker questions are multiple choice questions that you pose to the room, and they answer them on remote controls. (The remotes are called “clickers” because you “click” a button.) You get to see statistics on how many people gave each answer, so you know what’s going on in the room. Now, multiple choice has significant limitations in science, but if the questions and answers are chosen carefully (especially the wrong answers!) you can identify whether you have a lot of students suffering from various misconceptions.

    I think it’s a nice thing, but there is a bit of evangelism around it in the physics community.

  31. #31 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 24, 2009

    Jesus fucking christ on a cracker! Sounds like a motherfucking game show!

    BTW, we are also continuing this discussion over at my place:

  32. #32 Alex
    February 24, 2009

    Eh, it does have a game show aspect to it. But if you are teaching a large section, it’s really a good way to find out how many people are getting it and what you need to address.

  33. #33 Allison
    February 24, 2009

    My personal advice is to ditch PowerPoint. My favorite classes have always been done with chalk- or white-boards. The fundamental problem I have with PP is that it allows the professor to go through the material too quickly. Using a chalkboard forces you to have better pacing, since then you’ll know how long it should take to write down the main points. I really hate PP for examples, since it allows you to zip through each step in the time it takes the student to draw the initial diagram/ equation/ picture. And the students are missing your explanation, because they’re frantically trying to set up the problem.

    It’s better if the student has a hard copy of the slides, but I always felt wasteful only getting even 6 slides/ page (plus, as others mentioned, it can get expensive). I also missed the tactile writing down on the main points, and it allowed my mind to wander more since the main points were already there.

  34. #34 perceval
    February 24, 2009

    Not much to add, but I would
    – severely declutter your slides (use graphs / pictures / tables)
    – give them to your students 24 hours before the lecture in note taking format
    – teach them how to take notes using mind maps

  35. #35 Mitch P.
    February 24, 2009

    When I recently went back to grad school I dreaded one professor’s lectures specifically because he plow through slides almost as fast as he could read them. It wasn’t that I didn’t have time to write the information down (I never take notes… it’s a quirk) but because it didn’t give me enough time to digest the information and form intelligent questions about it.

    One of the real hazards of powerpoint as a teaching tool is that it greatly increases the speed with which you can cover the material, while not improving the rate at which the information can be absorbed. Most students could go back and review the slides online, but it’s very likely that they won’t be able to put them in a larger context.

    One thing that I learned from a professor who specialized in physics education was that you should never talk for more than 10 minutes without stopping and interacting with the students. 10 minutes of talking represents about as much theory as they could hope to hold in their heads, and then you need to allow them to connect that concept to reality and put it into context. You do that by asking them a question, or otherwise challenging them to think about an application of the concept your just introduced. But how do you get a room full of students to do it, rather than taking that break as a chance to text their friends?

    Holding their attention during this phase is easy in small groups like a lab setting, and almost impossible in a large lecture class. That professor always liked to lecture in a lab style room rather than a lecture hall, since it allowed him to break the class into small groups arranged at tables, and then have that small group do something together. He was criticized for not getting through as much material, but the material he did cover, but he students showed a much higher retention rate and could more flexibly apply the information later.

  36. #36 Jane
    February 24, 2009

    This is a very interesting discussion. I used PPT my first year of teaching, then ditched it. The students hated it and I hated it, too—I felt detached, the students felt like we were flying through the material, no one was happy. I do use some slides from time to time, if I have a complicated diagram or an illustration, but I also use web sources like applets to illustrate concepts. For the rest of it, I write on the board as I lecture. I’ve found the pace is just about right this way.

    Another thing that I have just started doing more regularly is having the students work out more examples on their own, and then having students present their answers to the class, with the rest of the class chiming in with encouragement/suggestions/corrections. I started doing this in earnest last fall when I was really sick (and thus didn’t have the energy to get through an entire class), and it worked wonderfully. It works with both conceptual-type problems (calculate the efficiency of this algorithm given this dataset) and code (divide the class into groups or zones, with each group or zone tasked with implementing a different part of the algorithm o’ the day). The zone thing can work with very large classes, where it’s too much of a pain to break everyone up into small groups.

    Finally, when I started teaching, the advice I was given was to aim to the upper half of the class. I can’t say I always get this perfect (my instinct, like Rachel’s, is to make sure everyone’s on board), but in general, I’ve found this advice to be mostly spot-on.

    Good luck!

  37. #37 sarcozona
    February 25, 2009

    I’m an undergrad, and I agree with CPP. Most of my classes are a complete waste of time because the professors seem to be trying to make it so that anyone who puts in a decent amount of work (or in some cases – ANY work) can at least pass.

    This semester my biggest time waster is biochemistry. The only reason I go to class is because 10% of our grade is attendance. I certainly don’t pay attention, except to the comics the professor uses for the first slide. I never take notes and skimmed the chapter summaries before the last exam. It was more than enough preparation.

    Jeff says there isn’t a point at teaching for the top of the class because they don’t need you. That’s silly. Most of the other students aren’t worth paying attention to. I’m really not sure how students end up in upper division classes and still ask questions like “What’s a template?” when the prof refers to DNA replication. They may end up passing and getting their science degree, but they will never do anything useful with it. But the top of your class could get a lot out of your course if you actually geared it to the students who cared.

    Many commenters said that they don’t post powerpoints because then students don’t go to class. But if your class is easy enough that I can just read thru your powerpoints and make an A on the test, why should I waste my time by sitting thru your lecture? If you’d give us a decent challenge you wouldn’t have to force us to attend class with attendance points and pop quizzes.

  38. #38 Alex
    February 25, 2009

    But if your class is easy enough that I can just read thru your powerpoints and make an A on the test, why should I waste my time by sitting thru your lecture?

    See, here’s the dilemma facing the person who lives or dies by teaching evaluations:

    If everything you need is on the powerpoints, the critique is “Professor so-and-so just reads from the powerpoints. Lecture is pointless.” On the other hand, if there’s more to the class than powerpoints, if there are discussion topics, or if the powerpoints are more like signposts to guide the lecture rather than detailed data, then the complaint is “Professor so-and-so doesn’t make everything available in handouts.”

    All of your points are valid, but for every point you make there is an equal and opposite point that somebody else will make, and the untenured and sleep-deprived can only do so much to satisfy everybody.

  39. #39 Academic
    February 25, 2009

    Just because you’re trying to help everyone succeed does not necessarily need to equate to the lowest common denominator. Classes need to be places where students and faculty can interact. Sometimes crazy questions get asked, but it’s part of the learning process. Learning does not happen until a person can say “I don’t understand _______.” Too many of my upper division classes were spent watching for a professor to make a sign error while working problems in front of us. Yes he was flying (and I thought about that for a minute because the singular woman professor I had in engineering didn’t have a problem-driven course) and didn’t care who was in the room or what we were doing…you could say he was teaching to the top 25% of the class, but I would say he was teaching no one.

  40. #40 Gonzo
    February 26, 2009

    I’ve had a lot of success with a Tablet PC. You get the best of both worlds – the convenience of incorporating charts/pictures/equations as needed but writing out most of the lecture material. You can even write all over a picture, so I can annotate spectra or point out specifics on a chart. Then the whole thing goes up on the website. I manage my notes using OneNote so it’s super easy to tweak notes the second time through a course. I recommend it for anyone who teaches chemistry (my discipline, it makes drawing structures easier) but other sciences could probably find it useful too.

  41. #41 Kim
    February 27, 2009

    Have you messed with concept maps? Modeling use of them might be helpful for students who have trouble figuring out how to take notes. I haven’t figured out how to use them effectively in my intro classes yet (despite using a textbook written by Steve Reynolds, who introduced the idea to me), but I’m working on it. I think I’m working towards putting up a powerpoint image (or an animation from the web, because I have trouble getting embedded stuff to work in powerpoint), and then drawing an ugly cartoon of it on the chalkboard, and then discussing and labeling it as I go. I think it worked reasonably well for groundwater, and for meandering streams.

    It needs a room with the right arrangement of audio-visual stuff. The room I’m using now works reasonably well – the computer projection is off to one side of the chalkboard.

    I wish I had access to a tablet PC. Those would be perfect for modeling how to take notes on a diagram.

  42. #42 quasarpulse
    February 27, 2009

    From a student: Powerpoint ruins even the best instructors’ lectures. In fact, any technology (tablets, document cameras, etc) ruins lectures. The only situation in which using technology in a lecture actually helps students learn is when you are teaching about the technology in question (e.g. explaining how to use math software, demonstrating compiling code, etc).

    Hands down, the absolute best way to deliver a lecture is “live,” out of your head and onto a white/chalkboard. Write down the important points; discuss the overarching concepts without writing (they can add the spoken stuff if they feel they need to, but the core of their notes should be precisely what you write on the board). You can’t go too fast this way – you’re limited by your own writing speed. And the potential for interactivity is built in; you’ll make occasional mistakes (encourage the class to correct you politely!), and you can ask the class for ideas on how to solve a problem or approach a particular topic.

    Now, this can occasionally be a problem in classes where students in the back need binoculars to see what you’re writing on the board. In this situation it’s reasonable to use something like a tablet or document camera so they can see what you’re writing (this isn’t ideal, though, as simply standing/sitting in one place talking and writing creates a sort of monotonous feel). But it’s important that it be written as you say it, as a model for their notes, and that you deliver from memory/minimalist notes so the students can see your thought process and how you extract important information.

    The most important thing learned in lecture is not the actual information – students can get that from reading the book/notes. Rather, it’s the way you think about it – the connections in your head. As an expert in your field, you’ve made a lot of connections that your students haven’t yet. That’s why you’re valuable to them. Show them how you think.

  43. #43 llewelly
    March 5, 2009

    So back to the pacing dilemma…how do I strike the right balance between keeping class moving so as not to bore the heck out of the good students, while going slow enough that I don’t overwhelm the slow-note-takers or can’t-write-while-listening people?

    You can’t. You must leave some people out. You can teach to the top, you can teach to the bottom, or you can teach to the middle, but you can’t teach to everyone. If you pick the top, you’ll produce the best students. If you pick the middle, you’ll produce the most. If you pick the bottom, you’ll produce the worst. If you pick the top, the people who teach classes yours is a prerequisite for will love you. If you pick the middle, you’ll get the most favorable student evaluations. If you pick the bottom, you’ll get negative student evaluations from the very students who are most likely to take more classes from the dept, most likely to get good grades, and most likely to influence other students and teachers.

  44. #44 Melinda
    May 26, 2011

    I am so happy to have come upon your comments. I am startng an actio research project on at topic of dilemma with pacing in my high school classes and wonder if anyone could recommend any good research sources

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