Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Benefits of active participation in pedagogical reform

I'm now wrapping up my fifth year as an assistant professor at California State University, Fresno. For seven of those ten semesters (January 2014–present), I've been part of the DISCOVERe initiative at Fresno State. Our campus just today sent out a call for applications to be part of its fifth cohort of DISCOVERe Faculty Fellows, and here I'll reflect on the costs and benefits of my participation in this program. Although this is most directly applicable to Fresno State faculty, the general thrust is relevant to any teacher who is considering whether to invest time augmenting their courses with mobile technology.

The DISCOVERe Program

Our President, Joseph Castro, had the vision to create classes in which tablet technology was available to the instructor and to every student. The initial cohort of faculty fellows was nominated by College Deans. We were given a tablet and then received professional development on its pedagogical use in the classroom - although as the initial faculty cohort, we were ground-breakers and the first wave of faculty developing best practices for the use of mobile technology in the college classroom. These practices are mainly what I have been writing posts about on this blog.

For courses we designated as DISCOVERe courses, each student received funds to pay for the cost of the required tablet computer. Subsequently, those scholarships were discontinued, at which time Fresno State initiated a tablet loaner program, so that the technology cost would still be nonexistent for all students enrolled in DISCOVERe classes.

The main reason I accepted by Dean's invitation to join DISCOVERe was because I could imagine numerous ways I could improve student engagement when I was assured that every student in my class would have equal access to the internet and to a computer. Since then, main thrusts of my approach to augmenting courses with mobile technology have included:

  • creating authentic experiences for biology students (e.g. exercises that develop information literacy and quantitative reasoning skills using web-based data sources and tools)
  • eco-friendly (electronic instead of paper workflows, improving course management efficiency)
  • reducing the cost of instruction by creating my own course materials and also by using open-access resources instead of textbooks from for-profit publishers


From the faculty perspective, this program is unique because it:

  • is platform agnostic (we essentially take all comers: students can bring existing mobile devices or use school-provided ones)
  • is focused on pedagogy first: this isn't just technology for technology's sake. This is pedagogy driving appropriate use of technology in the classroom
  • allows faculty to decide how to use tablets in their classes. The faculty are the disciplinary experts, so there is no program-wide prescription of how tablets should be used in each DISCOVERe class
  • places emphasis on net cost-neutrality: we strive to offset the technology cost by supporting faculty in:
    • identifying open-access (free) educational materials
    • identifying free tablet apps to use in class, and developing their own educational resources to provide their students
  • Provides tremendous campus resources (including tech support and classroom audio/video services support) to facilitate use of mobile technology by all of the faculty and students involved in DISCOVERe courses
  • also emphasizes faculty alignment their course syllabus (particularly student learning outcomes) with tablet use, including with the SAMR model: to emphasize using tablets to Modify and to Redefine classroom activities to leverage mobile technology


  • Networking: I've made great cross-disciplinary connections with other faculty by being part of this campus-wide initiative
  • Leadership: as an ardent adopter of mobile technology, I've had a number of opportunities for becoming a leader in faculty professional development
    • Travel to present at conferences and to other universities interested in using mobile technologies in courses
    • Opportunities to serve on the DISCOVERe Taskforce and to be the DISCOVERe program Assessment Subcommittee Chair
    • Faculty Cohort Co-Chair in the California State University system's Course Redesign with Techonology program, which provided me with assigned time, professional development funds (including for purchasing technology, captioning videos, and paying for a teaching assistant for my technology-augmented course)
  • Because of my involvement and activities as a leader in the DISCOVERe program led me to receive Fresno State's Provost Award for Innovation in 2016
  • Subsequently, my application to be an Apple Distinguished Educator 2017 was accepted


The main drawback has been that my exposure to mobile technology pedagogy has led me to become more interested in improving my teaching skills and in performing pedagogical research, which has summarily led to my having less time for scholarship as a biologist. Fortunately, at Fresno State, both are valued; this may not be the case at other institutions.

Concluding Perspective

For me, the pros so greatly outweigh any cons that I would not even think twice about whether to join the DISCOVERe program. In general, the opportunity to join like-minded peers to build networks, to operate at the cutting edge of education (developing best practices), and hopefully to improve education for our students cannot be ignored. Beyond those benefits, even just the tangible benefits (improved classroom efficiency, development of resources to leverage in future semesters, professional development funding, professional development in pedagogy and technology, and assigned time) would have been enough to make me sign up again and again!

Now that I'm heading into my sixth year as an Assistant Professor (about to submit my promotion and tenure application), I'm convinced that the networking I've made with colleagues as well as Fresno State administration has undoubtedly strengthened my application, especially with regard to my ability not only to demonstrate my commitment and advances in teaching but also in service.

If you have any questions about getting involved in DISCOVERe at Fresno State (or just in integrated technology into classes), please feel free to contact me! E-mail me: jross (a) or contact me on Twitter: @rossbiology

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Decibel Analysis for Research in Teaching (DART)

Something exciting happened this morning - I learned about a hot-off-the-presses, easy-to-use, and free, web-based tool that addresses a long-standing deficit widely lamented among my STEM educator, assessment, and ed-tech colleagues.

The title, the first thing I read (h/t Mary-Pat Stein, @cellstein on Twitter, from CSU Fullerton), gave me that hopeful heartbeat-skip:

"Classroom sound can be used to classify teaching practices in college science courses."

Owens et al. PNAS (2017) Online advance []

Here's the summary of the abstract: using audio recordings from full classroom sessions, Owens et al. (a LOT of et al.; research from Kimberly Tanner's group at San Francisco State U.) reasoned that they could use an algorithm to classify what is happening in the classroom at each point in time.

The program is called DART: Decibel Analysis for Research in Teaching. You can find it here, register to use it for free, and be drag-and-dropping your audio or video files for analysis in three minutes or less! The web tool extracts the audio and analyses an hour's worth of audio in a couple of minutes (for me, this morning).


As Owens' manuscript suggests, this brings opportunity for institution-wide, automated analysis of teaching practices without having to have person-time in the classroom or watching (and coding) course videos. This is a game-changer. Read the manuscript for more potential benefits.

The reason I was so excited about DART this morning is because I pride myself on incorporating active learning in my courses at Fresno State. Plus (the BIG plus), I have years of lecture capture recordings that I could be analyzing RIGHT NOW! So, before getting ready for work this morning, I threw a few of my .mp4 file exports from ExplainEverything at DART.

Thus, a key benefit is those of us with stockpiles of audio can get straight to analysis. Today.

Further, with audio recording devices being dead cheap (ranging from dedicated digital audio recorders to cell phones, laptops, tablets…), everybody can (and should!) start analyzing their teaching style using this technique. Today. Except…


There is one really critical…I hesitate to say "shortcoming," perhapscaveat with DART (and Owens et al. acknowledge this). It only codes audio into three different types (and mainly two, at that): 1) when a single voice is speaking, and 2) when multiple voices are speaking at once. As always, the devil is in the details. How you interpret this information is up to you! The gist is that multiple voices probably indicates active learning (in one sense): "students talking to each other in groups," while a single voice is possibly "lecture." The third type is 3) nobody talking (e.g. students might be working on reflective writing), although the authors note that DART rarely codes audio in this manner, perhaps because this is rarely encountered in courses.

However, we all know that there is not a simple dichotomy between "lecture" and "active learning." Thus, just because your classroom is noisy does not mean you're using proven pedagogical practices to improve student learning! Not shocking, right?

What I found in my initial analyses of my own lectures did not actually surprise me. First, evidence suggests that faculty are not great at accurately self-reporting what they spend time doing in class (refer to the development of COPUS and RTOP for evidence and substantiation of the need for trained third-party observers to code classroom activities). I am no different. From my last week of upper-division genetics courses, DART suggested that 100% of class time was single-voice. Wait. I swear I had some active-learning taking place in those classes!

I'm concerned, and I'm not. Yes, I do probably over-exaggerate the amount of time I spend facilitate small-group work in class. However, this does not mean that I don't teach using active learning (as I understand the phrase). I do a lot of question-asking and -answering, and formative assessment using polling software (e.g. Socrative). To some, this is active learning, but it isn't physically (or vocally) active. Thus, DART doesn't give me any information about the times during class that help me distinguish when I'm "lecturing" (single voice: me) vs. when a student is asking a question (single voice: student, indicating engagement) vs. when I am answering that question.

I immediately realized, especially after looking over the DART reports for some of my classes where I know I incorporated small-group activities and discussion, that I have made my lecture capture workflow too efficient to be useful with DART. Whenever we have "audible active learning," like small-group discussions, I have routinely turned off the lecture capture recording. The reason is simple: then I don't have to spend time after class trimming out those non-useful parts of the video before uploading the video for my students to access.

So, it turns out I can't have my cake and eat it, too.

The future

How does DART immediately impact me, and what I do in the classroom? Today, I performed a little experiment, suggested on the DART website, re: how to obtain quality audio for analysis. As usual, I carried my iPad around the classroom with me during class, recording audio with screen capture. I also planted my phone on a podium at the front of the classroom, and recorded all fifty minutes of audio from that position.

I just finished analyzing both recordings. As I knew would happen, when I switched apps from Explain Everything (my app for presentation + lecture capture) into Google Sheets, which we used for our in-class activity today, Explain Everything stops recording. Thus, once again, tablet-based screen capture isn't the optimal approach for analysis of teaching using DART. However, the phone-recorded audio worked as promised. Below are the graphics from the DART report:

The first thirty minutes of class were spent mostly in lecture mode. I was doing most of the talking:

  • lecture
  • solving practice problems
  • answering students questions

See for yourself here: my lecture capture video from today.

And, about 32 minutes into the recording, the students were working on using Google Sheets to calculate chi-square values (multiple voices).

So, DART works! If I continue using dart, then I'll keep using my phone (or, more likely, another tablet computer) to record audio. In fact, the most likely solution will be that I'll set up a tablet to record live audio + video, so that my entire class is captured, regardless of what I'm doing on my instructor tablet.

To close, my advice is to use DART with a specific purpose, and with the caveats above, in mind. It has limited usefulness beyond discriminating a noisy classroom from one where a single voice dominates, and how those data should be interpreted requires more evidence, in my opinion. Although it is a tool that could be used for institutional-scale research, I will advocate its use simply for formative assessment for individual instructors. At least now we have a solid tool for analysis of lecture capture, addressing that concern I hinted at the top of this post: how to efficiently get a broad sense for instructor classroom activities.

It was certainly eye-opening to look at some of my own DART analyses, but whether I will change my teaching style is unclear. I like the diversity of activities normally performed in my classes, regardless of whether the majority are of the "audible active learning" type. There are clear values to incorporating audible active learning (e.g. think-pair-share and small-group exercises, where peer discussion and teaching occur), and at the very least, the publication of DART has made me stop and reflect on what the right balance is for me and for my courses. How about for you? I hope you'll give DART a try and see what you discover!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Videoconferencing with students

Two challenges I've faced as a faculty member have been

  1. How to provide students equal access to me outside of class
  2. How to ensure that students also have equal access to information other students obtain from me outside of class

I've written extensively about how lecture capture can help all students (those who attended a class session and those who didn't) by providing a resource for catching up with missed work and for reviewing course material.

In the last half-year, I have learned some incredibly useful things that I'm using to address both problems.

First, I learned that Fresno State, like many other CSU campuses and other campuses, has institutional support for Zoom. Zoom, like Skype and other platforms, is a way to teleconference/video conference using mobile devices and computers - anything with a microphone and/or camera and the ability to launch the Zoom app. I've used Zoom on an iPhone, iPad, and MacBook, for example - but it isn't limited to Apple products.

Zoom is easy to use and has some very useful built-in features, like:

  • Recording Zoom meetings (allows "office-hour capture")
  • A shared, collaborative whiteboard that all meeting participants can edit at the same time

This semester, I've adopted a dual approach to using Zoom with my students. This has let me at least partially address my two initial challenges:

  1. I let students join my in-person office hours from Zoom, in case they're not physically able to make it to my office when I happen to have scheduled my office hours. I also give students the option of scheduling Zoom meetings with me at other (non-office-hour) times in some special situations.
  2. I record the office hour Zoom session and post it online (e.g. at YouTube) for other students to benefit from.

Here are a few quick best practices for using Zoom during office hours

With students gathered in my office, and online, Zoom offers the ability for all of us to interact with the same digital whiteboard. If somebody asks about how to analyze a particular pedigree, for example, I could draw an example on my tablet, and the rest of the students (in person and online) can all interact with my pedigree sketch simultaneously, each seeing the others' additions. Thus, I encourage all of the students who physically attend office hours also to bring a mobile device and sign into the videoconference. This is mainly because they can then collaborate on that shared whiteboard. An important detail here is to make sure that each student uses the button in the Zoom app to mute their device microphones (otherwise feedback abounds!)

As the initiator ("Host") of the Zoom meeting, I sign in from my laptop, and have the laptop camera generally aimed across my office, so that students not physically present can get one "big picture" view of who else is present as the laptop records the meeting.

Because I find it a little awkward to use some of the whiteboard annotation tools (e.g. a pen tool) using my laptop trackpad, I prefer also to log into my own Zoom meeting from my tablet - then I use the tablet for making whiteboard annotations while my laptop is recording the contents of the meeting. This is another benefit of using a "real" computer to start the Zoom meeting: when you're done recording the meeting, then the video is exported to a local file (as opposed to exported to "the cloud") that you can edit, if you want, and later upload to YouTube or other hosting site.

It was relatively straightforward to write the above, but here's a supplementary video that I hope will give you a better idea of what it is like to use Zoom and inspire to use it (especially if you have institutional access to Zoom!)

Friday, February 17, 2017

Mobile Tech and Pedagogical Innovation

Yesterday, I was afforded the opportunity, as recipient of the Fresno State Provost's Award for Innovation, to provide remarks to my colleagues. A video of my talk is available at:

Disclaimer: As is often the case, technical difficulties occurred, so I was not able to play intended videos during my talk, and the "lecture capture" from ExplainEverything (the app I'm using to present these images) did not work this time (unknown issue). So, I'm making use of my rule always to have a backup plan, and posting the video I took, using another tablet computer, of the projection screen.

The slides can be downloaded as a PDF from:

A handout (activity, with my contact information) can be downloaded as a PDF from:

The structure of my presentation was to explicitly provide the half-hour worth of remarks in the same format and structure that I use in my technology-augmented classes

The life cycle of my classes, starting at ten minutes prior to class and moving through the end of class (top); then moving into what students do outside of class (below) and how this provides me with feedback to design the following class.

Thus, I had asked participants, before attending the event, to watch an instructional video (21 minutes) with background information on innovation:

At the end of the "pre-lecture" video, as I normally do in classes, I asked a question for viewers to consider. In this case, to make a point, I specifically told viewers that I would be having a quiz during my presentation, and that it would ask them to identify the topic I was discussing at the two-minute mark in the video. The goal of this was to be able to demonstrate how the YouTube Audience Retention analytics report can be used by instructors.

Formative Assessment via YouTube Analytics

However, because my internet connection from my laptop was not functioning during my talk, I wasn't able to make that point then. So, I make it here! (Always have a backup plan…)

Audience retention graph of my innovation talk "pre-lecture" video.

Look! There is a small peak just at the two-minute mark, suggesting that the audience was specifically targeting that segment of the video to watch (and perhaps re-watch), just as students will do if they are unclear on a topic in a video and feel the need to re-watch it.

During the event yesterday, as I do in my classes, I also conducted entry and exit surveys of the attendees using Socrative. In class, the entry quiz is based on content of the pre-class readings and/or video.

Results of my Socrative entry survey on Innovation

Of 13 attendees who completed the entry survey, 9 were instructional faculty; 4 were administrators. Almost all indicated that they wanted to hear more about student collaborative work during my talk. Very few had watched the video (based my assessment on the accuracy of responses to the question about what I had been discussing at the two-minute mark in the video), which indicated to me that I should spend a little more time than I might otherwise spend during our in-person time together reviewing the contents of the video the audience was to have watched in advance.

Goal of the Innovation Talk

For each attendee to obtain some immediately applicable information, approach, or insight that would help them address an immediate need.

Main Points of the Innovation Talk

To me, the most important message I delivered was a call to stop using fixed sets of lecture slides that are instructor-generated. As I describe in the movie of my remarks, I like creating lecture slides for two reasons:
  1. They provide me with an outline of my talk (reminding me what topics to touch on as I move through the slides). In other words, they're my crutch and make me feel safe.
  2. I give the PDF file of the slides to my students in advance, so that they can take notes on them and know what content we'll cover in class (I have loads of positive student comments from previous course evaluations that they very much appreciate having slides in advance as a resource)

However, my recent observations with trying to implement the blended learning (flipped classroom) approach suggest that making lecture slides in advance might be counter-productive to the flipped classroom approach.

Stop Preening your Lecture Slides

First, because of the temptation to throw lots of interesting (and well-produced) photographs, diagrams, charts, and published data (which we're supposed to be doing, right? Helping students learn quantitative analysis and critical thinking, by exposing them to real data?) into slides, I might further reduce the dynamic nature that an engaging class would require. I recall, as an undergraduate, that I preferred it when an instructor drew out a process, from start to finish, rather than just presenting a static figure with all of the details, all at once. Why? Because learning about processes (including how to solve problems, how to think through problems, and how series of events occur) is really difficult to do when a process is represented by a static image! This is true for lectures and for flipped classes. So this paragraph was more like a rant about effective teaching. However, back to the point about how lecture slides are probably bad for flipped classes:

Second, and much more critically, providing students with lecture slides before class might (according to some anecdotal information I've heard) stifle the students' willingness to ask questions! They might see how many slides you've carefully prepared, and then feel like they shouldn't interrupt with questions during class. "Look at all of this material the instructor intends to cover during class," students might be thinking to themselves. This is absolutely diametrically opposed to the atmosphere we should be fostering in the classroom.

What I think is preferable, especially for creating a flipped class from a "traditional" (lecture) class, and what I'm now doing, is:
  • In the pre-lecture video, create the structure (work from an outline; make sure you cover all of the important points that need to be made). Incorporate questions during the video that students should try to answer before coming to class. This way, you've pre-loaded some questions to help students answer during class, if they've had problems doing so (which you'll assess in your entry quiz, in which you ask students to provide the answers to the questions asked in the pre-class video)
  • Create a stock folder of useful visuals (graphs, charts, diagrams, movies, animations), from material you've used in the past to teach the content. If a student asks a question that would benefit from your displaying one of these visuals, then bring it onto the video projector. Combining all of the visual resources into one folder for each class meeting just makes it more efficient to grab one image when it is needed.
This approach neglects the students that value having lecture slides in advance. This is why lecture capture is critical.

Last on this point, what do my "lecture slides" look like now? Approximately four slides, distributed to students as a PDF in advance of class.
  1. The first slide has the class name and date, and the instructions for accessing the Socrative entry quiz.
  2. The middle slides will have typed questions (and/or relevant screen shots) from the pre-lecture video and from the entry quiz. We start class by discussing how to answer those two sets of questions.
  3. Following those re-statements of the questions, I have blank slides, where I add any necessary drawn responses (or existing graphics, from my folder of visuals) to student questions that follow. On days where I'm providing in-class active learning exercises, I'll also include screen shots of those exercises, to facilitate discussion and annotation of how to complete the exercises.
  4. The last slide reminds students what to do to prepare for the following class: usually a new question to think about, what to read, and which video to watch.

Other key points from my Innovation remarks included:
  • We need to develop structures to help faculty feel more at ease using technology in the classroom (e.g. opportunities for collaboration and discussion with like-minded colleagues about how to address common classroom problems using technology; time to practice approaches before introducing them to students)
  • Failure is OK (and maybe even beneficial). This is why it is important to have a back-up plan. Don't put too much pressure on yourself to innnovate/adopt too many new approaches at once. Take small, purposeful steps that you justify in advance to your students, and leave plenty of time for helping students practice the use of new technologies in low-stakes ways.

Summary of questions and comments from during and after my talk

  • How to employ mobile technology in a large-class setting? Best practices are still being developed, but include small-group work, and small-group discussions facilitated by learning assistants (e.g. TAs).
  • How to prevent students from being distracted by technology? My opinion is that this is addressed on an instructor-by-instructor basis, because philosophies differ. I'm OK with students being distracted in class, as long as they aren't actively distracting other students around them. If so, then I ask students to put the technology down, or to leave the classroom. Ultimately, students are paying for the opportunity to be in class, and if they don't want to capitalize on that investment, I don't feel that it is my place (or even entirely within my capability) to correct that behavior.

It was also mentioned by an attendee that the flipped classroom approach, augmented with technology (e.g. lecture capture, pre-lecture videos, active learning with technology, formative assessments by clickers/polling) focuses on students learning basic, factual information by themselves, and then spending in-class time practicing using/applying that information. This is the direction Universities must realize is the future of higher education.

As Jose Bowen has remarked, the value of the professoriate is no longer that we are the only source of "advanced" information - it is mostly available on the internet now. Our value now is our ability to help students understand that information, applying it to solving problems, and understanding how the information relates to their lives and to society. In other words, our jobs are helping students learn how to become self-teachers. We don't (can't) do that by lecturing.

Results of my Socrative exit survey - did I succeed?

At the end of my remarks, half of the attendees agreed that they would invite me to attend one of their classes to get advice how to incorporate technology and/or to attend one of my classes to observe how I use mobile technology. Because these surveys were conducted anonymously, I don't know, but suspect, that it was the administrators in attendance who did not agree to both of these questions.

Based on my claim (in this video) that an effective pedagogical mindset is that failing in front of class is a great way to teach, I purposefully asked the attendees of this talk to watch a 21+ minute video in advance - which is way too long for most students in a "flipped classroom" approach. My post-seminar survey revealed that six attendees felt the length was "just right"; only one responded "too short," and four brave souls indicated that this video was "too long." I failed at producing a pre-talk video that was a useful length for almost all "students" (attendees), and this is a great lesson for those who are planning to flip the classroom.

Critically, I found that I did achieve the goal for my presentation. Many attendees responded afterward that they did learn something new. The majority of respondents tended to indicate that:

  • they had no idea that YouTube video analytics existed
  • analytics could be so useful for formative feedback to instructors
  • the ease of lecture capture, especially using the Socrative app, was a new discovery for them

Even more importantly, the depth and variety of responses to the final post-remarks survey question, "What topics are you now interested in learning more about?" ranged greatly. Examples include:

  • how to use a YouTube channel
  • using Zoom for conducting office hours
  • types of in-class activities to perform using mobile devices
  • how to get away from using pre-designed, static lecture slides in class

It looks like I have my faculty professional development work (in helping others augment classes with mobile technology) cut out for me!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Digital classroom and lecture improv

My multifaceted love-hate relationship with "lecture slides"

First, as I'm deliberately trying to move away from "lecturing" (i.e. spewing forth factual information at students), this phrase doesn't fit my course.

However, I like the idea of providing students with material they'll interact with during class before they arrive. It seems to be more efficient (and green) to distribute electronic material before class, as opposed to during class in electronic or print format.

On the other hand, I want students to be in class: only because I think they'll benefit from hearing my answers to questions their peers raise (not because I have any notion that their merely being present, especially if they don't want to be present, will improve their education at all). I have long wondered whether students get a false sense of security from knowing that they have all of my "lecture slides," as well as the laundry list of textbook chapters/sections to read, and the screencast videos of all of my lectures. Like they'll magically have enough time and inclination to study it all right before exams…

In reality, in my style, a full set of "lecture slides" mostly comprised images and only some bulleted text lists anyway:
Example slides from one of my classes: mostly images, a little supporting text
So, the only way for a student to access the important (to me) details was to be in class to know what specific concepts and details I emphasized. I test mainly on in-class content, which is content I find to be most valuable for my students to understand. In the last few years, of course, given that I post screencast lectures immediately after class, students are now able to hear what I say, and see the notations I write on/around the images that normally populate my lecture slides. For example, visit my lecture capture video for the above still images of lecture slides to see what audio and annotation accompanied those slides.


Should "lecture slides" only provide the visual media (photographs, data from primary literature) that support classroom activities
- or -
Should slides contain all of the details necessary for a student to learn on her/his own?

I'd love to read your ideas and comments, if you will post them below.

This semester, I'm trying something new, and it is amazingly liberating! It has re-energized me, and I think the students as well. You see: at the start of every semester in recent memory, I've explicitly told the students that the flipped classroom approach means that students need to access the course material in advance of class, and bring questions to discuss during class; that I'll also provide in-class exercises for them to practice applying their knowledge and testing their understanding.

However, in past semesters, when I start class (routinely) by asking, "Does anybody have any questions about class content?", I get no response from my 90 students. Then, I obediently launch into my 50 minutes of prepared material.

Wait! Why do I have prepared material, if the concept of blended learning is that I reserve class time to answer student questions? The comfortable answer is: I'm a professional, and it would be unprofessional of me to show up looking unprepared. The Boy Scout in me, clamoring to take charge, demands that, in case nobody asks a question, I still have fifty minutes worth of quality educational material (yes, including active learning exercises) to share.

The uncomfortable answer is that either I haven't asked students the right questions, pitched at their level of understanding, to stimulate additional conversations and questions (i.e. I've overwhelmed them from the start), or they have obediently downloaded and looked at the lecture slides, and realize that I have content that I intend to cover during our 50 minutes. As this is what they have come to expect from the classroom educational experience, could it be that my advance preparation actually inhibits students from interacting with me in class?

The uncomfortable (but probably accurate) conclusion follows:

By virtue of preparing for class, it could be that I'm stifling my ability to support students by meeting them where they're (educationally) at. Put another (equally uncomfortable) way: am I being academically lazy by preparing and carefully grooming lecture slides for my class? Am I regressing into lecture mode, instead of investing the effort in devising ways to engage the students, so as to motivate them to want to ask questions and/or to feel comfortable asking questions?

I'm overwhelmingly happy to report that I've made a subtle change to my approach this semester, and student question-asking in class seems to be on the rise! Here's what I did:

I stopped preparing lecture slides to post in advance of class. Instead, I create a folder containing the images I would normally use on a topic to cover during one class period. I make a "shell" set of slides (one to display while students are entering the classroom, usually just

  • Slide 1
    • class meeting title (e.g. "BIOL 102: Mutation")
    • perhaps an image or joke related to the content
    • a reminder to start taking the daily Socrative entry quiz
  • Slide 2
    • To-do list to prepare for the next class period (reading assignment, videos to watch, exercises to complete)
    • reminder to take the Socrative exit quiz (if any)

I export this as a PDF file (2 pages) and upload it to our course management system for students to download before class.

Then, when class starts, I open that PDF in ExplainEverything (as I've detailed before), and use that app to navigate through the pages, adding drawn annotations as I go using my tablet computer. All of this is recorded, exported as a video, and posted to YouTube after class. Same as always.

The main difference here is that, between Slide 1 and Slide 2, I dynamically add new blank slides (and images from that one folder of images that I think I might need during each class period) as needed. When I say, "as needed," I mean either when a student asks a question that I want to include a drawn image as a response to, or when I want to cover a specific topic that I intend to discuss in class (this latter option is when I use that curated folder of images).

The critical change here: students can't tell in advance, by looking at the slides, what is planned and what is improvised! My bet is that the appearance of my improvisation is showing the class that I'm OK with answering their questions on the fly (although I am careful not to let tangential questions lead us completely off-topic). This, in turn, creates an atmosphere that lets student engagement, sharing questions and opinions, flourish.


  • I feel less pressure (which was only pressure I was self-applying, anyway) to "finish the content" I had planned for the day, because I no longer feel that students might be expecting me eventually to cover content that they had seen me include in slides that we never quite were able to get to in a single class period. Similarly, I don't feel as much like I've wasted my own time preparing material that I'm never able to get to, when I'm not constantly preening my slides.
  • I feel like I'm more flexible in following the (I realize now that I've seen it) often dynamic course of conversation flow that occurs in a truly engaged discussion with students. In the back of my mind, I'm no longer trying to figure out how to guide the conversation back to what I know is the topic of "the next slide." There is no next slide! Class is more dynamic, and it is entirely liberating.

But, there are always potential


The only one I've imagined so far is that students don't the complete set of images I use to take notes on during class. I do not have the data to support or refute this. Because, as many of you know, I teach DISCOVERe (tablet computer-based instruction) courses at California State University, Fresno, all of my students have mobile devices in their hands during class. I've never inquired about the distribution of how many students take notes on my slides using their devices, vs. takes separate notes (without the slides), vs. don't take notes at all and rely entirely on my lecture capture videos. Regardless, I still feel somewhat secure in knowing that all of the students still have those videos (including all of the images I add during class) that they can access for study purposes.


The next time you spend hours (as I have) massaging those lecture slides, consider whether spending the same time (or less) just throwing all of the image files into a folder, and drawing them out if needed, would be a better use of your time and also be more engaging for your students. Being dynamic is always invigorating for the audience as well as the presenter, especially when the audience is engaged with the presenter (think: improv comedy vs. stand-up routines).

Students will thank you for being prepared for class and for not creating a rigid daily syllabus that could be precluding you, as it did for me, from feeling free to answer questions that are critical for their growth.