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.

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