The slide debate

Jan 31 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

I'm in teaching purgatory for the next few weeks. Essentially a good 60-70% of my time right now is devoted to teaching and I get to squeeze the 100% I was previously doing into the 30-40% that is left over. Despite my added teaching responsibilities this semester, things are actually going pretty well. I'm finding that the blood sweat and tears I put into my slides last year has helped me tremendously this year. I'm not killing myself over each lecture and I have been able to adapt the concepts from my primary class to the second class I am helping to teach for the first 4 weeks. Other than the constant emails, I feel pretty good about how things are going.

As a general rule, I post all of my sides after each lecture rather than before. I do this for a few reasons (not the least of which is that the slides may not be "done" until minutes before some lectures), but the primary one is that I want the students to be taking their own notes down. Providing the slides before the class can result in a tendency to take fewer notes and scribble down thoughts that might not mean much to the student when they go to study.

This slide policy has been a tepid* topic in my class. The student argument (which I have received both via email and delivered in person) is that they have more ability to listen to what I am saying if they can take notes on the slides and not have to write everything down. While I can understand that, I am also aware that what students see as making their lives easier is not always what helps them learn. In fact, it is often counter to that goal. For similar reasons, I don't do study guides (read: this is all that will be on the test, forget anything else) and when I do a review session, I make them come with questions that are more direct than "Can you go over class 4?"

This gets us back to what I find to be the hardest part of teaching: the balance between keeping the students happy and maintaining a strong curriculum. As a junior faculty member, I do have to play this game because teaching evaluations do matter for me. Whereas they are not going to make or break my tenure package, teaching is a component that has some weight here. If the student perception is that I don't give a shit or I am making their lives unnecessarily difficult, I will hear about it sooner or later.

My strategy thus far has been to explain my thinking behind the way I do things to the students. My hope is that even if they don't agree with it, providing a thought out reason will at least convince them that I'm not just being a jerk because I can.

I would be curious to hear what other people do in these situations - with slides or anything else.

*I can't really call it a hot topic, but I have heard from a few students.

30 responses so far

  • I have never been one to coddle students in the classroom, and even though they have learned more, my evals have never been great (except the semester I ran an experiment where I gave them (almost) whatever they wanted). I'm pretty sure I will need to take a similar approach in the future- "this is why I'm doing it this way, it's not to be mean or difficult, it's because I totes love you and want you to master the learningz".

  • Tanya says:

    Setting aside student "happiness", I've been wondering about the cognitive science aspects relating to learning in the classroom. I'm a biologist, not a psychologist, but have found some very interesting articles/books regarding learning ... unfortunately, nothing that resolves this particular issue for me!

    I do want students making notes - this is a major skill students in first year should be working on. However, I also want students to be paying attention to key ideas that arise in class, and wonder how well this occurs when students are scrambling to copy down every word I'm speaking.

    I've tried posting notes after class. I've tried posting skeleton note outlines ahead of class. Currently, I post nearly all of my slides ahead of class, and suggest that students read them ahead of time, and consider printing them to bring to class and augment with notes (or annotate them electronically, if they prefer). Sometimes I bring in some slides that are intended to highlight misconceptions, or surprise - those ones get published after class. (Most of my lecture slides are images/figures - not a lot of text, so the slides on their own have limited utility.)

    I don't know what is optimal. I do agree that we should be transparent, as instructors - while students may not be "happy" that we're encouraging them to work, I think most of them appreciate the honesty, especially as our intentions are to help them learn, not to just impose arbitrary work.

  • GMP says:

    It is helpful to have clear expectations, delineated on the syllabus, even if they are stringent -- go over them in detail at the beginning of the semester and don't apologize for them. My evals actually went up when I instituted the absolutely-no- late-h0mework policy (instead of them forever dropping stuff off for me everywhere) and cut back on office hours (only those listed on the syllabus, if you need more, ask for an appointment). It is my strong belief that bending over backwards for students (which I did do my first year ot two on TT) makes a faculty seem needy for approval in the eyes of the students (sort of like parents trying to be friends rather than parents to their teenagers), and you don't want that; a bit of distance is a good thing (from the evals standpoint for sure).

    However, you may want to do informal mid-semester evaluations. You can just make your own form and ask what you are interested in. I think the students appreciate the fact that you care to get feedback before it's too late to change anything.

    Btw, I don't do slides, but rather have hand-written detailed lecture notes, that students get at the start of the semester as a booklet as well as online, and then in the classroom I do a combination of chalk-and-talk and an occasional slide or a video clip. Of course, this has to do with the type of material I teach (heavy on math and physics, where hand-drawn schematics are enough); I imagine slides are much more necessary in your field.

  • Jen says:

    I have taught at a mid-tier state school, with a mix of traditional and non-traditional students. Many of my traditional students are not "college-ready" - i.e. unable to read at college level, lacking basic study skills, etc. (the university was one of the few in the system that did not have admissions standards, beyond a high school diploma/GED. That has changed in the last year). For my intro classes, I post skeleton slides prior to lecture - I put together my entire presentation, then go through and remove all text, except for cues and blank lines, to indicate parts of a figure that students are expected to label. At the beginning of the semester, I cover less content, and spend more time guiding students through the art of note-taking. This requires a lot of up-front work for me (making sure my lectures are prepared well in advance, deciding what content to sacrifice in the beginning for the sake of study skills, etc.) But I think the pay-off is worth it - my students show steady improvement in their ability to perform college-level work, and I frequently get comments in my evaluations that I was the first person to teach them how to study. I know this doesn't speak to your specific situation (i.e. I presume you're at a R1-level university where students are expected to come in ready for college-level work), but this is the approach that works for my students.

  • momo says:

    Last term I had a professor who did the same thing you described giving similar reasons. As a student I hated it.

    1) She is a really fast talker, adding lots of detail that seem unimportant but still might come up in an exam. Most students cannot absorb everything at once. Slides allow more attention to detail.

    2) Students are grown ups. There should be no need to reinforce their willingness to pay attention. If they chose not to do that they're old enough to live with possible consequences.

    3) Students attending a lecture might not have the same background knowledge. Providing slides helps to level those differences as it translates to a clear framework of the things discussed.

    However, I've attented lecture were no slides were given neither before nor afterwards. It is fine as long as the professor remembers to pace his talk and emphasises important concepts. I take notes anyway. Even if the professor's talk and his/her slides are identical note-taking helps tremendously in staying focused and warding off boredom.

  • My own handwriting is appallingly bad, so I use Powerpoint on a tablet, so I can annotate slides in class, but all the equations are clear for the students. I give out my slides before class, though I do say on the first day that sometimes I change minor details after the slides are posted (which is true).

    I agree with momo here--my students are adults, and they know (or need to learn) how they learn best. We have many students here for whom English is not a first language, and some of these students have specifically mentioned how much they appreciate having slides in advance. Since I already have the slides done, it is no extra effort on my part to post them before class.

    I also agree with GMP--I was Professor Available this semester, but neither the course grades nor my evaluations budged an inch. I am going to follow a strict office hours schedule in he future (I already had a no lateness policy for assignments), since that is best for me, and being extra available doesn't seem to help most of the students. I always answer emails, but that is easy to cram in around other things.

  • alsoTT says:

    I also have considered these issues in my teaching. Three thoughts:

    1) I have concluded that you are absolutely right about explaining your teaching decisions to students. So far I have found students to be very accepting of things that otherwise might be unpopular when I give them a good rationale for it.

    2) Kind of related to the above, you certainly can't make everyone in the class happy. Learning is too individual and you are bound to find things that one student loves while another student hates. A reasonable tenure & promotion committee should discount the overly positive and overly negative student comments and focus on the middle 80-90% (particularly for classes of 100 or more).

    3) With regard to slide handouts, I think there is no correct answer except to find the approach that works for you and do your best within that framework. In the topics that I teach, I find that slides move too quickly to expect students to take thorough notes. As such, I usually post my slides before lectures (though sometimes with certain information missing--e.g., when I have an example problem I want them to work through). In my first lecture of each term, I explain to students how important it is to be actively engaged in lecture as opposed to assuming they can skip class and just read over the slides. I haven't had any objections from students on this.

    One other thing that I try to keep in mind is the academic level of the students. I'm happy to hand out slides to grad students and upper-level undergrads. But freshmen and possibly sophomores may require a different approach. As a very rough rule of thumb the younger the students are, the more information I leave blank on the handout version of my slides.

    Good luck!

  • jf says:

    As a grad student I've been involved with courses where I sit in on most sessions but also teach some. Not often you can do that! What I learned about slides is that, if going quickly, they can cause students to pay less attention to what you're saying, because they're too busy taking down the info. Maybe posting the slides after class helps (I've never been involved in a class that did). However, if going at a reasonable pace, and watching students as you go to make sure they're not frantically writing, then I think it's fine. And I can say it from a student and teaching perspective, for this particular class when the tempo was right I had no problems taking notes, and when I taught I got way more questions about things I was *saying* when I went slowly and made sure no one was getting left behind.

    Just my thoughts 🙂

  • proflikesubstance says:

    My slides are mostly diagrams, with some text interspersed. One thing that helped today was explaining to the students that they should not be drawing every diagram, but taking notes on the explanation and writing down the slide number for those notes (All slides are conspicuously numbered). In that way, they can get the main points from the slide by using the notes to inform the slides after class when they are studying. This seemed to go over well, but we shall see.

  • FSP says:

    I usually post slides after class, but I make sure to number the slides when I project them, and some students then annotate their notes with the slide numbers so that what they write can be later matched to an image. This sort of takes care of the "we need the slides in advance to take notes" issue, or is at least a reasonable compromise.

    I also don't provide lecture notes or outlines, but I do post review questions that give some guidance about the major concepts. I do not give the answers to the review questions, although I am happy to discuss the questions if a student has tried to answer them. This system works pretty well in a variety of class sizes/levels.

  • TheGrinch says:

    If your slides are mostly diagrams and no words, posting them before the class can be very useful as students will still have to pay close attention to what you are saying in order to understand what the diagrams actually mean and put them in context. Many times, in order to understand something, diagrams and explanations have to go together side-by-side; so by providing students just the diagrams, you will in fact be asking them to pay the attention to the meaning.

    I really like the idea of providing slides with just diagrams, I will definitely use that next semester!

  • Cherish says:

    I guess I'm kind of with the students on this one. Instructors go over slides so much faster than if they have to take the time to write things out. Expecting people to take down notes by hand without having the slides available for annotation, especially if they are diagrams, can be no less frustrating than trying to draw them out by hand as an instructor. So I guess I feel like an instructor who is taking advantage of advanced technology ought to allow hir students the same benefits. If you're expecting them to take good notes from slides, then you probably should give them slides. Otherwise, keep yourself to the same pace the students can manage by writing things out yourself.

  • That's good, but I find it invaluable to be able to put notes directly onto the printed out slides so that I don't two sets of study notes later that I have to coalesce into one. I still take my own note even though I have the slides and am more likely to put a question mark or star on a particular part of the diagram that I need to follow up on or I think is important.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    Huh. Individuals learns in different ways, it is probably better to provide alternatives (unless there is statistics that shows that there is one optimal way for individuals/groups which I haven't heard of), and grownups have to take their own responsibility. The first thing a student have to learn is how to learn, and "nothing teach like failure".

    That said, a teacher/instructor have to provide sound alternatives, if the teacher thinks he knows a good way it shouldn't hurt to tell up front.

  • I'm a fan of providing slides ahead of time, but with two caveats:

    1. My slides - in Keynote - often include multiple builds on one slide - I use animations to display how experiments are conducted - the PDF output obviously doesn't include this, it just includes whatever is on the slide after all the builds are completed - making the slides only useful insofar as the student has come to class and taken appropriate notes.

    2. My slides rarely include text. Lots of diagrams, images, and videos. I'd rather have a student take notes around an image and label a diagram than waste his/her time reproducing the diagram in his/her notes. No many how many times you warn the students to not draw the diagram, they've come to you after having their note-taking procedures already "programmed" through middle and high school, and those are *very* hard to over-come.

    3. I make them aware that by posting ahead of time, they might not be getting exactly the same version as what is used in class.

    Basically, I provide slides but make them appropriately cryptic, such that they won't be particularly useful without class attendance and note-taking where appropriate.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Perhaps it would help to consider the evil side of slides?

    * Kindergarten slides: something to keep the eyes from wandering from the front
    * Outline slides: what the presenter is saying, worded differently, so that you can either listen or read but not both (the brain doesn't do that well: single language pipe.)
    * Vacation slides: "Here is the Louvre. Here is ..." so fast you can barely focus.

    Animated slides done well (decently paced) can be awesome. They're memorable because they're so rare. For most of us, it's better to be able to mark up a slide in real time. For one thing, this makes the presentation more "live," more engaged. For another, it means that the slides as handed out require engagement by the audience to be complete (or maybe that's part of engagement.)

    I am absolutely certain that I haven't so much as scratched the surface of slide abuse.

  • Karen says:

    I'm a grad student finishing her MS thesis, so I've been a student in enough classes to have some strong opinions on the use of slides.

    1. It's much easier to take notes to slides if I have advance copies of the slides. One professor used to format her slides so that they printed out on the left half of the page, three to a page, and left the right half of the page for note-taking. That worked extremely well.

    2. If you have more than the occasional text-only slide (excepting equations), it means I'll either have to listen to you read your slides, or try to listen to you and read your slides at the same time. You'll either bore me or confuse me. Put diagrams and other images on slides and talk your words to me; if I don't take notes, I'm the idiot, not you.

    3. If you're a fan of marking up your slides in real time, give me a copy of the base slide and let me mark up along with you. It's a great learning tool. And while we're at it, remember that I'm probably writing with pencil or dark pen; white markups on a dark background may look great on the screen, but they're a problem for me.

    4. Remember the 800 dpi rule: however fine the resolution of your computer screen, your projector resolution is limited. Using the phrase "Now, it's hard to see on this slide, but..." means you've just put up a bad slide, and you're wasting everyone's time.

  • Ecogeek says:

    I can also firmly and unequivocally say that I never took as many notes as a student when I was given PowerPoint slides in advance, and that I was rarely happy with the notes I took on pre-printed slides. I ended up giving up on taking notes on pre-printed slides and taking my own notes, with the knowledge that I didn't have to write down the info on the slides.

    The question of whether students are "adults" or not is irrelevant. Taking notes on pre-printed slides makes students feel, at least initially, as if they have more of the information recorded than if they were writing it all down themselves, but it's not really true. And, in lower level classes, students- even at R1 schools- rarely recognize that problem, and even less frequently have the study habits necessary to overcome that deficit.

    In an upper level class, I would be much more likely to post my slides before lectures, because students have a better grasp of what they actually need to write down. In a more introductory level class, I will never give out my slides ahead of time, but I can and do post them after the lectures. But, I supplement the slides with audio recordings so the students CAN get the same info from the slides I post that they get from the lectures themselves.

  • Isabel says:

    Numbering slides is a great solution, and saves paper and ink.

  • Fucke those greedly little lazy-asse pissants. When I was in college, there were no motherfucken slides for us to even whine about the professor giving us. Fucken mollycoddled little fucken whiny-ass titty-babies should shut the fucke uppe and take their fucken notes.

  • outoftune says:

    The best profs I had were ones who combined some form of handed-out notes with students writing their own. Two particular examples come to mind (i.e., classes where I learned a lot despite not being particularly interested in the material). One had a method similar to what Jen describes above - skeleton notes with important material missing. The second posted a clearly written, organized introduction to each section of the course (say, 4-5 over the semester). Each was a few pages, and described the background and overview of the material. She then ignored it and did chalk-and-talk in the lectures, and we could refer back to it if we got lost in her sea of n-dimensional hyperspheres.

    The worst profs I had were either 100% random stream-of-consciousness chalk-and-talk (dr. "allergic to titles and organization of thought") or 100% slides (dr. "let me spend an hour reading you slides of multivariable calculus").

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I feel compelled to mention that, whereas it is all well and good to devote hours to making slides, then special handouts with information missing, etc., my job as an assistant prof in a research focused position is to teach well enough. I care about the teaching job I do and I want the students to learn, but I also do not have an unlimited time allowance to get this all done.

  • drugmonkey says:

    oot, did any of the streamofconsciousness ones swear in fake olde English?

  • outoftune says:

    Of course - I realize profs are busy, busy people. Both of these examples had been teaching the same class several years running. I think, though, that one of the biggest deciding factors is not the SuperAwesome notes, but the fact that they cared enough to think about it and try stuff out. You may not end up being the Official Best Teacher In The Universe, but logically-planned and clearly-presented lessons, whether slides or chalk, will still put you healthily above the average. And if the students can't appreciate it, well, they can Suckke It.

    Dr. Streamofconsciousness only swore in boring modern English, although he did drink a beer in class once.

  • outoftune says:

    PS - for those interested in university-level science education, and in the Land of Infinite Free Time - I found this interesting:

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    When I was in college, there were no motherfucken slides for us to even whine about the professor giving us.

    Hey, when you and I were in college the usual gripe was about replacing clay tablets with slate.

    However, back then the presenters actually had to draw the diagrams while lecturing, so we had a chance to keep up. Flashing a complex diagram to the audience and then discussing it while everyone is trying to simultaneously copy the diagram, follow the presentation, and annotate the diagram is a formula for failure.

  • ecogeofemme says:

    I completely agree with Cherish and DC Sessions!

  • Tanya says:

    Quick note - In a discussion of slides, it's worth looking at Edward Tufte's "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint":

  • Pat Bowne says:

    For years, I used slides heavily in my pathophysiology class. I even made animated slides with case studies on them, where the answers to questions only appeared when the question was clicked -- so students who pre-printed the slides would not have answers to the questions.

    I never did this for my physiology class, the prerequisite. In that class I taught with overheads or document cameras, writing everything down as I covered it.

    For all those years, I wondered why I so often got better analysis and problem solving from the sophomores in physiology than from the same students when I saw them again in pathophysiology. It might be the rigors of the junior nursing curriculum ... but this semester, I am getting rid of almost all the slides in pathophys. I'll still post the ones with figures on them before class, so students can print them if so desired, but all the slides of text have been purged. I'll see what happens.

  • Many of my professors post slides, but I rarely use them - I tend to prefer my own handwritten note-taking.

    All I have to say: Don't start using Prezi ( The zooming will make at least a few of your students physically ill.

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