Polishing your PowerPoints

You’ve rebooted your syllabus, now it’s time to take a serious look at your PowerPoint/Keynote presentations. We all know that nothing is more deadly to an audience than a speaker who presents by reading from his/her text-covered slides. And yet, when it comes to preparing lecture slides for our students, we are sometimes hard pressed to come up with alternatives. For one, there is the idea that the slides are serving a double purpose – first there is the lecture, and second, the slides, packaged for distribution on a course website, present a review of the material covered. The Innovative Instructor is here to tell you that this is poor pedagogy and offer better practices.

Roadside billboard with message "your (brief) message here" displayed.For starters, when your slides are playing a dual role, neither objective is well-served. Create review sheets or outlines for your students as a component separate from your lecture slides. Rather than repeating the information you are giving in the lecture, use the opportunity to create a set of questions that your students should be able to answer after the lecture. This will help prepare them for exams by making them think about the material and identifying areas of weak understanding.

As for the in-class presentation, those slides with dozens of bullet points and incomprehensible charts and graphs need a makeover. An book by Nancy Duarte called Slide:ology – offers a quick read and great tips. [Nancy Duarte, Slide:ology,  O’Reilly Media, Inc., 2008] Duarte reports on research showing that listening and reading are conflicting cognitive processes, meaning that your audience can either read your slides or listen to you; they cannot do both at the same time. However, our brains can handle simultaneous listening to a speaker and seeing relevant visual material.

Duarte contends that if you have more than 75 words on a slide, it is serving as a document. Your students can’t even see the text when it is projected, so the information is lost. With around 50 words a slide acts as a teleprompter. The default method for the instructor is to turn his or her back to the audience and recite from the words on the slide while the students are reading along, usually faster than the speaker is speaking. The best presentations use minimal text on the slide. The slides act as visual aids, reinforcing your message and allowing the students to concentrate on what you are saying.

Ideally your students should be able to process the message on your slide within 3 seconds. Think of it as a billboard. As a driver, you only have a few seconds to read a billboard as you drive past, so the message must be compelling and to the point. The three second rule works because it puts the focus on what you, the instructor, are saying. Remember, your students can’t read and listen simultaneously. The ideal slide will be a short sentence or phrase summarizing the main point you are making, or an image that reinforces your message. Each slide should have only one point.

Data slides should also be rethought. Have you ever found yourself saying, “I know you can’t really see this, but….”? Stop right there. If the chart, graph, table, or diagram isn’t readable, don’t show it. The fact is that presentation slides are not a good medium for displaying complex data. If it is really important that your students examine your data details closely, then you should think about creating a handout and allowing for consideration of that information apart from your slide presentation. Otherwise, consider that the data slide should not be about the data display but about the meaning of the data. What is the point you want to make? Do you need a chart or graph to make that point? If the answer is yes, then simplify. Keep your data points to a minimum, eliminate chart clutter such as unnecessary labels and lines, and spread the information over several slides if you are making more than one point about the data.

Duarte provides lots of information on colors and fonts. The essential take-away is to keep it basic. Black text on a plain white background will work in any situation. San-serif fonts such as Arial or Verdana, are easiest to read. Keep the font size large (not a problem when you aren’t trying to cram so much text on each slide) and in no case should it be less than 24 points.

It doesn’t take much work to clean up your slides and become a power presenter. And your students will thank you.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art edited by Macie Hall

Perry’s Scheme – Understanding the Intellectual Development of College-Age Students

While attending the Educause conference in Anaheim, CA in October, I heard a talk on Flipping the Classroom that referenced Perry’s Scheme – the classic study and resulting model of cognitive development of college-age students. Back in the Center for Educational Resources, looking for more on Perry, I uncovered a trove of information, distilled for you in this post.

William G. Perry, Jr. was a psychologist at Harvard and professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. During the 1950s and 60s he conducted a 15 year study of the intellectual and cognitive development of Harvard undergraduates. In 1970 he published Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston; reprinted November 1998; Jossey‐Bass. The long-term impact of Perry’s scholarship is captured in a quote from the book jacket of that publication: “Since its original publication in 1970, this landmark book by William Perry has remained the cornerstone of much of the student development research that followed. …Perry derived an enduring framework for characterizing student development – a scheme so accurate that it still informs and advances investigations into student development across genders and cultures.”

An excellent summary of the key points of Perry’s book for practical application is provided in James M. Lang’s On Course: A Week by Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching, Harvard University Press, 2008, pp. 163-173.

In a nutshell, Perry “described the development of Harvard students as progressing from the dualistic belief that things are either true or false, good or evil, through a stage of relativism in which they feel that all beliefs are equally valid, to a stage of commitment to values and beliefs that recognized to be incomplete and imperfect but are open to correction and further development.” [Wilbert J. McKeachie, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Houghton Mifflin, 2002, p. 296.]

Diagram showing the progression of Perry's Scheme from Dualism to Multiplicity to Relativism to CommitmentMore specifically, Perry’s Scheme of intellectual development proposes nine positions or levels with the transformative sequences that connect them. Googling William G. Perry or Perry’s Scheme (be sure to add the middle initial to avoid being inundated with links to William “Refrigerator” Perry, the former NFL lineman) will provide a number of summaries of his model, which is often reduced to four levels:

1. Dualism – knowledge is received, not questioned; students feel there is a correct answer to be learned.
2. Multiplicity – there may be more than one solution to a problem, or there may be no solution; students recognize that their opinions matter.
3. Relativism – knowledge is seen as contextual; students evaluate viewpoints based on source and evidence, and even experts are subject to scrutiny.
4. Commitment within relativism – integration of knowledge from other sources with personal experience and reflection; students make commitment to values that matter to them and learn to take responsibility for committed beliefs. There is recognition that the acquisition of knowledge is ongoing activity.

An individual student at a single point in time may be at different stages in regards to different subject areas. Hofer and Pintrich note that change from one stage to another “…is brought about through cognitive disequilibrium; individuals interact with the environment and respond to new experiences by either assimilating to existing cognitive frameworks or accommodating the framework itself.” [Barbara K. Hofer and Paul R. Pintrich, The Development of Epistemological Theories: Beliefs About Knowledge and Knowing and Their Relation to Learning, 1997 67: 88 Review of Educational Research, p. 91.]

While Perry himself acknowledged the limitations of his work – the majority of his subjects were white, male students at Harvard and the interviewing process was not subjected to protocols that would be considered mandatory today – as the book jacket claims, the study is still considered to be a seminal work.

So why is it important to you as an instructor? Let’s say that you’ve just given a brilliant lecture on different theoretical models for economic development in Mongolia or presented several philosophical approaches to the question of nature or nurture. Afterwards a student comes up to the podium and asks you, “But which is the right one?” Understanding that for this subject at least, your student is stuck in the dualism stage might help you in responding and providing appropriate guidance.  Although today dualistic thinking is less prevalent among college-aged students than in Perry’s time – most students come into a college education at the stage of multiplicity – your first year students may still perceive the instructor to be the disseminator of truth. Students who have not reached the stage of relativism may be less comfortable in a classroom setting that is focused on active learning. When students push back on teaching and learning strategies that shift their roles from being recipients to being participants and collaborators, it may be because they are not yet developmentally up to the task. Such teaching approaches may, however, help students transition to higher levels as they experience the “cognitive disequilibrium” that Hofer and Pintrich describe (see above).  As our faculty-centered pedagogies shift to learner-centered approaches, a key to success will be in understanding how students view their acquisition of knowledge.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: CC (some rights reserved) Macie Hall

Quick Tips: Paperless Grading

Just in time for the end of semester assignment and exam grading marathon, The Innovative Instructor has some tips for making these tasks a bit less stressful.

Male instructor 's head between two stacks of papers.Last year we wrote about the GradeMark paperless grading system, a tool offered within Turnitin, the plagiarism detection software product used at JHU. The application is fully integrated with Blackboard, our learning management system. For assignments and assessments where you don’t wish to use Turnitin, Blackboard offers another grading option for online submissions. Recent updates to Blackboard’s include new features built into the assignment tool that allow instructors to easily make inline comments, highlight or strikeout text, and use drawing tools for freeform edits. All this without having to handle a single piece of paper.

If you don’t use Blackboard, don’t despair. The Innovative Instructor has solutions for you, too.  A recent post in one of our favorite blogs, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Professor Hacker, titled Using iAnnotate as a Grading Tool, offers another resource. According to its creators, the iAnnotate app “turns your tablet into a world-class productivity tool for reading, marking up, and sharing PDFs, Word documents, PowerPoint files, and images.” This means that if you students submit documents in any of these formats (Professor Hacker suggests using DropBox, Sky Drive, Google Drive, or other cloud storage services for submission and return of assignments), you can grade them on your iPad using iAnnotate.

Erin E. Templeton, Anne Morrison Chapman Distinguished Professor of International Study and an associate professor of English at Converse College and author of the post, has this to say about how she uses iAnnotate’s features.

With iAnnotate, you can underline or highlight parts of the paper. I will often highlight typos, sentences that are unclear, or phrases that I find especially interesting. I can add comments to the highlight to explain why I’ve highlighted that particular word or phrase. You can also add comment boxes to make more general observations or ask questions, or if you would prefer, you can type directly on the document and adjust the font, size, and color to fit the available space.

I frequently use the stamp feature, which offers letters and numbers (I use these to indicate scores or letter grades), check marks, question marks, stars of various colors, smiley faces–even a skull and crossbones…. And if you’d rather, you can transform a word or phrase that you find yourself repeatedly tying onto the document into a stamp–I have added things like “yes and?” and “example?” to my collection. Finally, there is a pencil tool for those who want to write with either a stylus or a finger on the document.

Not an iDevice user? iAnnotate is available for Androids too, although it is limited at the time of this posting to reading and annotating PDF files.

The Professor Hacker post offers additional links and resources for paperless grading and more generally for those looking to move to a paperless course environment.  Be sure to read the comments for additional solutions.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art