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Friday, August 24, 2012

Faculty Focus: What Did We Learn about PowerPoint and Student Learning?

What Did We Learn about PowerPoint and Student Learning?

August 22, 2012

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

The recent post on PowerPoint use generated a healthy response. That’s encouraging, but blog exchanges can seem like conversations without conclusions. There is no summary, no distillation, and no set of next questions. And when there are many comments, I worry that those who respond first don’t return to read what follows and those who check in later don’t have time to read all the comments. So for my benefit and yours (hopefully), here’s how I would summarize our exchange on using PowerPoint.
One of the points made in the post was affirmed in the commentary. PowerPoint is a tool and that means how it affects learning depends on how it’s used. Tim H. said it clearly and succinctly, “Any statement you can make about PowerPoint, good or bad, can also be made about any other presentation method—chalkboard, overhead projector, etc. PowerPoint is only a tool.”
Most folks who commented use PowerPoint and they do for a number of different reasons. A Guest pointed out that it’s “crucial” in making information “accessible” for students with learning challenges or for whom English is not their first language. Jana M. elaborates in a different direction: “PowerPoint is excellent for the introverted, visual and to some degree auditory learner. However, the tactile, extroverted, verbal learners will quickly become bored and lose the desire to learn.” J. Hardy noted what is repeated in a number of comments, “PowerPoint is an effective tool for showcasing schematic models or diagrams or presenting pictures of key features. . . .” Laurel writes, “Lecturers can often forget to emphasize the ‘four most important points’ as they teach, and all of us learners want to know what those are and why. Creating a good PowerPoint reinforces that information for everyone.” LAB offers a particularly pithy summary. He/she uses PowerPoint “to show my students pictures of places and processes they’ve never encountered.”
Some commented that using PowerPoint benefits the teacher. I hadn’t thought of that before. Dave P. explains. “Preparing PowerPoint slides may be a useful exercise for faculty members because it forces them to think about, organize, and prioritize the material to be covered in a particular lesson.” Dave T said, “Some of the best teaching ideas come as one is preparing a PowerPoint presentation.” Follow-up question: How do we balance these teacher benefits against giving students the opportunity to learn how to organize material on their own? And how do we avoid Bernd S.’s concern that using slides can increase “presentation speed to unacceptable levels”?
A number of comments correctly noted that my post omitted discussing the many other PowerPoint enhancements beyond bulleted points and other forms of texts—enhancements like video clips, websites, blogs, polls, clickers, hot links and various forms of animation used by teachers. Dave L. writes “PowerPoint. . . used as more than a projector for ‘words’ or ‘organization’ promotes interest and should assist learning.” 45Doc70 notes that PowerPoint “gives faculty an incredible amount of creativity.”
Fewer comments decried the use of PowerPoint but those that did listed objections like these. Christopher H. wrote, “Intended or not, PowerPoint is an instrument of faculty control in the classroom. It inhibits interaction, squashes student creativity and inquisitiveness, interferes with faculty responsiveness, and reduces students to passive consumers of knowledge. . .” Keith D. has observed a “depressing number of professors who have no idea how to use such programs. I have seen slides with up to 75 to 100 words on them. . .hour and a half lectures with 50 or 60 slides.” Jana M notes that when there are too many slides “students sit back like they are watching a movie instead of taking notes and asking questions.” Joanne A. shared a comment from a student who loved PowerPoint “because he didn’t have to do anything.”
It was a good exchange with folks doing what I had hoped: revisiting their use of PowerPoint—what they do and why they do it. Thanks to all who contributed! It would be equally useful for students to revisit (or maybe visit for the first time) the role of PowerPoint in their efforts to learn. What does it contribute? When is it a crutch? What learning skills does it develop? It would be interesting for faculty to then ponder students’ perspectives.


Faculty Focus: Teaching Critical Thinking: Are We Clear?

November 30, 2011

Teaching Critical Thinking: Are We Clear?

I’ve been thinking about critical thinking. I just finished reading Stephen Brookfield’s new book on the topic, Teaching for Critical Thinking. (Side note: Stephen is a prolific author, writing on a variety of teaching-learning topics and his work has generated a number of classics including The Skillful Teacher, Discussion as a Way of Teaching, co-authored with Stephen Preskill, and Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. If you don’t know his work, by all means add it to your reading list). My recent journal reading contained a couple of interesting articles on critical thinking as well.
Critical thinking seems like such an abstract, even elusive, concept to me. I know, there are all sorts of concrete definitions for it, but the way it influences our pedagogical thinking and classroom practice is not very precise. Part of the problem may be all those different definitions. As the authors of one of the articles note, “critical thinking can include the thinker’s dispositions and orientations; a range of specific analytical, evaluative, and problem-solving skills, contextual influences; use of multiple perspectives; awareness of one’s own assumptions, capacities for metacognition; or a specific set of thinking processes or tasks.” (Stassen, Herrington, and Henderson, p. 127)
The second article points out that many political science faculty (I think this could be said of most faculty in general) offer pretty generic advice on assignments where students are expected to show evidence of critical thinking. “Most suggestions for critical thinking assignments offer vague advice: allow students to discuss matters, tell students they need to think critically, ask them to rewrite.” (Fitzgerald and Baird, p. 624) The article then proposes a variety of assignment designs that promote the development of critical thinking skills related to evidence assessment. Most of the designs are pretty discipline-specific, but I thought several points in the article were excellent. We aren’t as purposeful as we should be in designing assignments that promote critical thinking, however we define it, and if we have come up with creative activities and assignments that are effective (meaning we have assessed how well they work), we don’t share those much beyond a few favorite colleagues.
Brookfield offers something useful in his book that I hadn’t seen before—a list of times in a course when critical thinking (defined as “clarifying and checking assumptions by viewing material from different perspectives” p. 79) is particularly important.
  • When skills and knowledge have to be applied in the real world
  • When independent judgment is needed
  • When alternative interpretations and perspectives are possible
  • When actions and decisions need to be informed
  • When rapid judgments are called for
  • When students are encouraged to see themselves as knowledge generators
The various points made in these articles and by Brookfield reminded me of a metaphor offered by Tim van Gelder in a highly useful article that offers six cognitive science lessons for teaching critical thinking. His first lesson is that critical thinking is hard. “Humans are not naturally critical. Indeed, like ballet, critical thinking is a highly contrived activity … ballet is something people can only do well with many years of painful, expensive, dedicated training. Evolution did not intend us to walk on the ends of our toes, and whatever Aristotle might have said, we were not designed to be all that critical either.” (p. 42)
Despite being hard, critical thinking is terribly important. The political science authors wonder if it isn’t even so more today in “an information environment characterized by a fragmented media establishment, blurb-driven news coverage, and an increasingly polarized political system.” (p. 619) We can’t leave the development of critical thinking skills to chance, hoping students will pick them up by virtue of being around folks who are good thinkers and who assign them logically coherent things to read. We must be clear about what we mean by critical thinking and purposeful in the activities and assignments we use to promote its development.

Brookfield, S. D. Teaching for Critical Thinking. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.
Fitzgerald, J. and Baird, V. A. (2011). Taking a step back: Teaching critical thinking by distinguishing appropriate type of evidence. PS, Political Science and Politics, (July), 619-624.
Stassen, M. L., Herrington, A., and Henderson, L. Defining Thinking in Higher Education. In Miller, J. E. and Groccia, J. E., eds. To Improve the Academy, 30. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.
Van Gelder, T. (2005). Teaching critical thinking: Some lessons from cognitive science. College Teaching, 35 (1), 41-46.