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A composition professor notices that her students don’t know how to take notes.

[University students no longer know] how to take notes from research material. A dependency culture on teachers [has been] created, facilitated by PowerPoint and its non-Microsoft equivalents Keynote and Impress. When these students arrive at university, many academics perpetuate the problem. A lack of planning and preparation for a teaching session means too many walk into a lecture with a memory stick of PowerPoint slides. They have not written a lecture. They have written PowerPoint slides. They think these two things are the same. They are not. We see similar problems in conferences. Researchers are meant to present scholarship to colleagues. Instead they project PowerPoint slides.

… [For teachers] the default setting is [now] PowerPoint. …Think about the lectures, seminars and conferences you have attended in the past five years. Think about how many presenters used PowerPoint slides as notes for speaking. They either spent the entire session glued to the podium or looking back to the auditorium’s screen. Both systems perpetuated a single flaw: they read the text visible to the audience. Such an action is offensive to those who take the time to “listen” to a session.

This flaw in presentation and speaking leads to the final – and most serious – problem for our students. Such presenters have written their entire script on PowerPoint slides. Students recognised this strategy. Therefore, why should they attend a lecture or seminar when everything that is said is on the slides? That is not laziness on the part of a student. They are being logical. There is no benefit in attending the class.

The unfortunate consequence of this decision is that students lose – or do not gain – the ability to take notes. The decision by school teachers to present not only the key ideas from the curriculum, but notes from textbooks via PowerPoint slides is having an impact at universities…. [W]e have generations of students arriving at university unable to take notes from monographs and articles.

The writer concludes by touching on UD‘s PowerPoint-as-Burqa theory. UD argues that the burgeoning popularity of both the mobile person-hiding machine and the PowerPoint machine involves a growing terror of public interaction in itself. Not merely public speaking. Public anything.

Public speaking initiates fear. At conferences, I see experienced speakers shaking and sweating. I wonder why they put themselves through it. Similarly, preparation for a teaching session is stressful, time consuming and requires continual reflection. We as teachers are never good enough. We must improve. But PowerPoint creates a coma of conformity and a cap on student expectations of their learning environment.

Clifford Nass, a Stanford University professor, argued that PowerPoint “lifts the floor” of public speaking and at the same time “lowers the ceiling”. Students do not see appalling lectures, but neither do they see the brilliant. Journalist Francisco van Jole was even more definitive, describing PowerPoint as: “Viagra of the spoken word…a wonder pill for flabby lectures.” Like Viagra, PowerPoint only appears to benefit the user. The little blue pill triggers unfortunate side-effects such as light-headedness, indigestion, lower back pain and seeing an aura around objects. Similarly, PowerPoint medicates a nervous and ill-prepared speaker. What about the side-effects on students? For all the celebration of student-centred learning, PowerPointed teaching passes without comment.

All PowerPointers, like all burqa-wearers, look alike. They are asleep to the world, inside their coma of conformity.


UD thanks Bill.

Margaret Soltan, July 28, 2010 9:02AM
Posted in: PowerPoint Confidential

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12 Responses to “A composition professor notices that her students don’t know how to take notes.”

  1. david foster Says:

    Didn’t *rhetoric* used to be considered one of the fundamental liberal arts? (checks–yep. part of the Trivium.) Seems to me that no one should graduate from college without serious experience in constructing and delivering a talk…*without* visual aids such as P/P as well as with such visual aids. I can’t think of too many professions in which this ability is useless, and for many fields…teaching, selling, management…it is of utmost importance. It’s also a significant *citizenship* skill, too, in that one can develop a better feel for when he is being bullshitted if he has some experience in being the one doing the convincing.

  2. Trudy Says:

    True, true, true. And I for one admit to having used Powerpoint to “lift” a mediocre lecture when I haven’t had the time to make it better. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t demonize technology for a decrease in teaching quality. It serves to visually highlight crucial points when under time constraint or provide maps and charts that support a presentation. It should never become the core of a lecture or presentation!

  3. theprofessor Says:

    When I was a young’un in college, I was outraged at the total lack of preparation exhibited by a few faculty. Then I sat through two courses with teachers who delivered, verbatim, carefully written, excruciatingly boring lectures. I made sure not to bring my pocket-knife to class, for fear that I would start chipping an escape tunnel through the floor. From time to time, once of these characters scrawled something on the board, usually in so illegible a script that no one had any idea what it was. The other character seemed to write single words selected at random from the lecture, usually from segments that had been delivered five minutes before.

  4. Bill Gleason Says:

    We didn’t use to have theprofessor’s prob back in good ole’ organic chemistry. The prof put the stuff up on the blackboard and it had to be legible or else how could you take notes? This system even forced me – when a young prof – to write legibly.

    Hard to fake an organic chemistry lecture without any preparation.

    Of course the conscientious folks reworked their lecture every year to include new or more topical material. The usual suspects gave the same lectures for 30+ years, sitting through which was about equal in suffering to bad powerpoint.

    Ah, the good old days, right prof?

  5. theprofessor Says:

    The most amazing classroom performance I ever saw was in high school. I had him for two years, in analysis and calculus. He never used notes, never stammered, never hesitated for so much as a second–a smooth flow of math in a mellifluous baritone. I never saw him make a single misstep on even the most difficult proofs. Come to think of it, there was a whole generation of students who had never seen him make a mistake.

    There were not many like him though!

  6. jim Says:

    Let me defend powerpoint users, at least some, those not locked in a coma.

    Nass is half right. Powerpoint raises the floor. There are many people whose public presentations, prior to powerpoint, had been disastrous, but are now tolerable. But it does not lower the ceiling. Rather it tempts those in the middle who, prior to powerpoint, had taken the effort to do better, but now succumb to the temptation to do worse.

    Well chosen supporting slides can enhance a presentation. There are three legitimate uses. (1) Emphasis: pick out particular words, phrases in the talk which are important and one wants the audience to take particular note of. Sometimes one does this by tone of voice, but sometimes one wants to relate a story, say, in a neutral or conversational tone. Slides can then emphasize aspects you wish emphasized. (2) Illustration: pictures, maps, diagrams, tables, quotations. I’ve seen lawyers’ talks where cases are referred to informally — “In Brewer, the court held …” — with the full citation being displayed on the screen behind the speaker. In cases where a piece of text is being analyzed, put the text up, gesture at it as one speaks. (3) Augmentation: there are cases where some operation or process is difficult to describe in words, even with the aid of gestures, but an animation or short video makes it clear.

    In all these situations, the lecture, the talk is primary. Prima, le parole. Slides are secondary, chosen to enhance the words. There is, in effect, a double preparation: first preparing a lecture without reference to slides and then finding appropriate enhancement. The problem with powerpoint, and it’s a problem that PowerPoint, the Microsoft application, encourages, is that people use it not to enhance the experience of the audience, but to make life easier for the speaker. In the worst case, the speaker thinks of powerpoint as a poor man’s teleprompter, reading his or her talk off the slides. But almost as bad is writing the slides first, a habit that PowerPoint’s outliner inculcates, then thinking up (often a minimal set of) words to accompany them. This is where the endless parade of three bullet point slides comes from. One prepares an inferior product faster.

    The sin, here, is self-absorption. The technology merely facilitates it.

  7. Bill Gleason Says:

    two comments to jim-

    1) Some subjects – organic chemistry and the prof mentioned calculus – lend themselves very well to putting structures of molecules or equations on a blackboard while explaining what they mean. The student then must transcribe the structures or equations and make them their own. This is the lost art of note taking described in the original post. Note taking is a valuable skill in the real world, by the way. These physical activities help the student to learn or remember (your choice). This activity simply cannot be duplicated by powerpoint.

    2) As Jim notes, if you feel that you HAVE to use powerpoint for some things – and I do – there is a field under the slide preparation window for notes. Use this for your lecture notes – what you want to get across with the slides. And THEN decide what shorthand will go in the slide to accompany your lecture.

    Maybe everyone knows this, if so sorry…

  8. How should a good lecture be prepared? « More or Less Bunk Says:

    […] said, this article (via UD, of course) got me thinking. The writer is explaining why her students don’t know how to take […]

  9. TAFKAU Says:

    On Power Point as Viagra:

    See your doctor immediately if you experience a lecture lasting more than four hours…

  10. Margaret Soltan Says:

    TAFKAU: Your comment made me laugh so much I began to fear Giggle Incontinence.

  11. Bill Gleason Says:

    It is funny. But I have seen a powerpoint lecture where the guy showed 5% of his slides during the first 95% of his talk, and then just clicked through about fifty slides in the last five minutes…

    Somehow not preparing a talk or a lecture seems like an insult to the audience or class.

    And this guy WAS an administrator.

  12. conservativeEnglishPhd Says:

    I was going to say something, but comment #6 said all of what I was thinking of writing – and then some (and more eloquently as well).

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