Feb 24 2009

Lecture Course Motherfucking Pedagogy

Sciecewoman has an interesting post up in which she seeks advice on the question of pacing of large lecture courses:

I’m struggling with pacing in my introductory class this semester. I’ll admit that I am using powerpoint, even though I’ve been told that it is evil beyond all evil. I’m sure that there are better ways to reach ~100 students at once, but I’m not sure what they are for this introductory science course.

* * *

[H]ow do I strike the right balance between keeping class moving so as not to bore the heck out of the good students, while going slow enough that I don’t overwhelm the slow-note-takers or can’t-write-while-listening people?

Here are Comrade PhysioProf’s thoughts:

(1) The good students are the ones to focus on, as they have a chance of actually mastering the material. You are making a horrible mistake by allowing less-competent students to derail the class by indulging their requests for you to return to slides you have already covered. These less-competent students are probably never going to master the material anyway. Teach to the top 25% of your class, and the rest will just have to figure out a way to get what they can out of the course.

(2) Aiming classroom pedagogy at the top 25% of students is the correct thing to do. I’d much rather have some less-competent students have more difficulty than have some more-competent students not be given the opportunity to learn as much as possible. If they are sufficiently motivated, the less-competent students can get help from the TAs.

(3) For a one-hour lecture I generally have about ten slides. None of the slides have text on them. This means that there is no issue with students derailing lecture with complaints such as SciWo receives that they don’t have time to “copy down” text from slides.

(4) My lectures are not at all a recitation of facts for transcription and memorization. Rather, they are designed to provide the students with appropriate conceptual frameworks for understanding the facts that they should be gleaning from their textbook. The actual volume of notetaking in my lectures should be very modest. If you are giving lectures that demand large volumes of notetaking, you are doing it wrong.


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  1. 1
    Professor in Training

    In theory, I agree with #1 & #2 but I would argue that #3 & #4 are largely dependent on the subject matter, level of students (ie undergrad vs grad, freshman vs senior) and the prescribed text/s for the class.

    For the applied physiology course I teach to upper level undergrads, I use ~20 slides for a 1h class – of these about 50% have text/major points and 50% contain figures/diagrams/conceptual frameworks. I assign readings from their various texts prior to class and then assume a rudimentary knowledge during the lectures based on them having actually read the readings. My goal in these classes is the same as what you mentioned in #4, ie for the students to see and be able to explain how everything is connected rather than them being able to regurgitate facts/figures.

  2. 2

    Excellent reply. While I have had some professors with your attitude, I wish more had done so. I’ve spent far too many lectures banging my head off a desk in frustration as some idiot in the front row repeatedly holds up class to take down notes or obsessing over the specifics of how we will be tested.

  3. 3
    Kris McN

    I completely agree with teaching up, not down. When I was in grad school teaching Intro Bio labs I wrote my own quizzes and tests, and I had high expectations for my students. Lab sections taught by undergrad TAs (I know, don’t get me started) all had their quizzes and tests written by the lab director. I know for a full, fucking fact that my quizzes and tests were more challenging than the pathetic crap written by the lab director, yet lo and behold, my sections had the same grade distributions as all the other sections. C students did just enough studying to get a C and A students studied hard enough to get As. However, the C students in my labs knew more about basic biology when they left than the C students in the other sections, I guarantee. Students will rise up (or sink) to meet whatever level of expectations you set for them.

  4. 4
    Dr J

    WTF is going on here? A thoughtful and considered post without a single fucking swear word, I feel let down.

    Largely I agree with you and PiT. The important issue is surely: can the ones who are motivated and interested enough get sufficient information and intellectual development from a lecture? The rest, well that is their choice.

  5. 5
    Comrade PhysioProf

    WTF is going on here? A thoughtful and considered post without a single fucking swear word, I feel let down.

    Fixed! HTH, HAND!

  6. 6
    Dr J


  7. 7
    The Barefoot Bum

    If you are giving lectures that demand large volumes of notetaking, you are doing it wrong.

    I love you, Comrade, and I want to have your baby!

  8. 8

    I teach 200 undergrads – alot of nonmajors, alot of freshmen. The ppts are available on Bb by the morning of the lecture. I delete the figure slides so there’s incentive to come to class to figure out what the hell I’m going over. Plus, I give an attendance quiz each month that’s meant to be an easy question about that day’s lecture at the end of the class. I break up the lecture with youtube videos illustrating my points, bridging different topics, or making it applicable to their lives. The youtube time (5 min max clip) gives the slow pokes a chance to catch up with their thoughts and pull some of the things I talked about together. The front row and “nodders” give me the feedback to know my blabbing is connecting with them. My students have been emailing me youtube videos and news links they come across, so I know the material is sticking with them! YAY stoos!

  9. 9
    Comrade PhysioProf

    I break up the lecture with youtube videos illustrating my points, bridging different topics, or making it applicable to their lives.

    What the fuck is your course called, Funny Shit Cats Do 101??

  10. 10

    Point #4 should be on the first page of every teaching manual. That is all.

  11. 11

    Oh, Physio… you wish! You’ll have to make some vids in physiomotherfuckinology. BBC doesn’t have any of those.

  12. 12

    I’d watch lectures on “physiomotherfuckinology.”

    As long as the lecturer called it that, of course. :) Can I get extra credit for making popcorn for the whole class?

  13. 13
    Juniper Shoemaker

    In my experience as a student, a lot of the youths who comprise most of the intro course crowd wouldn’t get an A even if the instructor’s pace slowed to a crawl. Incompetence can be one reason, yes. But, for many, there is also the immaturity/self-unawareness/lack of discipline that results in ditching classes, not reading, or assuming that one is such a genius that one can devote 3/4ths of all the semester to the “solving” of “personal problems” and then catch up on the entire course and all the others one in which one is enrolled in those few short weeks.

    Some of my friends complained. But I never blamed professors for preferring to “teach up”– to the engaged, wisely humble students who studied hard, turned their papers in on time and loved the material. And, as an undergrad, I was often not one of those students.

  14. 14
    Juniper Shoemaker

    P.S. I second thanks for your addition of “motherfucking” to the post title. For a minute there, I’d thought you were preparing to give up swearing for Lent.

  15. 15

    Teach up to the top 25%?!?!?!! What the fuck?!?!? What about the rest of us dumbasses?

    Is dumbass one word or two?

  16. 16

    Teach up to the top 25%?!?!?!! What the fuck?!?!? What about the rest of us dumbasses?

    Fucking record the lecture and go over it again later. Meanwhile, those of us in the top five percent can stay somewhat engaged.

    If you are giving lectures that demand large volumes of notetaking, you are doing it wrong.

    No fucking shit! The best fucking lectures clarify things that we already know about, because we read the fucking book (or at least looked at (or maybe rested our head on (sorry, but I could teach my motherfucking humanities class))).

  17. 17
    Miss Outlier

    “Students will rise up (or sink) to meet whatever level of expectations you set for them.”


    And I have no problem with teachers teaching to the top 25% – as long as there is a TA or office hours where mudphudder and I can go get help…

  18. 18

    Repeating what I said over at Sciencewoman’s blog,

    From a student: Powerpoint ruins even the best instructors’ lectures. In fact, any technology (tablets, document cameras, etc) ruins lectures. The only situation in which using technology in a lecture actually helps students learn is when you are teaching about the technology in question (e.g. explaining how to use math software, demonstrating compiling code, etc).

    Hands down, the absolute best way to deliver a lecture is “live,” out of your head and onto a white/chalkboard. Write down the important points; discuss the overarching concepts without writing (they can add the spoken stuff if they feel they need to, but the core of their notes should be precisely what you write on the board). You can’t go too fast this way – you’re limited by your own writing speed. And the potential for interactivity is built in; you’ll make occasional mistakes (encourage the class to correct you politely!), and you can ask the class for ideas on how to solve a problem or approach a particular topic.

    Now, this can occasionally be a problem in classes where students in the back need binoculars to see what you’re writing on the board. In this situation it’s reasonable to use something like a tablet or document camera so they can see what you’re writing (this isn’t ideal, though, as simply standing/sitting in one place talking and writing creates a sort of monotonous feel). But it’s important that it be written as you say it, as a model for their notes, and that you deliver from memory/minimalist notes so the students can see your thought process and how you extract important information.

    The most important thing learned in lecture is not the actual information – students can get that from reading the book/notes. Rather, it’s the way you think about it – the connections in your head. As an expert in your field, you’ve made a lot of connections that your students haven’t yet. That’s why you’re valuable to them. Show them how you think.

    I think this ties pretty well into your thoughts, CPP.

  19. 19
    Dr. No

    I agree, but in my experience they take notes no matter what the fuck you say.

  20. 20
    Rev. Bob

    It’s time for a visit with your friendly neighborhood educational technologist or education dept. guru.

    If you’re at USC, you can talk to my son Patrick. Tell him I sent you.

  21. 21
    Science Bear

    I am currently enrolled in a cross-listed advanced undergrad/ grad biochem course and it not uncommon for her to cover >70 slides in a single 75 minute lecture. This makes me want to shoot myself, because more often than not I could simply have read the slides on my own at home and gotten just as much out of them as if I had attended class.

    I agree completely with the points listed above. I am also enrolled in a graduate metabolism course and the professor takes the same approach you mentioned. I am engaged during the lecture and have to take notes (and therefore must be in class). There are figures in the powerpoint so I am sure to get the big picture of how things interrelate or how specific mechanisms work, which is great for a very visual learner such as myself.

    I have found this teaching method allows for maximal retention on my part. I have written information, I see visual representations of what we discuss, I hear the professor lecture and have to think about new information to answer discussion questions. I think long-term retention is highest when information is presented as Comrade PhysioProf outlined.

  22. 22
    Science Bear

    @ those concerned about large classes and teaching things that must be copied down from either spoken or drawn explanations:

    This method has been used in several courses I have had here at PSU, with >80 students (in some cases >150 students), so it can be done with large groups successfully.

    In lecture halls with groups this large, writing on the board is not fesable. To overcome this, a friend I have who assists with Organic Chem (>180 students), uses an overhead projector hooked to a monitor so the whole class can see on two separate screens anything that is written.

  23. 23

    I take notes no matter what. There’s something about the act of writing things down that helps embed the facts in my brain. I rarely actually go back and look at my notes–when I do I can rarely make sense of them–but if I don’t take notes, I don’t get anything out of the lecture.

    Now, on to pedagogy. I haven’t taught at the college level but I have taught in other situations and have certainly sat in on any number of classes…

    People sink to the level of stupidity you expect from them. (By no means does that mean that people will rise to the level of intelligence you expect from them.) If you teach to the top 25%, the lowest 25% will be frustrated. If you teach to the lowest 25%, the top 25% will be frustrated. Theoretically, this means that the same number of people will be frustrated, but it’s not so: when you teach to the lowest common denominator, YOU get frustrated. So teach to the bright students and save your sanity!

    Powerpoint was invented for classes where people display lots o’ graphs and other visuals which would be too hard (or too time consuming) to draw on the board. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who writes text on a Powerpoint slide and then proceeds to “lecture” by reading aloud said text should be drawn and quartered.

  24. 24
    Science Bear

    I sat through 50 minutes of “lecture” today that consisted of the professor flying through 108 slides. She didn’t even have time to mention anything about some of them, and resorted to, “you can read this for yourself later.” This was said in reference to the tiny font, which completely covered some of the slides. I think it is due to the fact the font was so small she couldn’t read it even from where SHE stood.

  25. 25
    Rev. Bob

    Think contrapuntally. Say the words and have the slides be counterpoint: pictures, graphs, demos.

    Best 2 lectures I ever gave (about what I was doing with VRML for bring a daughter to work day, and blog technology for colleagues in the company). I had a volunteer from the audience do the demo while I pointed and talked. I made sure the tasks were something the volunteers couldn’t possibly fail at. Simple tasks, clear instructions, the audiences identified with their representatives. Rave notices. I also picked really bright volunteers and served as cheerleader.

    Second best lecture I ever saw: a rep from a maker of a 3D modeling tool had his 7 year old kid do the demo.

    Best lecture I ever saw: at SIGGRAPH I sat in a room with 1000 of the smartest people in graphics, spellbound while, with live 3D animated illustration, the presenter told us a story! Never forget story. We loved the tech, but we wanted to know if Raven and the animals were going to escape the witch.

    Worst lecture I ever gave: a presentation on a system architecture where my team recycled slides prepared for a a previous presentation to a lay audience. Our audience was a Colonel with strong technical background. He was pissed.

    Worst I ever supervised. I was a session chair and my presenter didn’t get the whole concept of a 10 minute presentation. She ran over so far I ended up running the session over time and got the conference chair pissed at me.

    Worst lecture I ever heard about (this one is legendary): the presenter had 10 slides, the 10 pages of his paper, which he proceeded to read verbatim. Badly.

  26. 26
    Rev. Bob

    One more. You’re all too young to remember the referent: Huntley-Brinkley. When you have to do a lot of talking, have 2 people take turns, each gazing at the other as though they were the most important person in the world. I saw a demonstration of this by two masters, and they were finishing each others’ sentences and hitchhiking on each others’ ideas so that Roman candles of ideas were shooting through the air.

    Keys: really like the other person and really want to hear what they have to say.

  27. 27
    Cognitive Psychologist

    I was REQUIRED to use powerpoint to teach intro psych, and I was prohibited from posting the slides online. Have to <3 being a TA 0 they dump the course on us but don’t let us do what we want. It was okay at first but after the 9th time teaching the class it got REALLY fucking old.

    Though a good portion of the slides are pictures, graphs, videos, tables, etc, I do include text on my slides, and students do generally copy them down. I know it’s bullshit, but if I were to lecture how CPP does (which generally I would prefer) I would get terrible course evaluations and get fired. As it is, I refuse to give in on certain things (such as handing out lecture outlines/guided notes a.k.a. BULLSHIT) and I pay for it. I can’t wait to get tenure so I can finally relax and teach however the fuck I want to.

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