I prefer my professor’s illegible handwriting to your PowerPoint presentation

In November, I wrote a post detailing my struggle to learn from PowerPoint presentations in my Operating Systems class. I’d like to take a moment to explain what kind of lecture style I do enjoy learning from.

Class notes. Click to enlarge.

One of my favorite professors teaches philosophy at my college, and I’m taking his Modern Western Philosophy class this semester. I don’t prefer his class because I like philosophy any better than computer science, but rather because I always feel like I’ve learned something from his lectures that I couldn’t have found elsewhere. His style is what I think a real college course should feel like.

The surprising part is not that he lectures without PowerPoint, because many professors also avoid presentation software. The surprising part is that I prefer his chalkboard notes over PowerPoint despite the fact that his handwriting is almost completely illegible, suggesting that there is a quality of “chalk talks” that is useful to my learning style beyond just being able to read the notes. I have some ideas why this might be:

• I focus on the presenter instead of the presentation. With both professor and a projector in the classroom, the presentation becomes a main character in the lecture, and sometimes overpowers the professor. This is especially true if the professor does not write his own slide deck. Taking the projector away can help the professor sound much more knowledgeable and in control of what he says.

• I don’t need to read the board to know what the professor has written. That he makes a note after a talking point is enough to know that it should be written my notes, too.

• Chalkboard notes are concise, while badly-made presentations contain overly wordy slides. No one would sit and take the time to transcribe as much in chalk as they could in PowerPoint. Also, professors write notes on the chalkboard in real time, which removes the temptation to sit and read a lengthy slide that has been prepared beforehand.

There is another aspect of my philosophy professor’s style that is specific to his subject which makes his lectures more effective. His class is about thoughts and events which occurred hundreds of years ago, and the class is situated in a building completed in 1897. Sitting in an old-fashioned classroom, with an old-fashioned professor, taking old-fashioned notes just puts me in the right mood to learn about historical thoughts and figures.

I concede that the class would probably be more effective if I could read the chalkboard notes, but I still do not think that this class would benefit from PowerPoint. While switching to PowerPoint might help me read the lecture points, it would change the entire style of the class, including the amount of notes presented and the focal point of the lecture. It would also add a flavor of modernity to an otherwise deliciously old-fashioned class. I’ll take my philosophy just the way it is, despite despite the illegible notes.

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  • Rubens

    Man this is a pretty bad article. Not one of your 3 points makes sense in any way. Projectors overpowering the professor? Seriously?

  • Dave

    I disagree completely with Rubens, your 3 points are spot on. I took an Algorithms course which was projector-based and spent the semester teaching myself. As another example, my Numerical Computation course was evenly divided between slides and whiteboard, and I found myself absorbing the notes from the board and having to go back over the information presented in slides. PowerPoint slides are fine for presentations that need to convey information in the form of graphs and figures, but they are being terribly abused as a data dump in place of communicating new ideas to students.

  • Dan

    @Rubens : don’t be so harsh, man.
    Nice, this is how I feel sometimes. I agree with all three points, although I didn’t really think about the 3rd one before. Good job writing this article.
    However, my problem is when I take lecture notes, they are always hard to make out and not very organized, so I have to rewrite them in order to use them. Sometimes, using PowerPoint notes to review is a good idea.

  • http://blog.seliger.com Jake

    Funny—this reminds me of a post I wrote about Laptops, Students, and Distraction. I’m a grad student in English lit at the University of Arizona and find that not having laptops, either in my hands or students’ hands, tends to make class go better.

    This might in part be for the obvious reasons, like disconnecting distraction, but also for one that I think less obvious: both the students and I are forced to do activities in class that can’t be done through other means, such as reading books: consequently, there’s a great focus on discussion, asking questions, and so forth.

    Even when I took comp sci classes as an undergrad, I didn’t bring a computer to class because the class experience seemed better without one. The same applies now that I’m on the other side of the desk.

  • Luke

    Makes perfect sense to me. I don’t like PowerPoint presentations; they often serve to distract you from key points with meaningless trivia, they steal focus from the professor (Don’t tell me you always look at the prof. when there is a presentation up), and they completely suck any sort of dynamics from the lecture. When a professor is stuck to a series of slides with no room for improvisation or tangents, and when said professor also uses said slides as a cruch (which is common), you lose the connection between teacher and student.

    Unfortunately, your criticism, Rubens, thus appears not only rather crass but also rather wrong, in my opinion.

  • rahul

    I took a course on concurrency during the previous year over the web. Even in this case (where some of your points do not apply – and notes are made available as transcript) I found that this course was the best compared to the others which used presentations.

    I think it has more to do with the fact that most of what is taught is not linear. Some parts require more explanations than others while some are trivial. Some require going back to a previous step and working forward again. This information is not captured in the presentations where the information is in the form of discrete pages that are presented linearly.

  • Jamison

    @ Rubens: Are you a college student?
    I have had plenty of classes where the professor didn’t answer questions because they deviated from the slides, or the focus was on getting to the end of the slides before the end of the class period instead of helping students learn the concepts. I have had PowerPoint classes that weren’t terrible, but all of my favorite classes have been without PowerPoints, and all of my least favorite classes have relied extensively on PowerPoints.
    @Jake: I bring my laptop to class, and I know that it has been detrimental to my grades at times because it distracts me. Right on for not allowing laptops.

  • Ben

    I disagree with the laptop hate. I find that I can take notes on a laptop and follow along, but when I try to handwrite them I lose track on the context switch from writing notes to reading the board. But yes, they can totally be distractions–it’s really just personal discipline. If you can’t manage a laptop without fapping to 4chan in class, then don’t use it.

  • http://hauru.eu Tomek

    I don’t agree with you, and to be short, just watch this video:
    I had a few teachers that did similar things an it worked amazingly well.

  • Kevin

    I agree completely. I’ve been taking graduate courses in mathematics and computer science and have noticed a trend towards PP. The PP based courses are invariably bad. On the flip side, the courses in which the professor writes stuff on the board, makes mistakes, we catch them, he asks questions, we interact, etc, are all stimulating and fun. PP based courses go faster than the speed of comprehension since the notes are already written. When the professor writes the notes, the brain can follow along. Not so with PP.

    Live on, oh black/whiteboard!

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  • http://web.mac.com/sungwonkim/Site/Welcome.html Sungwon

    I used to prefer handwriting to powerpoint till I had a professor who has really, I mean really horrible handwriting. Besides, I can read a lecture note before lecture with powerpoint presentation.

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  • dan

    I could read the hand writing on the black board… while not the best penmanship, certainly not illegible…


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  • John

    The problem is ultimately not the fault of the technology, but rather the fault of the instructor. If a projected view of notes can “overpower” a human, there is a problem with the human and his/her delivery of the content. Poorly developed PPT slides are not computer generated – they are human generated.

    Ultimately, what this comes down to is learning style and the blog post author here is an auditory learner. It is not that she’s gets value from the “chalk talk” (because she admits she can’t read most of it), but rather that the value lies in the fact that the instructor is moving from spoken word to the board. That is her cue that what the instructor just said is important. A properly designed PPT slide deck can have the same result. Unfortunately, most slides used in college courses do not and they are too overly prepared and text/content heavy.

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  • 98347kjf

    I agree with you 110%- powerpoints take the excitement out of class!

  • DJ

    obviously, you are the minority.

  • Bill Gibson

    Would you consider the way the following Khan Academy presentation was given effective for learning?  *I’m thinking that it would be as close to a professor talking, illustrating and making handwritten notes as he/she goes along as can be digitally recreated.