Take notes and learn now, or get them online and learn later

Today, as I sat in a physics class copying graphs from the lecture slides, I saw the guy in front of me ask his friend, “This is all going to be online later, right?” When he got an affirmative answer, he stopped writing entirely.

Even though I knew the notes would be online, I still wanted to copy the graphs. Taking notes means distilling the presented information and picking out the important parts, which implies at least some level of understanding. If I can’t explain something to myself on paper, it means I need to be asking more questions. As I’ve written before, it helps me learn. Continue reading

Please don’t use someone else’s PPT deck

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by a New York community based around the site LessWrong. The lecture focused on the site’s first core sequence, Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions. The subject matter and the meetup group were great (and highly recommended!), but the presentation suffered from one obvious shortfall: the presenter used someone else’s slide deck.

I happened to be at a party with the presenter the night before the lecture, and he told us how excited he was that an eminent authority on the subject had given him the slide deck he usually uses for the lecture. The presenter went on about how his presentation would be much better now with slides that were literally crafted by an expert.

Unfortunately for him, slide quality on its own doesn’t make a great presentation. Continue reading

Giving an overview improves your presentation

My housemate Jackie writes the blog Agent Plus Environment about her life as a Cognitive Science student. She and I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women In Computing this October, and she recently posted some presentation tips based on her impressions at the conference. Full details can be found on her entry, but the highlights are:
Continue reading

My PowerPoint rule of thumb

It’s the age of criticizing PowerPoint, and everybody’s doing it. Last November I wrote a wildly popular post on why I have trouble learning from Powerpoint presentations in college classes. This week, the New York Times published an article dramatizing the problem, writing how Powerpoint is hurting the United States’ war in Iraq. Officers’ time is too tied up in making bullet-pointed storyboards, to the extent that some of them spend more time on Powerpoint than anything else. I think the NYT chose the example of armed forces to make this story especially dramatic, and it goes a little over the top. The article even mentions that Obama was briefed with PowerPoint slides in last fall’s Afghan Strategy Review, as if to say that because the President sees it, PowerPoint is a scourge that has penetrated our deepest levels of government. Still, the article says out loud what many of us are afraid to: everyone is bored by Powerpoint presentations, and yet everyone expects them to be used.

I try to avoid the cursed Office product as much as possible. Sadly, a few of my professors actually require Powerpoint decks for class presentations. Having pity on my classmates, I try to make my presentations as interesting as possible. I have a rule of thumb, and it goes like this: when I consider what I need to include in each slide, I ask myself, if I were making this presentation without the aid of a projector, which visuals would I print out in hard copy because they’re that necessary to understanding the topic? These images, along with a caption or two, are the only things I’ll allow in my slide decks. If it’s not worth spending money to print out, it’s not worth wasting my audience’s time on. If there is something important to say, I think the best thing to do is just say it, and reserve the projector for images that aid understanding.

I think most people do not understand that their slide decks do not have to stand on their own. Instead, they copy half their speech into their slide deck, as though hearing it and reading it at the same time will increase the audience’s attention. This not only takes up more of the audience’s time, but the speaker also wastes more time making the presentation, as the officers quoted in the NYT article did. I think we’d save a lot of time in meetings if people would learn to just say what they wanted to say, instead of writing a storyboard about it.

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.

Why learning from PowerPoint lectures is frustrating

I’m in my third year of college now, and by this point I have the hang of determining what constitutes a good class and a bad class. In a good class, I have fun and learn a lot; in a bad class, I don’t have a good time and don’t learn very much. For me, receiving a good grade has nothing to do with whether the class is good or not. My first instinct is to judge a class’s quality on the material: my freshman year, I enjoyed my Japanese classes much more than my English classes, because reading literature and writing papers about it doesn’t excite me nearly as much as learning about Japanese pop culture does. However, subject matter being equal, the biggest influence on the quality of the class, and sometimes the most frustrating, is the teaching style of the professor. Some students just learn better from different styles of teaching than others. Recently I came to the conclusion that I do not learn well from classes in which the lectures are based on PowerPoint presentations.

Professors who use PowerPoint tend to present topics very quickly when they don’t have to do anything but talk. If every example and every diagram is on the screen, there isn’t much time for me to take notes on the subject of each slide. Lectures aided by chalkboard visuals are easier to take notes from because I can write what the professor writes on the board at the same time. Also, because there is usually more chalkboard space than screen space, if I am behind on note-taking, the visual will probably still be on the board for me to copy a few minutes later. A lot of professors try to solve this problem by handing out the lecture slides before class, or by posting them online. While this is great for a lot of students, it doesn’t work for me because I learn best and am most engaged if I have to take notes as if my grade depended on having a great record of the class and I would never see the material again. In classes with handouts, I tend to zone out and have to work harder to pay attention. Studies have shown[pdf] that taking high-quality notes improves organic memory: I rarely use my notes after the lecture because the act of physically writing information down helps me remember more of what goes on in class.

Another problem with PowerPoint in class is that many textbooks now come with ready-made PowerPoint lectures for each chapter. The problem is that when the professor does not make the presentation, they run the risk of sounding like they don’t know what they’re talking about. My current Operating Systems professor suffers from this. As each new slide comes up, he takes a second to read it and then starts with, “Okay, what this slide is talking about is …” or “What they mean by this is …” As opposed to explaining the material himself, it sounds like he just expects us to read the slides, and then let him elaborate. The primary instruction comes from the slides, and he just backs it up. The best professors, in my opinion, give primary instruction themselves, and let the screen be the backup. At first I thought this man was just a lame professor, but it wasn’t until he decided to lecture on a topic outside the textbook that I realized he really did know what he was talking about; it was just that the slides were holding him back.

I understand that there are times when having PowerPoint slides are appropriate, and even absolutely necessary. I can’t imagine taking an art history class, for example, without works of art being presented on a screen to the class. However, there are cases that could go either way. In quantitative classes where half the lecture might consist of doing example problems, the temptation exists for professors to put entire problems in the slides. This makes the presentation easy for the professor, because he or she doesn’t have to take extra time to draw the problem on the board. Also, by taking extra time to prep the slides, it’s less likely that there might be mistakes made in class by students or professors (I’m sure we’ve all spent hours wondering what happened with that example problem that just went awry.) What helps me most, though, is doing problems step by step as a class. When it’s all finished for you, the steps taken to find the solution are harder to follow. When I’m taking notes, I can make step-by-step instructions I can use for homework later.

This is to say nothing of professors who just don’t know how to use PowerPoint well, a problem that is by no means limited to college classes. So for you professors out there tempted to lessen your workload by making one presentation you can use for the rest of your tenure, please reconsider. I will thank you for it.

Update (2/6/10): If you liked this article, you may wish to read my follow up on what kind of lecture I do prefer.