Library research does not need to be taught in every introductory course.

In four years of college, I’ve tried to get both depth and breadth into my class schedule, as a good liberal arts student should. In addition to computer science classes (my major) and Japanese classes (my minor), I’ve taken introductory classes in philosophy, math, cognitive science, history, English, and physics. However, taking a breadth of classes has led to an unintended consequence: I’ve had to endure four or five different introductions scholarly research.

The format is always the same: a research librarian comes to class, loads the PowerPoint deck, and proceeds to tell us how to search the library catalogue, order books from Interlibrary Loan, cite a source, and use Google Advanced Search. They’ll probably throw in a few slides on why Wikipedia is unreliable as a scholarly resource. Continue reading

Your laptop in class is distracting me, too.

In December I posted my thoughts on whether professors should allow students to use laptops in class. My main point was that regardless of whether it’s okay for students to distract themselves, their laptops are also distracting and disrespectful to the rest of the class and the professor. Most of the commenters disagreed with me, but my classmate Cordelia feels the same way. She posted this morning on her blog, One Two Six Oh Four, an illustrated example of how frustrating it can be.


Find the rest of the comic here.

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

Twitter and chat in class are signs of bigger problems

Last month I attended a “Technology in Education” panel in which one of the student panelists described a class she took while studying abroad. She praised the professor’s idea of creating a Twitter hashtag for the class. He would project the twitterstream containing the tag onto the screen during class, so the students could see what the others were tweeting, share links, and ask questions.

On Reddit two days ago, an education professor bemoaned his university’s chatroom system. His class is conducted in a computer lab, where all the students have access to a shared chatroom (which the professor cannot disable). The professor does not watch the chatroom while he lectures, but he can see afterward that a bunch of students use the chat to post about how bored they are.

Plenty of sites claim that Twitter and other chat services are great tools that improve in-class student engagement. I disagree; I think these tools are half measures that imply there are bigger problems in the class.

Continue reading

Should colleges ban laptops in class?

A debate has sprung up on my campus lately about whether it is acceptable to use a laptop in class, with a technology panel and two school paper articles on the subject. I wrote last January about my decision not to use a laptop in class based on my inability to keep up with typed notes, but rather than actual note taking, the current debate is largely over the way that students slack off with their laptops in class. While many students do use their laptops to take notes, it is my impression that even more use them to check their social networks instead of paying attention to the lecture. Continue reading

Raise my hand and risk being “that girl”?

One aspect of a class that is sure to frustrate me if it’s even a little off is its speed. When the pace of classroom instruction is slow, I start wondering why I took the class in the first place. I go to a pretty selective school, so I expect classes to progress at a good clip, because we’re pretty smart students and can keep up. It is the habit of one or two of my professors, however, to teach too slowly for my taste.

To be fair to my professors, the only reason their class goes slowly is because half the time they are waiting for a response to a question posed to the students when none of the students want to raise their hand to answer. Continue reading

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.

My classmates are taking their notes digitally, but I can’t fathom how they keep up

I noticed today that as I frantically scribbled to keep up with my philosophy professor’s lecture, there was an audible hum of typing in the classroom. It was the first time I noticed that I could count more students using netbooks than notebooks to take notes in class.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like to take notes with a pen and paper. As I’ve discussed previously, the act of writing helps cement the lecture material in my mind better than passive listening does, and studies have shown that it’s not just me [pdf]. Still, I know that my old-fashioned ways are quickly going out of style.

I don’t know if typing notes aids memory as well as taking notes on paper does, but I do know that it does not work for me. I decided at the beginning of last year that it would be nice to bring my laptop to class so that my notes would be neatly organized (and actually legible for once), and changed my mind after only one or two classes. I could never type fast enough to keep up with the professor, and every five minutes I found myself cursing at not being able to copy the diagram on the board. It was a relief to have my Five Stars and Pentel R.S.V.P.s back at the end of that little experiment. Considering my negative experience, I wonder how my classmates can keep up. I know that not everyone learns the same way I do; maybe my peers don’t need notes as copious as mine in order to do well.

If notes are going digital soon anyway, maybe there is a technology that will make up for my ineptitude with typed notes. Tablet computers have been around for years, but I know only one person who uses one in class, and even then she types rather than using the stylus to take written notes. (Maybe Apple’s soon-to-be-announced tablet will bring tablet computers into more common use, the same way the iPhone has with smartphones.) There are also electronic pens which record your written notes for later uploading. I was able to test-write one such pen at MacWorld Expo last year, and it was all right. It would probably mesh well with my way of learning, but I don’t trust myself either to bring one pen to every class or to keep it charged. I’m also not sure if my busy schedule can accommodate the extra step of uploading the notes from the pen to my computer.

Of course, I’m making the assumption that my classmates are actually using their computers to take notes rather than goof off online, which is a huge leap of faith and a different rant entirely. But even though I’m not keeping up with the latest tech trends in note-taking, I’m doing what works best for my learning style, and I’m okay with that.

A group project actually taught me something

One of my favorite classes this semester has been Intro to Cognitive Science. I took the class because more than a few of my friends who think the same way I do are Cognitive Science majors, and this semester the class was taught by one of the rock-star professors in the department. He’s a great lecturer, and I think I’ve learned a lot from the class about cognitive function, as well as the crossover between cognitive science and computer science. I might even get more into studying artificial intelligence before I graduate.

That said, while I think very highly of this professor, he did something I thought to be ridiculous this past week: he assigned a group essay.

I dislike group projects as much as the next person, because I worry that my group members will slack off and leave me with the brunt of the work. But even if they’re all hard workers, it still doesn’t feel fair to me that my grade will be partially determined by the efforts of people I have no control over. So to take control and ensure a good project, I feel pressured to take extra time and help the group members who need extra coaching to produce a decent piece of writing, which still does not seem fair.

Just having a group project is one thing, and I probably would have been okay with a different kind of project. Usually in these sorts of situations the group members can divvy up the work and put it all together close to the due date, spending minimal time consulting with other group members. But this assignment was a group essay. Essays, as I know them, are supposed to have a single point of view throughout to create coherence. How were we supposed to write the paper, I thought, without sitting together the whole time so that the person who wrote the conclusion knew what the person who who wrote the introduction had written? How was one paragraph supposed to follow smoothly to the next when the next paragraph had not been written yet?

The worst part, I felt, was that this was the last assignment in the class before finals season, meaning that during the time everyone was rushing to finish final class projects and study for finals, we also had to find time to meet as a group. It would have been more courteous, I thought, for the professor to have assigned this project much earlier in the semester.

Despite the fact that I spent a significantly larger amount of time worrying about the paper than actually writing it, the method we used to divide the work actually worked fairly well. Everyone did their research and came up with topics for the essay independently, and we went with the best idea among the four of us. The essay prompt came with 8 questions that had to be answered, so we divvied up the questions and answered them each in a paragraph or two. To put the whole thing together, we used Google Docs to compile our sections into one document, then sat around a table for a couple hours, each on our own laptops, reading through the paper, asking each other questions about what we had written, and editing simultaneously (Google Docs is cool with simultaneous editing like that). The end result did not flow as a paper written by one person might have, but it was at least coherent. My fellow group members really liked the simultaneous editing idea, and they had fun watching comments and corrections appear spontaneously in their writing.

I understand why students have to complete group projects: working in groups doesn’t stop in school, and we’ll probably be doing collaborative work the rest of our lives. For this paper specifically, the professor told us outright that the reason he assigned it was that no one researcher writes a scientific paper alone anymore, and that articles are now expected to include descriptions of how each author contributed. However, the difference between group projects in business and in schools is that in business there is usually a designated group leader, whereas in school the group members are expected to agree on everything democratically. This slows down the group’s progress and increases the need for constant consultation, which is the part that bothers me the most.

In retrospect, I guess assigning a group essay was not all that silly. I did learn some cool stuff about how the brain processes vision, and I did introduce my groupmates to the wonders of Google Docs. But the experience was still stressful, and like most students, I wish my professors would refrain from assigning group projects altogether!

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.