The lecture has dominated instructional practice for several centuries. In the last few decades, though, the lecture mode of instruction has often been criticized by advocates of active learning approaches. In this episode, Dr. Christine Harrington joins us to discuss evidence on the effectiveness of lectures and how we can create lectures that better support student learning. Christine is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at New Jersey City University and the author of Dynamic Lecturing and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success. Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.
- Dr. Christine Harrington Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at New Jersey City University (NJCU) Previously served as Executive Director of the Center for Student Success at the New Jersey Council of County Colleges (NJCCC)
- Todd Zakrajsek – Co-author of Dynamic Learning
- Dr. Neil Bradbury – Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at Rosalind Franklin University of Science and Medicine
- Bradbury, N. A. (2016). Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more? Advances in Physiology Education,40(4), 509-513.
- Richard Mayer- Professor of Psychology and Multimedia Learning at University of California at Santa Barbara
- Mayer, R. (2019). How Multimedia Can Improve Learning and Instruction. In J. Dunlosky & K. Rawson (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Cognition and Education (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 460-479). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108235631.019
- New Jersey City University Ed.D. in Community College Leadership program
- Dr. Harrington’s book, Dynamic Lecturing can be purchased from Stylus Publishing and listeners can use promo code: “ETS20” (excellent teaching series) to receive a 20% discount on the Dynamic Lecturing book or Dr. Harrington’s other book, Designing a Motivational Syllabus
Tea For Teaching episodes referenced
- Tea for Teaching Episode 16 “Student attention span” with Physiology and Biophysics professor Neil Bradbury
- Tea for Teaching Episode 42 “Flipping the classroom” with Chemistry professor Dominick Casadonte (this contains a discussion of optimal video length)
- Tea for Teaching Episode 33 “The Marmots of Finance” with Finance professor Alex Butler
Student Feedback tools
John: The lecture has dominated instructional practice for several centuries. In the last few decades, though, the lecture mode of instruction has often been criticized by advocates of active learning approaches. In this episode, we examine evidence on the effectiveness of lectures and how we can create lectures that better support student learning.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Christine Harrington, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at New Jersey City University and the author of Dynamic Lecturing and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success. Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. Welcome Christine.
Rebecca: Actually it should be “welcome back.”
Christine: Thank you for having me again. I’m looking forward to a new conversation.
John: Our teas today are:
Christine: I am not today.
Rebecca: I am drinking Lady Grey.
John: And I’m drinking ginger peach black tea today. We’ve invited you here this time to talk about one of your other books on dynamic lecturing. It’s not uncommon for people to argue that lecturing is ineffective, but it’s still one of the most common forms of instructional delivery. Why is lecturing so often discouraged?
Christine: This is an interesting question. I’m not really sure where this stems from but I think that the push for active learning started to pit the lecture against the active learning approaches, the collaboration. And I really do believe that there is significant value in both approaches and I’m not sure why it became an “either or” kind of situation. But unfortunately, it really has, and one of the reasons that I decided to write this book was because the lecturing is the most common method, you know, it’s still the tried and true method of faculty rely on all of the time. And yet, there are very few resources or support to help faculty be effective at lecturing. If you go to a professional development conference, a teaching learning conference, you’re hard pressed to find a session—unless I’m there, I guess – on lecturing. I actually haven’t seen another one yet—so there really are not any resources for faculty on this and it’s not really fair that it got such a bad reputation, because there’s not validity in that thinking.
Rebecca: So that leads to a good question. What is the research on effective lecturing?
Christine: So in terms of what is effective, I think one of the first questions that we need to ask ourselves is, “Well what are we talking about?” because much of the research that exists out there, if you’re going to research a boring, monotonous lecturer… who’s got the old yellow papers and just is reading and not even looking at the students and engaging them, or you’re talking about a lecture that is dynamic and the presenter is passionate and excited about the topic. We’re not always measuring the same concept. And that’s true in group work as well. So really, when we talk about teaching and learning practices, and we try to look at the literature about what works and what doesn’t, it’s very complicated because of the complexities associated with the teaching and learning processes. However, there is research out there that does support the lecture. What much of the research really points to is that the lecture is most effective for novice learners. For students who have very little background knowledge in the subject matter, they need to have someone who’s an expert present that information in a way that they can take it in so that they are developing that expertise and hopefully learning that content. If you ask them to just engage in what’s been called inquiry-based learning or case-based learning, the research really shows that that approach is not as effective if you don’t have the background knowledge. So what in essence happens is that well-intentioned faculty and teachers use that approach and end up wasting a lot of precious learning time, because the students in the groups aren’t equipped yet to be able to tackle those high-level questions and to figure it out without the guidance. There’s some interesting research out there on the importance of it being done well, but also making sure that the lecture is done before the group work is done, so that the foundational knowledge kind of sets the stage for some of those more what we call traditional active collaborative learning experiences. So if you want to look at novice learners, you’re going to see a strong correlation between the lecture working and student success outcomes. And then there’s something called the expertise reversal effect. What happens there is the more that you know about the subject matter, the less helpful the lecture is and the more helpful those more active collaborative learning group exercises are. I still today learn from TED Talk or a great lecture. But I’m also going to really get a lot of value—especially in my area of expertise—out of dialoguing with other experts and engaging those conversations because I have a strong foundational background. So it’s kind of interesting when we think about “Does the lecture work or does it not work?” it depends on who you’re talking about, in what subject, for what purpose, under what conditions. So it’s not as simple as a yes or no, but I will tell you that there is a significant body of research that says the lecture is effective. It’s not that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we just need to make sure we’re using that method effectively.
Rebecca: One thing that you hinted at, Christine, is that with lecture from an expert, there seems to be an opportunity to ask questions, which is why just reading about stuff maybe isn’t always sufficient. If you have that opportunity to ask questions of the lecturer or am I reading into something that I shouldn’t be reading into?
Christine: No, I think you’re right on track there. And actually, I think that’s part of the reason why live lectures are more effective than online lectures… because in a live lecture, you as the expert get to see the puzzled looks on the faces. So even if they’re not offering up the questions, you can say, “I think I need to throw in another example.” And students can ask for clarification along the way, so that you’re not just going on without them following and getting the concepts that you’re discussing. Lectures are not one-way kinds of teaching methods, but they really are two-way processes. Even though it seems heavier on the expert delivering to the student, the student can be very engaged and also asked to be engaged through questioning and other activities during the lecture.
John: And it’s not necessarily an “either-or” condition… that you can embed active learning activities in the lecture, right?
Christine: And that’s exactly how I would define a dynamic lecture: that you would incorporate what I’ll call brief active learning breaks into the lecture because we don’t want to just talk at students for a really long time… and let’s face it, as faculty, we could do that. And quite honestly, it’s the easiest thing to do, especially when you know your subject really well. And you can just walk in and start talking about your subject matter. But that’s not necessarily going to lead to the highest levels of learning. So when we look at what our learning outcomes are for the course, we need to structure our course in a way that’s going to help students learn and achieve those learning outcomes. So in order to do that, it’s really powerful to build in some brief reflective opportunities for students to engage with the content. And Mayer has really done a lot of work in this space, saying that it’s a cognitive focus that needs to be emphasized more so than an interactive focus. So the breaks don’t always need to be a social or group break. It doesn’t have to be a partner activity or a small group activity. Some of them can be independent activities. The key is that once you get a certain amount of information, you need to process that information and digest it and there are a variety of techniques that you can use to help students really learn that content. One of my favorite studies—which is a little bit disturbing, and in fact, I always say it hurts our feelings when we find out what it actually says—there’s a research study that compares students who had no pause in their lecture. So that the professor just kept talking the entire time sharing all the expertise in an effective strategy and an effective way. And then another condition where the instructor paused three times for two minutes each. So we’re talking about a total of six minutes during the class period that the professor stopped talking and during that time the research study was set up such that the students had to do what’s called a “compare and share” of their notes. They had two minutes to take a look at what their partner wrote down, fill in any gaps that they had, and engage in that. And at the end of the day, what they found out was that the students in the pause condition really outperform significantly students in the no-pause condition and it sounds exciting at first until you realize that “You mean, If I stopped talking for six minutes my students learn more?” like that kind of hurts their feelings. [LAUGHTER] But it’s true. Sometimes especially at the end of a class, we start talking faster and faster and trying to give more information as if that’s going to lead to high levels of learning. We need to keep in mind that students need time to digest and process. And it’s really important that we strategically and intentionally build in those opportunities for our students during our lecture.
John: And as they’re building their own mental models, just giving them a little time to process it and to compare notes takes advantage of peer instruction. You’ve got some reflection going on there, and you’ve got a little bit of retrieval going on there. So there’s a lot of evidence-based strategies that are embedded in that basic activity.
Rebecca: I think it also helps students who might start feeling panicked because they didn’t get everything in their notes… give them a second to maybe fill it in and then they don’t feel so panicked and they can focus again. If you get anxious because you feel like you’re behind, it’s really hard to focus.
Christine: Absolutely, and it is human nature for us. Our attention wanders, no matter how wonderful a lecture is, life is happening to you. Sometimes it’s easy to have mind wandering happen and you don’t want students to be penalized for that happening for a brief moment. So giving them opportunities to get back on track and refocus I think is really important. And John, as you mentioned before, there are several of these great learning breaks that you can use that are very, very much grounded in the research. You mentioned retrieval practice, for instance and we all know about the testing effect and how powerful that is. And I think we focus primarily on taking tests and encouraging quizzing—and that’s definitely an important component of what we should be doing in the way that we structure our classes so that students get to benefit from the testing effect—but quite honestly, we don’t have to grade everything and not everything needs to be called a quiz or a test. But if you ask students to do the classic, one-minute paper, for instance, that really is retrieving the content that they just learned and giving them practice at doing that will make it more likely that they transfer those actions into their world outside of the classroom, so that when they’re studying, they also engage in those same kinds of evidence-based practices.
Rebecca: I think a lot of times when you hear good lecturing, people think about TED Talks and maybe some of the storytelling and things that happen or the visual strategies that are used in those talks. Are there elements of those that come into strong dynamic lecturing in the classroom? Are there things that are missing from those that we should be thinking about in our own classroom?
Christine: I think you talked about something that’s really important: Storytelling. For ages and ages storytelling has been a way that we have learned and I think we have all been on the edge of our seats in a lecture that was based on storytelling. We want to know what’s going to happen next. And the lecture really can become the story of our discipline. And we can weave in personal stories and examples and things to make the content come alive for our students. It really puts it into context for them and helps them identify and see the relevance of the material that’s being discussed in their real world application. So to me, I think storytelling is probably one of the reasons why lecturing is so effective if it’s done well and you are weaving that in and mesmerizing your students with the chapter content. The the key element is doing that effectively. So I would say, “Absolutely, that is great.” Although TED Talks, when you think about them, obviously they’re online and they’re one directional still. So stories can be more just told by the storyteller and not have audience participation or they’re stories where you think back to your days in elementary school, where the teacher would pause and ask for you to get engaged in the story and maybe predict what would happen next, and to think about examples from your own world. And I think that’s what we can do in the live lecture, sitting there with students face to face we can give them those opportunities to do a prediction. “What do you think this research study is going to find? What is the key finding going to be? You heard how the study was set up, what are the implications of that?” You’re getting them to think about it and to be really engaged in the story and participants in the story, I think is one of the areas where we can as faculty enhance the effectiveness of the lecture.
Rebecca: How does a faculty member learn to be a better storyteller?
Christine: I think that some of that’s natural, I think some of us are more naturally better storytellers than others. But one of the strategies that I suggest to faculty is for you as the expert to take a step back and to think about what are the key elements of your story? Or what are your big ideas of your lecture? Because it’s all natural, and it all flows to you as an expert, because you know, this material so well. But for your students who are getting exposed to it for the first time—or maybe on the second or third time hearing this content—they don’t know what the big ideas are. So I think that one of the strategies that faculty can use to become better storytellers is to almost map out what are the many chapters in this book that I’m telling, right? Who are the characters and the main players? What are the big theorists that we’re going to talk about? Or, what are the big researchers that we’re going to discuss? And what are the key variables—or the factors really—that are going to comprise this story? I think one of the most helpful things you can do as a faculty member to strengthen your lecture, is to step back and identify what are the three big ideas or major elements of this lecture for today. And if you’re able to do that, and then clearly communicate those to the students in the beginning and throughout every time that those big ideas are getting introduced, that will really help students hone in on the most important elements versus getting lost in some of the details of the story.
John: That’s one of the ways it helps reduce the cognitive load of the students so they can focus on those key points, without getting lost in the details that they’re not quite ready to incorporate into their models. What do we know about student attention and how we can keep student attention during a lecture? I know sometimes when I have a large class of 3 to 400 some odd students, sometimes their attention will wander. What can be done to try to keep that, a more constant level of attention and focus?
Christine: Well I don’t know what you’re doing, John, I don’t have that problem. [LAUGHTER] No, only kidding. [LAUGHTER] Attention during a lecture as an interesting topic. You know, I’ve been going around the country doing a lot of presentations on dynamic lecturing. And as you know, my colleague and co author, Todd Zakrajsek speaks on this topic quite a bit. He said, “Christine, try this out when you go present. I want you to ask the audience how long a student can pay attention during the lecture.” He said, “Just throw the question out there and see what they say.” And I have done this and he has done this, you know, we’ve compared and shared notes of ourselves and immediately people are throwing out numbers. It doesn’t take very long at all, the numbers usually start out like and hover in that 15 to 20 minute range —although I get, you know, some wise guys in the audience a 90 seconds and some others who are more optimistic, saying larger amounts — but immediately they’re throwing numbers out. So I said to Todd when I was writing the book, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I’m usually pretty good at finding the research. I can’t find the research on this topic.” I said, “I heard this over and over. I’ve been to professional conferences where the presenter has said 15 to 20 minutes is all that folks can maintain their attention for, so you’re going to have to change things up if you want them to stay attentive and I couldn’t find it.” And we had this really deep conversation about it. And he says, “Now go and ask those audiences, how long would a student be able to pay attention if they were reading” and immediately you hear silence for a minute, because they’re processing and they’re trying to decide how long it would be for reading. So you don’t get answers right away. What almost always happens is somebody says, “It depends” pretty quickly. Or if they do say any numbers — and they do sometimes — they’re usually saying it in a much more tentative voice, lower, not as loud and enthusiastically, and not with confidence. Todd and I will say to our audiences is, “Why is that? Well doesn’t it depend for both the lecture and the reading?” It depends a lot on whether I liked the book, if it’s written in a way that I can understand it, am I able to take it in — if I’m reading a really dense, heavy textbook in a subject I don’t know and I don’t understand what I’m reading — I’m going to be done with that in a couple of seconds. But if I’m reading something that I really enjoy, and I have some background knowledge on and I’m able to take in and I care about, then I’m going to read for hours at end. I mean, you could be on the beach reading all day long, right? The same is true in a lecture. There really is no magical number about how many minutes a student can pay attention to. It depends on how much they care and their personal variables as much as the professor variables. Obviously, the attention span would be longer in an interactive, engaging presentation versus a monotonous boring presentation. The folks who talk about the 15 to 20 minute mark, it’s really not based on the research. However, there is some mind-wandering research that does say that students report higher levels of mind wandering in the second half a class as compared to the first half of class. It seems that there is a small drop around that 20 minute mark, that may have been where it came from. But, I have to be honest with you, some areas I can tell you those robust data or we have like hundreds of studies — this is a handful of studies, we don’t have an enormous body of research in this space — but the good news is, is that it started to get people thinking about: “I guess, if we need to keep students attentive, then we need to switch things up.” And I don’t think that was bad practice. Despite it not being founded on good research, I think that the result was probably positive if faculty were in fact incorporating some active learning break that could be advantageous for student learning.
John: Actually, this is a topic we talked about in an earlier podcast. In Episode 16, one of the people we interviewed, Neil Bradbury, had written a paper on attention span during lecture because he was faced with the same thing. He kept being told that you should keep your lectures or videos to 10 to 15 minutes or so at the most. And so he went to try to find the research and he published this in the Advances in Physiological Education a couple years ago. He found that it was based on a study that was really just looking at note taking and it was done in one class and it was based on an analysis of students’ notes and how much they wrote during different periods of the lecture, which had very little relationship necessarily to the importance of what was being discussed and so forth. And that became cited over and over again in other studies, and then people just started repeating it without ever seeming to go back and analyze that. And I think there was another podcast where someone had looked at attention on videos, he was looking at how effective videos of different links were on student learning — it was in chemistry, I believe. There really isn’t much research on a student attention span. And that obviously will vary, as you said, with the quality of the presentation. The students are willing to spend hours watching movies, we don’t see them walking out or starting to chat with their friends 10 or 15 minutes in, normally.
Christine: Right. And I think that some of the online video research that people rely on is sometimes is for non-educational purposes, so they’re looking at the attention span of someone watching a video from a marketing perspective. But when there’s no grade attached, we’re in a different situation. Hopefully we’re with an audience that has some motivation, they’re in the class, they’re in college, so their motivational level, I think, is very different than a consumer. I think it’s problematic that we’re trying to bring all of this really heavy, deep content into these like very brief news clips. But don’t think that this is the way that students are going to learn best. I remember I was working with someone and they were convinced they had to be two minutes or less. I’m like, “What can I accomplish in two minutes or less?” I mean, I can give you a quick news flash, but if you want to have deep learning, we’re going to have to have a deeper conversation. And I suspect you’re going to want additional examples from me, and you’re going to want me to share the relevance and that will actually help you. So, I think online videos are not as engaging as in-person videos. We probably do need to have them maybe in shorter chunks, but the key is is trying to bring their attention back and your initial question was, “How do you maintain their attention throughout?” And one of the strategies I think that we’re all very aware of is that we need a hook or something at the beginning of a presentation or beginning of a class. But we don’t really think about the hook throughout the class. So I advocate for faculty to go back to those three big ideas that I asked them to identify and identify a hook or an attention grabber before you introduce each big idea. It can vary, I get kind of silly in my classes sometimes, and we’ll use hand gestures and things of that nature. But for the faculty member who’s not comfortable doing that, you can do something as simple as saying, “Here’s big idea number two coming your way,” right? Because it doesn’t have to be that complicated. So I think the idea is that our lectures just like textbooks are filled with more important content and less important content and when we’re talking about the more important content, the chapters bring attention to that with bold headings and things of that nature. What are we doing in our lecture to help them see? Where is the bold heading of our lecture? Do they get to see those subheadings? Can they figure that out or are we in a little rabbit hole of detail somewhere… that they don’t necessarily even need all of that information?
John: In one of our earlier podcasts, Alex Butler was using an example where there were certain key big ideas in his class and he used images on that. And he put those images on whenever there was an application of those big ideas. And that sounded like a really nice application continued over the whole semester, not just within a single lecture, even.
Rebecca: I couldn’t help but hear as you were talking, “accessibility, accessibility, accessibility.” because structured content is one of the biggest themes of accessibility — or one of the biggest principles to make things accessible digitally — but you’re talking about the same exact concept in a lecture. What is the skeleton or the outline of what we’re talking about so that people can kind of fill in the blanks? And sometimes you have to make that obvious to someone who doesn’t have the expertise that you have because it’s obvious to you what those are.
John: To develop the scaffolding that they need to make sense of it all to fit it all together.
Rebecca: And an outline is like a scaffolding.
Christine: That’s excellent. Yeah, I love it. That’s an excellent point. That’s terrific.
Rebecca: I was wondering, Christine, if you could talk us through one of your lectures, one of your classes. What does it look like? What does it feel like?
Christine: Sure. So I begin class with an activity called “dusting off the cobweb.” So the first thing that I do is, they know as soon as we walk into the class together, they got to put their books away, their notebooks away, and they need to just rely on their brains to engage in practice retrieval. And the question on the table is, What did we talk about last class? So they have a minute and a half to begin that exercise. And they’re talking with a partner and they’re trying to remember what they recall from last class. After about a minute and a half or so then I have them open up their books and their notebooks and fill in any gaps. So they’re going to continue to talk about What did we talk about? And at this point you hear, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I forgot about that” and I’m sitting out there thinking, “Yeah, I can’t believe you forgot about it, but I’m glad you’re remembering now.” So about three minutes or so passes, and then what I do is I’ll randomly call on students. I’m not a fan of randomly calling on students if you don’t give them processing time… talking about accessibility issues and students with disabilities and processing information in a different way. But after I gave you three minutes to do what I call a fairly low-stakes engagement, I think you’re all fair game. So I’m going to call on you and you’re going to remind us of what we talked about from last class. So now we spent about another five minutes or so recapping some of the highlights. If they don’t mention something that I think is particularly important for us to refresh on, especially given the new content that we’re going to do, then we do that. So I always begin with this because what that does is it activates their prior knowledge so that they’re ready to take in the new information and the new information will be easier to learn because it can stick onto that previous knowledge that they just learned from the last class. So that takes about, you know, five or seven minutes or so. The next thing I usually do in my lectures, I shift to a reading assignment so they usually have some kind of reading assignment — might be a journal article, might be the chapter — and they have questions that they need to answer. This is another activate their prior knowledge kind of activity and holding them accountable for the reading and learning outside of class so that I’m not having to spoon feed everything to them. So now we spend another 10 or 15 minutes where they go over those questions, and this will be with a different partner, and I actually go around the classroom and do spot checking of their assignment while they’re engaged in those activities and I grade them — they’re, you know, low stakes kind of grades, but I grade them nonetheless. So it keeps them on track and it really keeps them focused and interesting that you mentioned that the visual image before because sometimes I’m asking them to do their reading assignments in picture format, like I want them to use either SmartArt or graphics or images because otherwise I find that they’re trying to like copy content that they don’t get. So I’m trying to get them to digest the content as best they can when we’re working together. So then when we’re done with that, now as I spot check, I can see which topics seem to be the ones that they got pretty well. And I still will go over them, but in a much briefer way versus the topics that I could see that they might have been struggling with and they had questions like, sometimes I’ll be walking around, it will be like, “Dr. Harrington, I really didn’t understand this question” and that might be a theme. So then that’s the one that I’m spending a little bit more time on. It’s kind of a very modified version of the intro teaching. It’s not quite exactly following that model but I’m using that reading activity to kind of guide the lecturing and then during the lecture, I will identify what my three big ideas are and I usually do some kind of gesture. So I’ll introduce it with like a gesture about whatever the topic is, get them really excited. I get a little loud and excited, “It’s big idea number one time!” and then I go into the content and then I always have a practice opportunity after it. So after every big idea — and that varies, it might be as simple as a turn and talk or one-minute summary. Sometimes I put them into smaller groups to do like a case study or to develop and answer Socratic questions related to the content. So that piece will vary depending on the nature of what it is that I’m talking about — and I’ll repeat that through the next two big ideas. And then at the end of class I usually will do a very quick — it might be only five minutes — like a preview of the next chapter to make it a little bit easier for them to read. So I’ll highlight stuff, I know that a content’s coming up, let’s say it’s the learning chapter in psychology. I know classical conditioning is often challenging for them to wrap their hands around, I might give them an example and expose them at least to some of the vocabulary and the language that’s going to be in the chapter so that they’re all set and ready to roll with the reading assignment for the next time. That’s kind of what a typical lecture would look like for me.
Rebecca: Thanks. I think a lot of times we often hear some best practices but don’t really take time to think about how that actually plays out throughout an entire class period.
Christine: Mmm-hmm. In the back of the book, you’ll see that there are lots of forms that I have created for faculty and one of them is the sequencing. So, on one of the forms, I’m asking them to plan by identifying: what are the big ideas? How are they going to draw attention to those? What examples are you going to give? What kind of active learning break are you going to give? And then there’s another document that helps them sequence the activity: to always begin with some kind of introductory activity, and then going through those three big ideas and at the end, some kind of concluding activity to get them set for the next learning adventure.
John: Those worksheets and forms that you provide at the end of the book are superb, and that alone is a good reason to buy the book, in addition to all the other wonderful content included in it.
Christine: Thank you.
John: For those people who use multimedia in presentations… who use PowerPoint or visual imagery or perhaps videos, do you have any recommendations on how multimedia could be used or how presentations can be designed to more effectively maintain student attention?
Christine: Absolutely. I think that this is another area that’s gotten the baby thrown out with the bathwater. You see all these sessions, Death by PowerPoint… that PowerPoints are overdone, and sometimes people are rolling their eyes if you’re going to use a PowerPoint. Well again, the PowerPoint is an incredibly effective tool, if it’s done well. If it’s done poorly, it’s an incredibly ineffective tool. We need to make sure we’re using evidence based practices for creating the multimedia, whether it’s slides, videos, whatever tool it is that you’re using. And this is an area that has a robust amount of literature. Mayer has done, I think hundreds of experimental studies on what works best with multimedia presentations and has really found that adding visual images really enhances learning. In psychology, we have a concept called the picture superiority effect, where our memory for pictures is stronger than our memory for word. Something I didn’t mention before in terms of my presentation, my lecture, I always have the PowerPoint as my visual backdrop. It’s not our textbook on slides, it’s really a visual story. It’s kind of like the picture to the storybook. That’s what I view the multimedia presentations to be. So if you look at his research, basically you should have one big giant image and maybe a couple of words associated with that image, and that would be the best PowerPoint slide. And I joke with a lot of my faculty colleagues and I’m like, “Look, I know that I’ve had those slides with so many bullets.” In fact, I’ve heard professional say you’re only to have so many bullets and so many words. Well again, I can’t find any research on any of that. No, stop the bullets, stop the words, go with one big image and just a couple of words. But I said to my faculty colleagues, “I know I too have had slides that had too many words on them. And I’ll tell you exactly why that was the case. It was because I was just starting to teach that class and I didn’t want to forget something. So it was a tool for me, it was not a tool for them. What I learned to do is to have two separate tools, I could still have my additional notes if I didn’t want to forget something. But it is not a visual aid to put it there because it’s not helping them, it’s hurting them.” So to create a powerful presentation really means you need to think clearly about what images are best going to communicate your content, and then to put that up on the board as a visual backdrop, and then take any notes that you need to put it aside and it can be helpful to share those notes. Again, going back to the accessibility issue, if you have notes, why not share them with students? It’s a good idea to share them, but they’re not visual aid for your lecture. Because students can’t do what Mayer called, the redundancy principle. But I actually like to call it the be quiet or shut up principle. We can’t listen and read at the same time. So if you have a slide that has a lot of words, you have students saying, “Hmm, should I be reading this? or should I be listening to what that person is saying? I can’t do both at them same time.” And what usually happens is nothing, so you don’t get anything out of it. If you do have to use a lot of words on the slide, which I think would be a very rare occasion, then you should shut up and let them read it or read it together — I don’t think it matters one way or the other. I’m not familiar with any research that points you in one direction — and then describe it, but don’t talk over your slides. That really is problematic for learning. It’s not even that it’s not helpful, it’s actually harmful to learning.
John: In presentations, instructors will often use some technology to get feedback from the students. What are some effective ways of getting feedback from all of your students or for many of your students, during a presentation?
Christine: Well, I think that the technology tools available today really allow us to engage our students in a new way. So whether you use something like a Poll Everywhere, or a Kahoot! tool or clickers, or asking them to engage via Twitter, there’s so many tools out there that can get students engaged. And I think especially with large classrooms, if you’re trying to lecture, sometimes you don’t know whether they understood the concept that you described. And even asking a quiz question about it, and having them answer it via technology can show you and them whether or not everybody’s kind of on the right track. Now, of course, whenever you introduce technology, you also introduce the possibility of increased distraction. So you have to be mindful. I think that you want to be careful about it. And I think students often respond well to faculty when they believe that you really care about them and are interested in them being successful. So by sharing the rationale and structuring it before you begin to use those tools — and you might even make a joke about it and say, “Look, I’m going to be having you pull out your cell phones but you’re going to also have to put them back, you know, so we’re going to be like on cue here, it’s out, in, you know, like bring them into the class, put them out of the class.” — So I think it is important for us to recognize that the temptation to be distracted is going to be high once we start using their cell phones, because there could be a message on there that they all of a sudden pulls them into a different direction. But the value of getting everyone engaged is powerful and some faculty will even count those to increase their accountability throughout the class and to keep them more focused on the questions if they do count in some way. But I think you have to be careful about that because some students may need more time on task to learn that content. So if I didn’t get it in five minutes, I don’t think I should be penalized. So, it is a tricky process and I think you just need to know your students and what works best in your classroom. But there’s so many great tools out there that really allow faculty to engage students throughout, and engage them in the practice retrieval actions as well.
Rebecca: So one of the things that faculty always want to know is whether or not they’re doing a good job. So how would you recommend faculty get useful feedback about the quality of their lectures and maybe tips for improvement?
Christine: Yeah, I think this is a really important point because I have heard about some faculty actually getting poor evaluations just because they use the lecture. So I think that we have to do a variety of things. First of all, we need to, A: educate our peers, and obviously our chairs and deans and whatnot, about the value of the lecture. And then we need to then figure out well, how can we best evaluate whether or not a faculty member is doing an effective lecture or not? In the back of my book, I also do have a chapter on evaluating lectures and I think that the listeners would probably find it valuable to go through that to see. Because what I basically have done is, taken all of the research-based practices and turn them into kind of self-evaluation or peer-evaluation questions. You can also engage in self assessment as well as the peer assessments, I think both are critical to have you really think about. I think it’s essential that we talk to the person who’s observing us ahead of time so they have context for what’s happening. So to have kind of a pre-meeting that really describes what’s happened and transpired in the class before this isolated lecture that you’re coming into, so that they know any of the story about why it is you might be doing what you’re doing. And also to ask them specifically: “You know, I’m trying out this new brief active learning break, we haven’t done this one before. Maybe we’re going to try asking one another Socratic questions, could you help me be another pair of eyes to see, were people engaged in this? Were they struggling? Were the instructions clear? Were they taking the ball and running with it right away or where they fumbling and not really knowing what to do immediately and needed more guidance?” I think that there are so many strategies, it’s not like there’s a wrong or a right way to do it exactly. I think that the key is, are you integrating the research based practices in a way that supports the learning goals of your class? So really keeping hyper focused on the learning outcome that you’re trying to accomplish that day.
John: So we always end with a question: What’s next?
Christine: Well, I mentioned to you before that I just took on a new position, so I’m now at New Jersey City University. I am a faculty member and also co-coordinator in our brand new (Ed. D.) Community College Leadership program. So as part of this, I mean my primary focus is going to be obviously the launching of this new program, some of this includes curriculum development, and marketing, and recruitment. And I’m really excited to get this program off the ground because we really need to build the leadership capacity in the community college sector, at all levels. So very excited about that. But I do have a new book that I’m going to be writing, I actually just got the contract last week, it’s going to be about the guided pathways movement, which is all focused on increasing student success completion rates. And it’s primarily a community college initiative, although, many of the four year colleges also have been getting into the space, and the book is going to be focused on engaging both full- and part-time faculty in Guided Pathways Leadership. So to get them engaged in this movement, and to really see themselves as leaders in the student success reform efforts… so really excited about that and I have some other potential things in the mix to that hopefully will pan out as well. But lots of great stuff happening for me, so I really appreciate this opportunity and look forward to staying connected with both of you.
John: We really appreciate you joining us.
Rebecca: Yeah, we always have a lot of fun and walk away thinking about a lot of things we can start doing to improve our own classrooms.
John: And you can find Christine’s books at Stylus Publishing, and I believe there’s a discount code available for our listeners.
Christine: Yes, if they put in ETS — which stands for excellent teaching series — 20, they will get a 20% discount on the Dynamic Lecturing book but also the Designing a Motivational Syllabus, and I believe it’s going to work for all the books in the series that will eventually come out. So it will be a 10 book series once all of the books are out and published, but ETS20 would be that discount code.
Rebecca: Well, thanks for joining us. We always have a great time.
Christine: Well, thank you. Always my pleasure, I appreciate it.
John: Thank you.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, and Jacob Alverson.