12 Days of Teaching, Day 2: Slide Design

Search Google Ngram Viewer for PowerPoint* and you’ll see that the phrase rockets into our vocabulary from 1991 onwards. It appears briefly in the 1870s and steadily from 1945 onwards, but really becomes a thing from the early 90s.

I’ve cropped the scale to show how the phrase permeates books from 1980 onwards. And below is the equivalent time period for the phrase active learning. I’m digressing with active learning however, just that it’s not a new thing.

Back to slides and Powerpoint. A search of GoogleScholar reveals a clutch of glorious studies on the shift from paper-based lecture notes (handouts? chalk and talk?) to Powerpoint lectures, and the benefits of being able to put stuff online. [Examples: http://www.ascilite.org/conferences/adelaide96/papers/26.html ; http://horizon.unc.edu/projects/monograph/CD/Science_Mathematics/Pence.html ; https://digital-library.theiet.org/content/conferences/10.1049/ic_19960882]. Issues such as the length of time it takes staff to shift their paper-based teaching materials onto slides (estimated as 12 hours per 1 hour of content in one paper), the affordances of powerpoint in providing access to lecture material around the clock, and other novelties such as projecting the slides are noted. It’s a different era and one that I, as an undergraduate student in the late 90s/early 00s remember quite clearly. I still had mixture of chalk’n’talk, pre-written overhead acetates, notes available beforehand on the academics website then printed onto acetates (creating a notes bundle in 48-72 point font if you were inclined to print) and eventually a drift into powerpoint, particularly by earlier career staff wielding laptops. There are some lovely journal articles available from the early days of PowerPoint on the pedagogy and hints and tips on designing slides. Holzi (Medical Teacher, Vol. 19, No. 3, 1997 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/01421599709019377?src=recsys) gives 12 tips for effective powerpoint presentations including suggestions on appropriate font size (gauge the size of the room first), the use of slide transitions (consider the impact on learning), and the use of images, clipart, sound and video (must link to the learning). It’s pretty sound advice really, and learner centred.

Today the advice on designing Powerpoint, Keynote or GoogleSlides tends to focus on inclusive learning with information on font style and size, using pre-determined templates to facilitate screenreaders, offering alt-text for figures, and non-white backgrounds. But how do you go about designing slides from a pedagogic point of view? I don’t think I’ve ever been on a course that covered that. I’ve been in plenty talks about how bad powerpoint is (‘death by powerpoint’ and it’s use in content bloat, but very little constructive advice on how to use Powerpoint effectively. I’m not an expert but here’s what I do…

In each lecture there are essential concepts, ‘nice to have’ concepts, and extraneous information. There are worked examples and these escalate (straight forward application of concept, application of concept with twist, application of concept and exception to concept twist etc). Thought has to be given to the sequence of the worked examples because jumping onto one with a twist too early risks unpicking the concept before it’s properly integrated. I’m a fan of ‘SLOP’ (shed loads of practice) for things that are reducible to algorithmic problem solving such as identifying proton or carbon environments in an organic molecule for NMR. I’m digressing again however: a lecture is not the place for SLOP, that’s really something that happens beyond contact time but I try to facilitate it. There are other problems that allow application of the concept and practice in the students own time or during the class.

  • I try to keep the slide number to a multiple of 4 – this allows the students to print 4 per page which is a reasonable trade off between size and space to annotate.
  • I try to have around 24 slides in a 1 hour (50 minutes of actual teaching time) class and this includes the title slide and any summary/problems/read this for next week slide.
  • I plan slides with empty space to facilitate the use of a tablet or iPad to annotate (see Day 1 post).
  • I build in slack – a problem that could be a worked example or a ‘do as part of your revision’ example depending on how fast the lecture is going.
  • I try not to skip content, and I try not to let the class ‘run into’ the next week’s session. If it’s on the slide, it’s there for a reason. I have pruned the volume of content relentlessly over the past few years in the courses I teach that are examinable. I treat each contact block as a discrete session that is interlinked with the ones before and after.
  • I use dark grey/black text on a pale grey background with one highlight colour such as dark purple, dark blue or dark green.
  • Number the slides.

The biggest problem when preparing slides is deciding how much information goes on the slide. And for this, you have to think about what your students are (a) doing in class, and (b) doing for revision, and articulate your expectations to your classes in advance (to let them come to the first session prepared). My expectations are that students are annotating a copy of the lecture notes in class so there is too much stuff on each slide for anyone taking comprehensive notes on blank paper. Minimum expectations is pen and paper to do worked examples. My expectations also are that students are supplementing the information on the slide with notes of what is said, and additional information from textbooks or other sources. This is either in-class, or afterwards using lecture capture or textbooks. The reading lists are clear, and often I have the necessary material digitised to reduce any possible excuses for accessing content. I also expect students who miss classes to obtain the notes from a classmate or use lecture capture, but this is one area in which I’m frequently surprised by the occasional student who doesn’t seem to try to catch up and just accepts that it’s stuff they wont know. Emails that start ‘I missed your lecture today, was anything important covered?’ don’t impress me much but I understand it sufficiently to allow that there are differing degrees of importance, urgently important stuff, and longer term important stuff.

In class, the slides exists for me to structure the content in a logical manner. Jargon, terminology, new terms go on the slides. Diagrams to annotate or consider go on the slides. Important explanations go on the slide. I flip-flop between high levels of text on slides (helps create better revision notes, mainly for examinable courses) and lower levels of text (weaker for revision so mainly for survey courses without exams). I sometimes include slides that summarise key information that I give on the slide before verbally, and I’m not afraid to say ‘this slide summarises what I’ve just said’ and move on quickly. I think you need to design slides with both the lecture and the future use in mind.

Using slides also lets me include images, and I’m a big fan of textbooks that give lecturers access to the images (less big a fan where I have to reregister every year, and even less fond of companies that don’t process my reregistration request in a timely manner), and to journal articles with figures available as powerpoint ready. I prefer to use ready made images rather than create my own, and that includes chemical structures. Generally I’ll draw reaction schemes rather than having to grapple with ChemDraw (my excuse is building up muscle memory and practice for the students!). Animations are OK in moderation, things like GIFs, but animated powerpoint slides (with about 3 exceptions) are horrific, as are slide transitions. In some classes, the survey courses that do not have exams, I’ll have a lot more images and a lot less text. My expectations are that students pay attention and take notes but not revision notes. No requirement as a revision aid there, but there is a link to assessment.

By keeping the number of concepts (in examinable courses) to the minimum required, it is perfectly obvious from the slides, worked examples, and problems what must be learned. I have never found a means of phrasing ‘intended learning outcomes’ that wasn’t drenched in edubabble speech or so generic as to be mostly useless. So I don’t really do it anymore – indicative content is in the module guide but more to the point, it’s outlined by the slides and any reading in the reading list. And that, ultimately, is the point of a lecture and the notes: the rough guide to the topic, with signposts to further reading or activities as required.

*Other slide preparation software is available.

Day 1: Tablet vs Whiteboard is available: http://chemedblog.kjhaxton.co.uk/blog/?p=5969

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