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Read, write, or listen during class?

November 18, 2011

In Slide Stress?, Sidneyeve Matrix writes about some of the issues around using and distributing image-heavy presentations. This humorous quote from one of her students got me thinking about the competing verbal tasks we give students during class:

Prof Matrix’s slides are very attractive and zen,
but you have to write down everything yourself.

Sidneyeve uses a lot of visuals and few words, so there is little in the way of pre-digested notes on the screen. She does not usually distribute slides ahead of time, believing it might reduce engagement. Her presentations are normally available after class on Slideshare.

Slide ProjectorIn Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds argues against handing out slides. The handout should be designed separately and perhaps include a summary, along with material which time did not allow to be covered. Reynolds also suggests distributing the handout after the presentation.

In an article titled Sharing slides is a gesture, Harrie Verveer says her presentations are much more than slides. Viewing a series of images carries little meaning if you did not hear what she was saying while they were projected.

Most people dislike doing work they feel is unnecessary. In some classes PowerPoint slides reduce the workload for students by providing a large percentage of class notes. The student quoted above has to concentrate harder because Sidneyeve Matrix does not offer that shortcut.

When slides are laden with text, the part of the viewer’s brain which processes words has a harder time concentrating on what is being said in the classroom. The same is true for paper text; with no printed handout to distract them, students should find it easier to attend to a lecture or discussion.

Reading is one thing; the other side of the coin is writing. Some students feel they must furiously write down everything they hear in a lecture. The brain cannot handle taking extensive notes and concentrating on a complex idea at the same time. In a class where difficult explanations are common, there’s little value in making students copy down large quantities of basic facts and theorems verbatim.

Assuming that at any given moment the brain can handle one verbal task well, on which task do you prefer that students spend most of their class moments?

  • Listen to what is being said
  • Read text on a screen
  • Read writing on a chalkboard
  • Read text in a handout
  • Write down extensive notes

[Photo “Slide Projector” by Marmotto on Flickr]

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