Thursday, May 19, 2016

Some Ramblings on Why I Don’t Use Powerpoint (much) in Teaching

I tend to be rather vocal against use of powerpoint for teaching. More accurately, I am a vocal critic of how powerpoint tends to be used in teaching. Let me provide a bit of context to understand how these view may have developed.

I went through my post-secondary schooling at an interesting transitionary period in instructional practice. The first time I viewed a powerpoint presentation—or even had heard of the software—was in 1996 as a first year college student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. I remember it clearly because I found it to be so bizarre. It was in a first-year speech course, and a student used powerpoint to display visual aids for his speech on pesticide use in Central Valley farms. Classrooms were not equipped with projectors, and even portable projection carts were hard to come by, so he held up his laptop with its tiny mid-90s screen and showed us the slides. Meanwhile, my speech on the medicinal benefits of marijuana consisted of clippings from High Times mounted on posterboard, accented by fading Crayola markers.

As I continued through my schooling powerpoint made a sporadic, but still quite rare, appearance in the classroom. It was mostly used to project images, in courses on art, art history, landscape architecture, archaeology, etc., as powerpoint was a clear advance over the photographic slideshows on which I grew up. It really was not until I took a biological psychology course at San Francisco State University in 2001 that I experienced a professor using powerpoint as the basis of the lecture itself. The slides were filled with text, almost all verbatim from the assigned textbook, and the instructor mostly read from the slides when delivering the lecture, occasionally deviating to inject a small aside—but then, back to the slides. I greatly enjoyed the content of that course, but man, did I hate being a student in it.  I spent the entire class session furiously copying down the slides into my notes, always panicked that the professor would advance the slide before I got down all of the material[1]. Class was also incredibly dull, because I was listening to what I was reading to what I was writing. Not good.

Seemingly overnight[2] nearly everyone was using powerpoint  to drive their teaching practice. No longer was it an aid, providing visuals to compliment the lecture, but it had become the lecture. I was confused, because I felt like I was witnessing teaching and higher education getting worse right before my eyes. For many years, from middle school through college, I had numerous teachers who captivated my attention, sparked my imagination, and challenged my thinking, and none of them used powerpoint. Indeed, the purpose of this “coming of age” story is not to provide a “good old days” account of what schooling was like for me in the very recent past. Not at all. Rather, the purpose is to highlight the fact that I know, from a good deal of experience, that powerpoint is not necessary for teaching well, and that powerpoint can even impede quality teaching. While some may quibble with the latter statement, the fact that the former even needs to be stated at all—let alone italicized—is a reflection of how far we have come.

My strong views on this issue became even more entrenched when I began teaching myself. My teaching mentor, Dr. Tom Spencer at San Francisco State University, was a lauded lecturer on campus. Despite his course being incredibly difficult, students loved taking it because he was a master lecturer and, accordingly, they felt like they learned so much. And he never used powerpoint. This is a notable feat, because he taught until 2010 and never used powerpoint, while by that time virtually everyone used powerpoint. Students still loved his class. They still gave him a standing ovation at the end of the semester. I served as his teaching assistant for two years, attending every class, giving many guest lectures. I observed closely and tried to pick up as much as I could.

When it came time to begin teaching my own courses, I decided to follow Dr. Spencer’s model. It just seemed like the proper approach to teaching for me[3]. Some years later, I still don’t use powerpoint much at all when I teach. It can be very useful for displaying graphs or complex figures, but my slides almost never consist only of text. I definitely use powerpoint more now than when I first started teaching[4], but again, it is a very limited use. Over time, I have come to endorse the following set of reasons why limited use of powerpoint is optimal. You may not agree with some (or any) of them, but perhaps they will help you to reflect on why you use powerpoint and what purpose you see the slides serving in the context of your educational objectives.

Flexibility. Hands down, number one reason to not use powerpoint: it is like an educational straight-jacket. You are almost entirely committed to the linear order of presentation that you determined prior to the beginning of class. This takes away all of your options. I think of good teaching as consisting of a large amount of improvisation. You should go into a class session prepared to cut material, move things around, add in some stuff if need be.  Ideally, you make all of these changes without the students even knowing. This is virtually impossible to do when using powerpoint. They will notice that you skipped some slides, and they will wonder about that. Not ideal. Being a flexible teacher can have beneficial carryover: I have been forced to begin both a job talk and conference presentation without my slides due to technical problems. In both cases I received high praise (and even some astonishment) that I was able to give the talk without the slides. Imagine that, talking about my work without powerpoint!

Pacing. One of the challenges of using powerpoint is that it can involve a lot of waiting. You put a slide up, and the students feel the need to copy down its contents. If you advance before students are finished with their copying, you might hear about it from them. When using the whiteboard, you align your pacing with your students’ pacing. As you write on the board, so to do they write in their notes. Everyone is working on the same pace, and there is much less waiting. It also gets you moving your body more. 

Movement. Relying heavily on powerpoint keeps you close to the podium, when you really need to be moving around. Using a slide-advancing doohickey can solve this problem pretty well, however. Move your body!

Deeper processing (potentially). Copying down material from slides onto notes is a form of shallow processing that does not serve the students well. It might help them locate and memorize content for an exam, but it does not facilitate actual learning. Deeper processing, in which students take notes in their own words, is much more beneficial.

Expectations. Instructors need to get away from the mindset that there is content they must cover or “get through.” To be sure, powerpoint cannot be entirely blamed for this problem, but the rigidity of the format seems to promote it. It is best to have modest goals for what your students should learn in each class meeting. “Getting through” loads of material might make you feel better, but what about the students? They do not benefit from this approach. At all.

Students are thankful. Over the years, I have received many “thank you for not using powerpoint” comments but I have never received a “I wish you used powerpoint” comment. Not one. Students expect powerpoint, and perhaps some instructors feel like students demand it, but if you are a quality teacher, they will appreciate that above all else.  

A single principle I suggest when creating powerpoints slides: always seek to replace text with an image, figure, diagram, etc. It can almost always be done, and almost always should be done. Ask yourself: how can I present this information in a non-text-based format?

Finally, above else, you should take the time to reflect on what you are actually doing. Why are you using powerpoint the way you are? How does it link with your teaching philosophy and goals for students? Is it serving you and the students in the best way possible? In fact, is it serving you, or is it controlling you?

[1] Which, as noted, was all in the book. Undergraduates can often be irrational, even those who become professors.
[2] But of course, not really, because that is not how change happens
[3] I do acknowledge, begrudgingly, that perhaps this approach is not a good fit for everyone.
[4] Mostly because it is much easier to flip it on and off in the middle of class, to switch from board to screen and back again. A few years ago this was pretty much out of the question.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Signed Reviews: Get on the Bus

Double-blind peer review, wherein both the names of authors and the names of the reviewers are kept secret, is often considered the gold standard when publishing scientific research. The primary rationale for this procedure is that it ostensibly reduces bias in the review process; the reviewers, not knowing the identity of the authors, will provide an objective review rather than showing preferential positive treatment or unreasonably negative treatment. Moreover, the procedure ostensibly protects the reviewers from downstream retribution if they provide critical reviews. These are the foundations on which double-blind review rests. It is my contention, however, that these foundations are far from firm, and in some cases may be in shambles. Accordingly, as an author I always submit the most un-blinded paper the journal will allow (variability is great here: some have no standards at all, others are completely unreasonable). Additionally, I have been signing my name to all manuscript reviews that I complete. While signed reviews may be common in some corners of psychology, they are still quite rare in the corners I tend to occupy (developmental, personality, cultural, ethnic minority, counseling) Here’s why I do it:

1) There has been a growing trend in psychology and beyond for increasing openness and transparency in how we go about our research. I strongly believe this is a good thing, and open review is a big part of that. Open-access journals such as PLoS One, Frontiers, and others have options for transparent reviews, and several personality journals disclose the authors’ identities during the review process (e.g., Journal of Research on Personality, Journal of Personality). Indeed, I agree with calls to have peer reviews themselves posted along with the final articles.

2) Signing reviews keeps the reviewers in check, so that they are not so nasty. Just about anyone who has submitted a manuscript for review has received a review that was just plain mean, or at least had comments that they interpreted as mean-spirited. Most of us who have provided reviews on manuscripts have probably crossed the line from constructive to nasty—I know I have. Putting my name on my review indicates that I stand by all of the comments. If I want to be nasty, I can do so, but then people will know that I am someone who stands behind mean comments. I am not that kind of person, so signing my reviews keeps me from acting like I am.  

3) We need to eliminate the guessing game. Authors often seem to think that they know the identity of those who serve as reviewers. In reality, they have no idea. I know people who hate others because of reviews they are "certain" they received from them. They are likely wrong. Interesting recent example: I provided a signed review for a paper submitted to Developmental Psychology, and another reviewer wrote about how it was a major omission that they did not base their study more strongly on one of mine! Had I not signed my review, the authors certainly would have thought that Reviewer 2 was me, when I was actually Reviewer 1 (of course, the hard truth is that we are all Reviewer 2). Indeed, it is common belief that when reviewers suggest including a specific reference, that they have effectively revealed their identities. This is nonsense (a suggestion to include 5-6 papers from a specific researcher, on the other hand…).

4) Serving in an editorial role, I already routinely provide extensive unblinded comments on manuscripts. I find it rather strange that openly providing a critical review in this context is acceptable whereas peer reviewers are supposed to be blinded.

5) I have tenure and so don't give a shit what people think. Ok, that is the common, master narrative about reviewing—that putting your name on your reviews will put you at risk for retribution from “senior” scholars in the field, and therefore it is only safe to sign reviews post-tenure. We need to challenge this master narrative. Rather than a liability, I see providing a critical and constructive review as a way for early career scholars to impress more established ones. As noted in point #2, signing your reviews will likely reduce the frequency of the type of reviews that incite rage. Are we really so fragile that we have to punish individuals for providing honest and insightful feedback on our work?

It is important to note that, even if you should want to sign your reviews, some journals will not accept it. I have received a range of responses. Some have just deleted my name from the review, even when I made it clear that its inclusion was intentional. One editor contacted me to inform me that my name would be removed because identifying one reviewer may compromise the anonymity of the others (I don’t really follow this logic, to be honest). But the vast majority of journals have been just fine with it, so I will keep doing it, and I hope you will too.