Talking Teaching

August 28, 2015

does powerpoint make students stupid & professors boring?

The author of this article certainly thinks so. He kicks off with this:

Do you really believe that watching a lecturer read hundreds of PowerPoint slides is making you smarter?

I asked this of a class of 105 computer science and software engineering students last semester.

Well, first up, that’s a leading, and loaded, question. And secondly, I’d be surprised if anyone really believed that. Yes, I’m sure that there are lecturers who simply read off their powerpoint slides (which really is a no-no!). And what did we use in the days Before Powerpoint (BP)? Quite likely overhead transparencies, either printed or handwritten, and yes, some of us almost certainly had lecturers who simply read all the information off the transpareny. (I know I did!)

In other words, the header ignores the fact that Powerpoint is simply a tool. Nothing more, and nothing less. It cannot make anyone boring. That’s done by the person using it; similarly,  the way the tool is used will have a flow-on effecct on learners. Indeed, this was the focus of a post I wrote some time ago, and if you haven’t already read the 2008 paper by Yiannis Gabriel that I discussed therein, you should do so now.

A better question would be: how do we help professors to use powerpoint (& other technologies) in ways that better support student learning?

That, of course, requires that we are able to measure student learning in meaningful ways. And here I definitely agree with the author of the article:

Any university can deploy similar testing to measure student learning. Doing so would facilitate rigorous evaluations of different teaching methods. We would be able to quantify the relationship between PowerPoint use and learning. We would be able to investigate dozens of learning correlates and eventually establish what works and what doesn’t.

Isn’t it time that we got serious about doing this?




June 13, 2010

the tyranny of powerpoint

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , — alison @ 11:31 pm

This is a re-post of something I originally wrote for my ‘other’ blog, as a result of reading a thought-provoking paper about powerpoint that was given to me by a colleague.

I began my university teaching career in the years B.P. (Before Powerpoint). Blackboards, chalk, & overhead transparencies (often hand-written & hand-drawn) were the order of the day. Since then, Powerpoint has become an almost universal tool & ‘chalk-&-talk’ is a rarity. But Powerpoint is just a tool, & using it doesn’t guarantee a good presentation. (Slides that simply present large blocks of text; blocks of text in tiny fonts; lines of text that ‘fly’ in from one side or the other; typewriter sounds as letters appear on the screen – don’t do it! Please don’t go there!)

Anyway, a colleague has just given me a copy of Yiannis Gabriel’s 2008 paper looking at the use (& abuse) of Poweroint as a teaching tool. And it’s really got me thinking.

Gabriel begins by noting that Powerpoint “accomplish[ed] what earlier technologies did (overhead transparencies, slides, chalk and blackboard) only more efficiently, more stylishly.” However, it’s probably had more widespread, more pervasive effects: Powerpoint has become the basic lecture  tool, but simply relying on it without thinking about how it’s used can have some far-reaching effects on the nature of the learning that goes on in lecture theatres. One of his concerns is that, while Powerpoint is great for showing information in visual form (graphs, diagrams, photos, embedded videos), it may also affect students’ abilities to analyse & think critically about information. (It can also act as a prop – how many lecturers these days would feel comfortable giving a lecture without powerpoint, if the power goes down or the technology fails?) In fact, he expresses his own concern that “Powerpoint inevitably leads to comfortable, incontestable, uncritical, visually seductive and intellectually dulling communication.”

Now, like almost all my colleagues I use Powerpoint on pretty much an everyday basis, & so Gabriel’s ideas gave me considerable food for thought. It’s easy to slip into using this technology routinely, in a way that’s really just ‘chalk-&-talk elevated to another level. I try hard to avoid this: I use images & phrases as something to talk around & as cues for students to think about concepts, & I try to encourage discussion around the ‘big ideas’ of each lecture, using things like pop quizzes to start things off. (I really enjoy it when students ask probing questions that require a bit of thought for me to answer properly, not least because it lets me model how scientists think about things.) But is this enough?

Certainly the technology has its shortcomings, although these tend to be in how it’s applied rather than inherent in Powerpoint itself. You’ve planned your lecture in advance, all the images & words are assembled onto your slides – how easy is it to deviate from this if during the course of the lecture it becomes obvious that some in the class don’t understand what you’re saying, or want to ask questions around a particular issue? It could be argued that you just have to get through that material – it’s needed as the basis for the next lecture or some other paper – & the students will have to come to tutorials or ‘office hours’ to fill the gaps. But by then the moment’s passed.

Myself, I don’t see the value in that. Better by far to address the issues that students raise, on the spot – after all, how can I expect them to understand the material that follows if they haven’t ‘got’ what I’m talking about at the moment? You can deal with this with Powerpoint, as you would have done in the ‘old days’: I had the experience a few weeks ago where it became clear that many in the class hadn’t a clue about meiosis, & without it much of the rest of the lecture wasn’t going to make much sense to them. We ended up with an impromptu tutorial, with me using the computer mouse to ‘draw’ on my slides (having changed it from the usual arrow to a virtual felt-tip pen) to illustrate the points we were talking about. Yes, we didn’t get through everything I’d intended to for that class – but I was able to do an extra panopto recording later that day for the students to follow, & there were always the tutorials…

So I thought I was doing OK – & then Gabriel mentioned bullet-point lists… These are pretty much the standard way to present information in Powerpoint, but Gabriel points out that they contain some fish-hooks for teacher & student alike: “many people (and most  students) confronting a list will assume that it is exhaustive, that the items on it are co-equivalent…, and that they are mutually exclusive. In reality, few lists meet these requirements, and yet they block thinking into precise areas of overlap or items that are absent from the list.” There’s also a risk that students will see the lists as completely authoritative where they may actually be tentative. And it’s easy to use them to gloss over things that the lecturer’s not sure about, or doesn’t want to discuss – just don’t put those items on the list! 

When I think about it, I can see some of these things coming through in students’ test papers. For example, in teaching about the different ‘major phyla’ of animals, it’s easy to list the key features of each phylum in a series of bullet-points. I make the point in lectures that there may be other interesting features in a particular phylum – but in a test, for many students it’s as if I’d never said that; the bullet-point items seem to be all-important. This suggests to me that these students haven’t thought about other things that were said in lecture, or maybe those other things didn’t even register. And it’s made me wonder if there are other steps I could take to get this information across in a meaningful way that prompts the class to think carefully about what’s being said & why it matters.

Gabriel criticises images as well. And I agree with him – it’s quite easy to put together a sequence of images that can engross the audience, to the point where they don’t actually think critically about what’s being said. But I also strongly agree that it can enhance student learning & understanding of things like anatomy or physics. Diagrams, too, are a double-edged sword. Used simply to present large amounts of information they can be both boring & overwhelming – but they can “also open up new possibilities of creative thinking, communication and learning.”

I can see that I’ve got a lot of thinking and reorganising to do. I’d like to re-jig my Powerpoints to encourage a number of skills in my students, to enhance their learning – and because many of the skills that Gabriel identifies as desirable emphasise aspects of the nature of science itself:

  • filtering out the irrelevant & focusing on the memorable and significant;
  • tolerating uncertainty;
  • coping with ambiguity;
  • recognising & enjoying the fact that we don’t have clear, permanent solutions to every puzzle & problem;
  • developing the capacity for analytical, critical thought.

Using Powerpoint in a way that goes beyond it being merely a tool for presenting information can only enhance students’ learning (& – speaking personally – my enjoyment of teaching).

Y.Gabriel (2008) Against the tyranny of powerpoint: technology-in-use and technology abuse. Organisation Studies 29: 255-276. doi: 10.1177/0170840607079536. Document available online at

September 21, 2015

does it help when we give handouts to students?

I seem to be asking a lot of questions in my posts lately.

Recently a teaching colleague pointed me at a post entitled 5 common teaching practices I’m kicking to the curb. While I’ve never used 4 of them, it’s common practice (at my uni, anyway) to provide students with a printed study guide** that contains much of the course content, and most of us also make the powerpoints available ahead of class. (In my case, they’re incomplete; I see no real value in providing absolutely anything that I’m intending to cover during a class.) The intention is that students will read through them ahead of coming to class, & identify the bits where they need to pay particular attention &/or ask questions. The reality, of course, is that some do and some don’t.

But the post my friend shared, plus my own recent learning around the effects of laptops in class, have made me think carefully about this practice. Like the author of that post,

[this] system, I felt, made it easy to catch up students who had missed class, and it prevented students from missing important points made during the lecture.

However, handing out a complete set of everything probably does send a message to some students that they don’t need to do anything further. And if they don’t engage with the material covered – in print & in class – then any learning is likely to be transient at best :( This leads me to think that I should be doing more to help students learn how to take notes that will be useful, in a way that means that they aren’t simply focusing on writing everything down & so failing to pay attention to what’s actually being said. This is important, as I’ve noticed that students will do exactly that (write it all down) for each novel slide. Fortunately help is out there, as the author of 5 common teaching practices includes some useful links, including this one to a University of Nebraska (Lincoln) page advising staff on how to help students learn to write good notes.

Perhaps it should be required reading for all of us teaching in first-year papers?


** or, in the digital era, a downloadable pdf :)

August 31, 2015

should we stop students using laptops during lectures?

I guess it depends on what they’re using their laptops for.

Most days when I come in at the back of the lecture room & walk down to the front, I’ll see a lot of laptops open & in use. Quite a few students will actually have the (incomplete*) powerpoint for the day’s class open on their screens, but quite a few others are on Facebook (or some arcane form of social media that I haven’t caught up with yet) or just surfing. So when a friend shared an article titled Professors push back against laptops in the lecture hall, I read it with interest & also shared it with one of our big FB student pages for some consumer opinion. (There’s some interesting commentary here, too.)

One of the major reasons many oppose laptop use is their potential to distract students from what’s going on in the classroom, and judging from the ‘consumer feedback’ I received, that can be quite a big issue:

I don’t begrudge others using them except when they are watching videos or checking facebook etc during lectures. That’s very distracting.

It’s only annoying and distracting when people take their laptops and play games or scroll Facebook. Which a lot of people do…

Somewhat surprisingly, that distractive effect extends to students putting their devices to what many of us would regard as ‘legitimate’ use ie searching for information directly related to the class. And I’ll admit, sometimes I’ll ask a student to look something up, especially if I think they’re doing something other than class-related work! For example, this brief report cites a study showing that

students who spent a greater proportion of time seeking course-related sites recalled significantly less than those who were more often browsing sites unrelated to the course (r = -.516, p. < .02).

And worse:

the more students used their laptops, the lower their class performance (β = -.179, t(115) = -2.286, p = .024), the less attention they paid to lectures (p = .049), the less clear lectures seemed to them (p = .049), and the less they felt they understood the course material (p = .024)

Yikes! This really piqued my interest, & led me to a 2014 paper by Mueller & Oppenheimer, which has the wonderful title, The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard. Here’s the abstract:

Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

I’ve certainly observed that many students struggle with long-hand note-taking, to the extent that I’ll get the occasional complaint that “she moves on to the next slide before I’ve copied it all down” in my teaching appraisals. (I do explain that they shouldn’t be ‘copying it all down’…**) And I type much faster than I write, so I can sympathise with students who want to use their laptops for note-taking in class. So did some of my students, commenting that

I actually find typing notes better for me, because my typing speed is so much faster than my writing speed.


I would hate it if we were not allowed laptops in lectures anymore! I’d miss half the notes and then have to go home and panopto lectures (or die if they weren’t panoptoed) which just takes up time that i could use studying all my notes properly.

Mueller & Oppenheimer’s paper has really got me thinking. They point out that there is a considerable body of evidence around the efficacy of note-taking, commenting that even without the distraction effect,

laptop use might impair performance by affecting the manner and quality of in-class note taking.

This could have that negative impact on learning by two routes: ‘encoding’, and ‘external storage’. ‘Encoding’ is valuable because – ideally! – students process information as they make their notes, and doing this enhances both their learning & their ability to retain information. ‘External storage’ refers to the ability to review and learn from notes at some later point, including notes taken by others: indeed, we employ note-takers to do this for students who are unable (for a variety of reasons) to take notes themselves.

An important question here is, what are students actually doing when they take those in-class notes? Are they actively summarising what’s been discussed eg via drawing a concept map, or writing a paraphrase? Or are they simply copying, word for word, every single thing I say & show in class?*** While some could argue, “but it doesn’t matter ‘cos I’ll write a summary later”, Mueller & Oppenheimer observe that

verbatim note taking predicts poorer performance than nonverbatim note taking, especially on integrative and conceptual items.

This underlies their suggestion that while laptops allow more rapid note-taking, if those notes are verbatim, then learning and understanding may actually suffer. In fact, they observe that

One might think that the detriments to encoding would be partially offset by the fact that verbatim transcription would leave a more complete record for external storage, which would allow for better studying from those notes. However, we found the opposite—even when allowed to review notes after a week’s delay, participants who had taken notes with laptops performed worse on tests of both factual content and conceptual understanding, relative to participants who had taken notes longhand.

So where do we go from here? I must admit to being a tad flummoxed at the moment – with the need to offer more flexible learning opportunities and  the current trend to ‘paperless offices’, we’re moving into a more highly digitised world and those laptops aren’t going to go away any time soon. How, then, to overcome the apparent negative effects they may have on student learning? If part of the problem lies with the ability to take appropriate notes, do we need to somehow teach this skill to all our incoming first-years?


* I mean, why would I give them the whole lot up front (including the answers to my in-class quizzes)?

** no, seriously! What I’d much prefer is that they read through the material I provide ahead of class, identify the bits where they have no idea what I’m talking about, & then that’s where they should focus any note-taking during class.

*** and if they are taking such fulsome notes – how much attention is being paid to everything else that’s going on in class: the questions, discussion, extra explanations?


November 5, 2014

reflections on using AdobeConnect in a tutorial

Recently I went to a couple of seminars/tutorials on using AdobeConnect in teaching & learning. As I vaguely remember saying somewhere else, this bit of software looked a bit like panopto might, if it were on steroids, & I could see how it could be a very useful tool for use in my classes. Not least because (as you’ll have gathered from my last post), there’s some concern around student engagement, particularly among those who don’t actually come to lectures, & AdobeConnect seemed to offer a means of enhancing engagement even if students aren’t physically present.

I decided that I’d like to trial it in the two pre-exam tutorials I’m running this week (my class has its Bio exam on Friday – the last day of the exam period. No prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing for most of the upcoming weekend :( ) I would really, really like to use it during lectures, so that students not physically on campus can still join in, but, small steps…

So, first I set up my ‘meeting’. Work has made this easy by adding an AdobeConnect widget to the ‘activity’ options in Moodle, so that was pretty straightforward; I just needed to make the session ‘private’ so that students signed in using their moodle identity. The harder part of the exercise lay in deciding what to actually do when in the meeting room. In the end I set it up with a welcome from me, a ‘chat’ area, so students could ‘talk’ with each other & ask questions, and a ‘whiteboard’ so that I could draw (& type) in response to those questions. And, when the class actually started, I spent a few minutes showing everyone there (the 20 or so who were there in the flesh, & the 8 present via the net) what each of those ‘pods’ was for & how to use them.

You certainly have to keep on your toes when interacting with a mix of actual & virtual class members! My thoughts & observations, in no particular order:

  • remember to press ‘record’ right at the start, if you’re intending to record a session!
  • next time (ie tomorrow) I’ll remind those physically present that they can log into the meeting room too – this could, I suppose, be distracting, but it also means that they would be able to participate in polls, for example. I did it myself, at the launch of our ‘connect week’, just to see what everything looked like from the on-line perspective.
  • it was really, really good to see the ‘virtual’ students not only commenting & asking questions, but also answering each other’s questions. I hadn’t expected that and it was a very positive experience.
  • but do make sure that you encourage this cohort to take part; they need to know that you welcome their participation.
  • the rest of the class seemed to quite enjoy having others interacting from a distance.
  • next time, I’ll bring & wire in my tablet, & use that rather than the room computer. This is because I do a lot of drawings when I’m running a tut, and while you can draw on the AC whiteboards, using a mouse to do this is not conducive to nice smooth lines & clear, precise writing. I <3 touchscreens!
  • it’s very important to remember to repeat questions asked by those in the room: the microphone’s not likely to pick their voices up, & if you don’t repeat the question then the poor virtual attendees won’t have a clue as to what you’re talking about.
  • with a pre-exam tut it’s hard to predict what resources might be used, in terms of powerpoints, web links & so on. For a lecture I’d be uploading the relevant files right at the start (ppts, video links & so on), but today I was pretty much doing things on the fly. However, I’m running another tut tomorrow & have put links to a couple of likely youtube videos into the meeting page already.
  • Internet Explorer seems to ‘like’ some AC actions more than Chrome; the latter wasn’t all that cooperative about ‘sharing my screen’, which seemed to me to be a better option than uploading at one point in proceedings.
  • as a colleague said, doing it this way meant that overall I had more people in class than would have been the case if I’d only run it kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) – what’s not to like?
  • for me, the whole session was quite invigorating, & I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of learning to use a new piece of software to improve the classroom experience.

Mind you, on that last – it was my impression that the classroom experience was improved. And you’ll have gathered that I truly did have fun. But I’m not a learner in the way that my students are. So I asked them for feedback (interestingly, so far I’ve had only one comment + my response on Moodle, but as you’ll see we’ve had a reasonable dialogue on Facebook) – and here’s what they said:

BIOL101 Adobe Connect tutorial

So next year I will definitely be using this during lectures, and to interact with my Schol Bio group & their teachers – and I think we’ll definitely have one tut a week (out of the total of 6 that we offer) that’s via AC, so that students that can’t come onto campus can still  get the benefits of that sort of learning environment.

October 29, 2014

reflections on e-teaching and e-learning

Dear readers – what follows is a much longer post than I would normally write (& yes, at times I write some quite extensive posts!). This is because the current post constitutes my ‘portfolio’ to support nominations from my students for an e-learning award offered by my institution. I decided to write the portfolio in this form because blogging is a medium that I feel comfortable writing in, & because it’s so easy to add hyperlinks, files etc. (Consequently many of the links lead to my own reflective writing elsewhere on this blog, and to presentations I’ve given.) Plus I would really very much value feedback & comments – I don’t regard myself as anything approaching an expert (or even a journeyman) in this field and I know that my future practice will benefit from your insights.

That said, please do read on!

Technologies such as Moodle, panopto, AdobeConnect & the like allow access to learning opportunities  in a much more flexible way than the ‘traditional’ university environment, and this is going to become more and more important in the future as student demographics change. For example, as the number of people in the  18-25 age group continues to decline while the 50+ cohort continues to grow, then we will need to offer education to ‘non-traditional’ students and in ‘non-traditional’ ways. From an institutional perspective, using learning technologies in an interactive way can also help to ensure that we enhance retention and meet graduate profiles. For example, the graduate profile for our BSc says that students can communicate using a range of methods including multi-media (which includes web-based resources and activities), can work cooperatively, and have the skills necessary for self-directed learning: acquisition of all these attributes (plus the more usual acquisition-of-knowledge outcomes) can be supported by learning technologies, particularly those that are interactive.

So then, what does this look like in the context of my own teaching practice? I know some people see me as an ‘early adopter’ of classroom technologies like these, but on reflection I think my activities in this area have grown organically – much like my teaching career, I suppose.


Moodle and Facebook: 

Alison is constantly introducing new ways for us to learn through technology. From educational videos and other resources on Moodle to an accessible Facebook forum for students to share their own passion for biology, she has been experimenting successfully with the digital resources available to teachers at the University of Waikato.

Great at technology, innovative ideas (eg facebook page for 101)

Very helpful both during lectures and tutorials. Very active on Moodle, promptly responds to forum questions, has created a Facebook page for the paper.

(Student nominations, 2014 e-learning award)

I’ve used Moodle ever since it became available: paper outlines, study guide notes, powerpoints of lectures, assessment materials, quizzes, discussion forums, useful links & readings  – it’s all there. Once panopto came on-stream, links to lecture recordings went up on moodle as well, thanks to the WCeL wizards. I’ve always encouraged students to ask questions, join discussions, and post materials on Moodle (I have colleagues who’d rather receive individual emails but honestly! why answer the same question multiple times?) but interestingly, it was the first-year students who were most active in doing this.

However, in the last couple of years I’ve seen this activity drop right off, and it’s been something of a concern. Being asked for feedback on Moodle as part of the University’s process of identifying a new student management system really made me reflect more closely on this, partly in light of my own use of other on-line communities (not least of them, Facebook). From talking with students I gained the impression that moodle can be very ‘clunky’: it takes at least a couple of steps to arrive at a resource, whereas on FB links are right there and obvious. The students complained that they were continually having to log in to moodle during the day, in contrast to remaining logged in on FB, and that they preferred the FB notification system. This got me thinking about how best to use this as an additional way of supporting my students’ learning and increasing their engagement. (This is not to say that they don’t use Moodle: a recent survey I carried out with our 2nd-year students shows that they clearly do – but they just don’t engage to any great extent.)

There’s a lot of literature available now about using Facebook to support teaching and learning. Fittingly, I was introduced to some of it through the Ako Aotearoa Academy FB page that I administer, but I’ve since talked more widely about it with colleagues at other institutions and started delving more deeply into recent publications; for example, Dougherty & Andercheck, 2014 (my reflections on that paper are here), and Kent & Leaver’s 2014 e-book, “An education in Facebook?”. And I sounded out my students, who were extremely positive about the idea. The result: we have a Facebook page for the first-year biology class, where they regularly post material & start discussions, and where I post course information and questions or polls (all mirrored on our Moodle page), along with links to other, science-based, FB pages.

BIOL101 student post

BIOL101 2nd student post

My thoughts after a semester? Yes, it’s a bit of additional work, because notices, polls and so on must be posted in two places rather than one, and because there’s the need to interact with other posters. It would be good to see more students there – at present just over half the class is present and at least observing on FB – but (and it’s a big ‘but’), commenters are far more lively and engaged than on Moodle, which seems to be reserved for ‘serious’ questions. That engagement is important, as it contributes to enjoyment and performance. Plus there’s also evidence that engagement (or lack thereof) with study, with teachers, and with the institution – can affect student retention.

As an aside, the lack of ‘personal’ feel to many MOOCs is a shortcoming of this method of content delivery; as the author of this blog post has said,

I think most MOOCs are just textbooks for the Internet age. A brilliantly delivered lecture or a brilliantly written book are both good content delivery systems. But without interaction, feedback, and mutual accountability that is all they can be.

We have to ensure we deliver that personal touch!

Anyway, next year I’ll be more systematic about my use of Facebook in relation to my teaching, in the sense of examining whether there is any correlation between use of the page and academic outcomes. And I’ll use tools like ‘question of the week’ – on both Moodle and FB – to try to lift engagement further.


I leaped early into the panopto pool, and I’ve been splashing around in it ever since

Incorporates technology. Records every lecture for panopto and makes good use of moodle.

regular and helpful facebook user. encourages students to get involved in various online activities.

(Student nominations, 2014 e-learning award)

Panopto’s a tool for capturing classroom teaching and making it available on-line for students to access whenever they please. I first became aware of it when the University was gearing up for its i-TunesU presence, and decided that the technology had a lot to offer me and my students as a tool to enhance teaching and learning practices. (I am definitely not a fan of technology for technology’s sake – it needs to have a pedagogical benefit.) And I’ve been using it ever since – for lectures, for podcasts, for catching up when I’ve had to cancel a lecture due to illness. I promote it whenever I get the chance, in tearoom conversation but also at conferences and symposia (e.g. Fun with panopto). (I also use it to review and reflect on my own classroom performance; the recordings are really useful when considering whether something could have been better communicated, although they are certainly unforgiving when it comes to things like mannerisms and use of voice!)

Students certainly value this technology. It gives them the flexibility to balance workloads, manage lecture clashes, revise for tests and exams, and to be absent due to illness or family commitments. Of course, it also gives them the ability to simply skip class and promise themselves that they can catch up later, something the literature shows doesn’t necessarily happen. I believe that we (academics) need to be more forthright in communicating with students around this, but that’s not to say that we should reduce our use of lecture recordings!

Able to pause and go over things i don’t understand. Can also do them in my own time.

For me, Panopto is most valuable during study week for revisiting explanations rather than for catching up on missed lectures.

Usually if I don’t watch an entire lecture on panopto it was because I preferred the text-book or other material to the lecturer’s style of teaching, or because the lecture recording failed, or because I listened to the lecture on podcast.

(2014 student feedback via surveymonkey)

There’s a lot more to lecture recordings than this. They can be used for ‘catch-up’ snippets – recordings of the slides at the end of the lecture that you didn’t get to because there were concepts that needed additional explanations. But panopto also supports more active learning techniques such as flip teaching, where a lecturer can prepare a short recording for students to watch ahead of class, and the actual classroom time is used for group discussions and problem-solving. For a couple of years now I’ve been running ‘Design-an-animal/Design-a-plant’ classes (described in the previous link) to consolidate student learning in a fun and cooperative way, during the A semester.

(2013 student feedback: Aspects of the paper that should be maintained)

The design a plant exercise. This exercise ties the knowledge we have acquired in past weeks, producing a
comprehensive well developed understanding of the adaptations and functions of different plants

the “designing a plant” was a great activity that was very interesting and exciting

the flip class which was really fun.

And in the B semester this year we had a session on DNA technology, where the class decided they’d like to hear more about GMOs: I provided short explanatory clips on gene cloning and PCR & DNA sequencing for them to watch ahead of time, so that we could spend the ‘lecture’ on discussion (and a very wide-ranging discussion it proved to be!).

Furthermore, techniques like this have a clear and significant positive effect on student learning (eg Deslauriers, Schelew, & Wieman, 2011)Haak, HilleRisLambers, Pitre, & Freeman, 2011) and we need to encourage their wider use as we reshape ourselves as a true ‘university of the future’.



Educators aren’t just using techniques like this simply because the technology has become available. There have to be positive outcomes for the students. I touched on some of these at the beginning of this post, in the context of ensuring that students have gained the attributes we describe in our graduate profiles.

However, another big plus for digital learning technologies is the way in which they allow us to meet the different learning needs of students. (I’m inclined to agree with the author of this post regarding different learning styles, mind you.) For example:

  • They really open up the options for students for whom work commitments, or geographical isolation, mean that they can’t attend classes in the ‘normal’ university hours.
  • For all students, the ready availability of lecture recordings means that they can review a class, or part thereof, as often as they need in order to gain understanding of concepts and information.
  • Students who are ill, or have lecture clashes, or sudden family commitments, don’t have to stress too much about missing classes (but see the following paragraph :) )
  • The fact that recordings are downloadable as mp4 files means that students can use them pretty much where & when they choose – on the bus, perhaps, or sitting in a comfy chair at home.
  • It’s easy to incorporate video clips, or even music (albeit with a scientific message) into classes. This opens up a whole new range of resources to use with our students (and breaks up the ‘lecture’ format, re-energising the classroom). This has occasioned some ‘interesting’ discussions over the use of such material from other institutions: it’s not “our” learning material, and students should be seeing our resources and ideas. This is true, but why re-invent the wheel? If an excellent resource exists, then use it! – and enhance the role of facilitator of learning, rather than simply someone delivering facts.
  • Technologies also empower students in ways that we might not always consider – for example, setting up a Moodle discussion forum for anonymous use means that someone who might be too shy to speak up in the lecture theatre can ask their questions, & make comments, in a less-threatening environment.
  • And having just attended a session on the use of AdobeConnect, I can see (& will make use of) the potential in being able to set up a ‘virtual’ pre-exam tutorial, synchronous with an actual class, for students who can’t make it onto campus for that particular session: they can see & hear what’s going on & ask questions of their own, for example. (It looks like panopto on steroids so I will admit that I’m left wondering what will happen to the latter in the future.)

I feel very strongly, however, that while we definitely need to provide learning opportunities for academic staff around learning technologies, we also need to educate students around their use. Despite the frequent use of the term ‘digital natives’ in discussion around our students and e-learning, the description really doesn’t fit our current cohort particularly well, and there’s a very interesting discussion of the term here. (It may be another story when the current crop of under-5s reach tertiary classrooms as many of them have truly grown up immersed in and using on-line technologies. And having said that, we also need to remember that there remain sectors of society who simply cannot afford to access the hardware to enable such learning. How do we enable them?) This means walking the class through what’s available on moodle, for example, or how to download an mp4 file of a panopto recording. But it also means discussing with our students – very early on in the piece – the perils and pitfalls of relying on recordings as an alternative to actually being in class eg the frightening ease with which you can fall behind in watching lectures after the event. This should be done with all first-year classes: many of this cohort have difficulty adapting to the different requirements, expectations, and learning environments of the tertiary system as it is and, lacking time management skills, can very easily fall off the wagon – something that has implications for both completion and retention.

She is very helpful and she knows her topic well. Very organised and goes beyond her duty to make sure students are getting everything in order to succeed. 
I think she is a really great lecturer and has used a range of different tools to help us learn in her lectures such as a drawing tool on the computer and has also created a Facebook page for BIOL102 to make it more interactive and fun to learn for everyone enrolled in the paper.
She is a really great lecturer, who makes a lot of effort to ensure her students get all the information they need to learn about what she is teaching. she also takes the time to make sure that students questions are answered, and always keeps in mind that because students have different learning levels, that she gives all the information required. 
Demonstrates a real passion for what she teaches. 
(Student nominations, 2014 e-learning award)


As I said earlier, I definitely don’t see myself as an expert in this field! This means that I frequently reflect on my classroom practice and the things I’ve learned (the focus of many of the posts here on Talking Teaching!), and I take advantage of professional development opportunities as often as I can. In the past I’ve attended quite a few workshops on various aspects of Moodle (and the on-line support materials are very useful too; thanks, WCeL team!). The university’s Teaching Development staff run regular Teaching Network sessions, where participants learn from each other on a whole range of teaching-related issues, & I go to these at every available opportunity. The most recent session, by Alan Levine, introduced the idea of pechaflickr as a tool for engagement and for learning, and that’s led me to think about using a pechaflickr session in tutorials, as a fun change of pace but also of a means of checking understanding of particular concepts. Definitely one for next year.

Sharing is good. And so I promote these technologies when I get the chance :) This year I facilitated a session on flip teaching at our annual WCeLfest (where I gained a lot from the participants’ feedback), but was also invited to take part as a panellist in a discussion of what our university might look like in a future where distance and blended learning make much more use of digital learning & teaching technologies. And I’ve previously shared their application at other conferences – in a 2013 discussion around how teachers’ roles are changing from disseminators of facts to facilitators of learning, for example. In addition, I led a discussion about MOOCs at a UoW Council planning day earlier this year, which also formed the basis of this particular post.

Learning technologies also have huge potential in terms of outreach to the wider community. For example, since 2005 I’ve been running Scholarship Biology preparation days for students – and their teachers – preparing for the Scholarship Biology examinations, which has involved travelling to deliver sessions in the Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, Auckland and Hawkes Bay, as well as in Hamilton itself. (I also write another blog, originally intended to support these students and still containing a considerable amount of material that’s useful to them and their teachers.) But these face-to-face sessions are one-offs, as it were, so this year I decided to set up a Facebook page so that interactions and support could continue. Feedback from the teachers is very positive. Sadly,  the students have not been so engaged on the page,  although the teachers tell me their students are definitely using material from the page in class,  which is a great outcome from my perspective. I’ll leave this one up and running and hopefully, as resources build up and teachers encourage their students to use it from the beginning of the year, we’ll start to see some more active student participation. I can also see the value in using AdobeConnect to run occasional virtual tutorials for this far-flung group of students – it would be particularly valuable for those students who are the only one at their particular school sitting this exam, as they’d get the opportunity to interact with others (&, if I can work out how to set it up!) work cooperatively with them to solve problems in an on-line active-learning world.

Schol Bio FB feedback


 If you’ve read this far – thank you for staying with me :) I appreciate your company on what is for me a continuing journey of self-reflection and learning around my teaching practice. I’ll be grateful for your feedback – and I do so hope you don’t feel you’d have been better off sitting at home in your bunny slippers :)

best wishes, Alison

December 21, 2011

the status & quality of year 11 & 12 science in australian schools

My reading assignment today was a report just out from the Australian Academy of Science(the AAS) on science in Australian secondary schools (Goodrum, Druhan & Abbs, 2011). Not what you might expect on a reading list in the week before Christmas, but I was up to speak (briefly) about it on Radio NZ & needed to have an idea what the report contained.

It’s a really thorough study of the state of senior school science across the Tasman, based on an extensive literature review, a survey of students (both those taking science, & those who aren’t) in NSW, South Australia & the Australian Capital Territory, a phone survey of senior science teachers in the same states, and a series of focus groups involving not only teachers and students but also scientists & members of the wider community. This allowed Goodrum & his colleagues to describe the ideal state of senior school science education in Australia (my marginal note at this point says ‘Wonderful! but does it/can it happen?) in terms of students & the curriculum, teaching as a profession, the resourcing of science teaching & learning, and the value of science education. They describe the last item thusly:

Science and science education are valued by the community, have high priority in the school curriculum and science teaching is perceived as exciting and valuable, contributing significantly to the development of persons and to the economic and social well-being of the nation.

And then… they identified the actual state of affairs, “by focusing on different dimensions of the school experience: the students, the curriculum, the pedagogy, the teachers and finally the resources.”

I must say that I think we are well ahead of the Australian state of play in terms of the curriculum document as discussed in the AAS report: Yes, the NZ curriculum is probably still too content-heavy, but at least the clear understanding and expectation is that senior school science should do much more than simply prepare a relatively small cohort of students for university. (This is something that I believe the universities need to be much more aware of, as otherwise we will continue to have a disjunction between lecturer expectations and the actual prior learning experiences of our new first-year students.) Also, the NZ Science curriculum explicitly requires that students be given the opportunity to learn about the nature of science; it’s not all about content knowledge. However, the AAS survey found that both students and teachers in the Australian school system believed that

Year 11 and 12 science is constructed to prepare students for university study. This university preparation perspective has resulted in an overcrowded content-laden curriculum. WIth the amount of content to be covered there is little room for flexibility from either the teacher or student.

Goodrum & his colleagues also found that most senior science teaching** in the schools they surveyed is done using the transmission model (teacher talks or writes on the board – or uses powerpoint – & students simply write it all down); that teacher demonstrations are common; and that practical sessions tend to be of the ‘cook-book’ variety where the outcomes are already known and the students are simply following a pre-determined method. Where there isopportunity for more inquiry-based learning in labs, teachers reported that these really sucked through the time & that this in turn led schools using open-ended student projects to advise students not to take all three sciences as the demands on their time would be too great.

So what did they find when they looked at levels of participation in senior science: the proportion of students in each year’s cohort who were enrolled in science subjects in their final 2 years of secondary school? The news was not good, and it’s news that’s obviously generating a lot of concern: looking at the proportion of students enrolled in each discipline in each year, they found that

[s]ince 1991, the percentage of students enrolled in Biology, Chemistry and Physics has been gradually falling. For Biology the fall has been from 35.9% in 1991 to 24.7% 2007, for Chemistry 23.3% in 1991 to 18.0% in 2007, and for Physics 20.9% in 1991 to 14.6% in 2007. While the fall has slowed there is no indication that it has stopped.

(The proportion taking Psychology, on the other hand, has almost doubled – from 4.9% in 1991 to 9.2% in 2006. Geology – this in a country where mineral resources are so significant to the economy – has remained at a fairly constant 1% throughout the study period.)

And looking at total science enrolments in Year 12:

there has been a dramatic fall in the percentage of students studying science in Year 12 from a height of 94.1% in 1992 to a low of 51.4% in 2010

with a particularly large drop-off in the period 2001-2002. The researchers weren’t able to identify any reason for this in terms of policy changes. Part of the decline may be linked to how students perceive science in schools – something that probably needs to be addressed in junior schools, because

Some non-science students report that if science was more ‘interesting and relevant to their lives’ then they would consider enrolling in it… Many, however, think so poorly of their experience and achievements in junior secondary science** that they won’t consider senior science under any circumstances.

This is a real pity, as the community members surveyed clearly felt that all students need to study science throughout their schooling – it shouldn’t be just for those who need it for their careers. They felt that science in schools

should be relevant… and demonstrate how science understanding and process impacts daily life.

Which is great – but I did wonder if those sentiments are shared by the wider school community as a whole (parents, teachers, students, the works). Schools do seem to be under pressure to broaden their curriculum, which places time constraints on teachers in the various subjects, & at least some of that pressure comes from the communities in which the schools are situated.

So how do the Australian data stack up compared to senior science education in New Zealand? I gathered from my radio host that the PM’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, will be soon releasing a report on just this issue. Watch this space.

** The researchers make the point that this is different from the teaching methods used in junior (our years 9-11) science classes, and suggest that “[p]erhaps this more enlightened approach in the junior years should influence how science is taught in Years 11 & 12.” (Some students obviously gained a different impression…)

D.Goodrum, A.Druhan & J.Abbs (2011) The Status and Quality of Year 11 and 12 Science in Australian Schools. A report prepared for the Office of the Chief Scientist.

May 24, 2011

teaching with panopto

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , — alison @ 4:35 pm

I’ve written previously about the lecture-capture system Panopto as a tool for supporting student learning. Anyway, our Teaching Development folks asked me to write a short piece about it for our in-house teaching support publication & very kindly said that I could post it here as well :-)

Panopto’s a tool for capturing classroom teaching and making it available on-line for students to access whenever they please. I first became aware of it when the University was gearing up for its i-TunesU presence, and decided that the technology had a lot to offer me and my students as a tool to enhance teaching and learning practices. (I am definitely not a fan of technology for technology’s sake – it needs to have a pedagogical benefit.) And I’ve been using ever since – for lectures, for podcasts, for catching up when I’ve had to cancel a lecture due to illness.

Panopto isn’t perfect. In a lecture theatre it picks up what the lecturer’s saying, but misses most or all of the other goings-on – the questions (remember to repeat them) & the discussion around various points. It also loses ‘sight’ of the speaker if they move too far to the left or right, although that shouldn’t stop you moving around, to speak to a group maybe, or to get closer to someone who’s speaking very quietly. But students viewing a recording can see the speaker (provided there’s a camera in the room; otherwise they’ll just get the voice-over), see the powerpoint slides (& any notes or diagrams added to these in class), and watch any videos or animations that were shown in class. They can stop the recording, replay it, view tricky points again and again. To me, this was a key reason for using panopto, because I could see how it gave students the chance to revise and review difficult concepts in their own time and at their own pace.

This was borne out by an informal survey I did with my first-year class last year. The most common reason they gave for using Panopto – and not everyone used it – was as a means of reviewing material that they hadn’t understood in class. ‘Used it to revise for exams’ was also a common response, & indeed, you could tell that anyway by looking at the usage statistics within the Panopto system. But it also turned out to be really useful for students with lecture clashes – and given that we emphasize the ‘flexible learning’ opportunities available at Waikato, that’s got to be a good thing. Students liked knowing that if they were sick they wouldn’t be missing out on too much from my classes. And someone said, ‘you could use it as an excuse to miss classes – but then you’d be missing out on a lot of the ‘extra’ stuff that goes on in the lecture room’. In other words, the students were using Panopto as an additional means of supporting and enhancing their learning.

It’s also an excellent tool for reflecting on my own teaching practices. I often watch a lecture later, looking to see whether something that seemed to go well at the time, really did. It’s actually quite hard to do this to start with, because you’re seeing and hearing yourself as the students do, & that may or may not fit with your own image of how you look and sound in the classroom! It can form the basis of discussion with a friend or mentor: ‘I did this particular thing because I hoped that it would… – do you think it would have had that effect?’ I know TDU have used a recording of mine as the basis of discussion with other lecturers on delivering constructive criticism of a colleague’s class – and the feedback I received from that was extremely useful (thanks, guys!).

So, if you’re toying with the idea of trying out Panopto in your classroom, I’d say, go for it. It’ll seem strange, the first time or two, but after that (as long as you remember to press ‘record’ & turn on the microphone! been there, done that) you really don’t notice it. I was told that the students just wouldn’t come to class but I can’t say I’ve noticed that – if they’re going to wag, they’ll wag, & this is just another excuse. But more seriously – your students will see your use of Panopto as just another sign that you’re interested in & keen to support their learning, & both you and they will gain from the experience.

December 1, 2010

what is the traditional way of teaching intro biology

I took the title for this post from the search terms someone used to come to Talking Teaching. It’s an interesting question, not least because I’ve just spent a couple of days with some absolutely inspirational teachers at the ‘First-Year Biology Educators’ Colloquium (#1)’, hosted by Otago University’s Phil Bishop at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary.

(And what a wonderful venue that was. Left to myself I’d probably have spent at least one whole day just wandering through the Sanctuary’s paths. It’s enclosed by a predator-proof fence & there’s a wealth of birdlife around. Unfortunately the one walk I did fit in was fairly quick, before sessions started for the day – but even then I saw bellbirds & tuis, native wood pigeon and a tomtit , & heard riflemen & what I think was a brown creeper. Plus we found some green hooded orchids! But the wealth of great talks on offer drew me away – the Significant Other & I will just have to go back there some other time.)

Anyway, back to the topic. There certainly wasn’t a lot of ‘traditional’ biology teaching on show!

To me, traditional biology teaching at the tertiary level is probably pretty much the same as any other tertiary teaching that involves the ‘traditional’ model of a university education. That is, it’s teacher-centred, top-down, transmission teaching. The model for conveying information to students involves the usual uni lecture format: lecturer down the front, serried ranks of students in a tiered lecture theatre. The lecturer talks, illustrating their presentation with slides, OHPs, scribbled formulae on the blackboard, maybe a powerpoint show with a lot of information on each slide. (Yes, I know I’m describing a stereotype, but I suspect it’s one that’s still found in real life.) The students frantically scribble notes or, if they’re lucky, the course will have a study guide with lecture notes in it, so they might be able to listen & just make an occasional annotation. Questions during the lecture aren’t really encouraged, although they might be able to catch the lecturer after the event or maybe during office hours. All this is augmented by lab classes where students essentially follow a ‘cookbook’-style lab manual, practising techniques & usually performing experiments to ‘answer’ questions to which the teaching staff already know the answer. And maybe there’ll be some tutorials as well.

Now, that was the way I was taught biology, & I guess you could argue that this method works because I turned out to be an OK biologist :) But the problem is that today’s students have been exposed to a much wider range of teaching & learning methods at school. Plus they have a much greater variety of prior educational experiences. So the odds are good that the ‘traditional’ method won’t work particularly well for many of them. But the things I heard about at the colloquium certainly would: using clickers to answer multichoice questions  (as used during ‘ask the audience’ in Who wants to be a millionaire!) as a way to keep students alert & involved in lectures (plus providing instant feedback to the lecturer on how well students understand that particular bit of material; taping lectures ahead of time & having students watch them before class, so that the actual ‘lecture’ can be a discussion of the material covered; using carefully-designed multichoice questions as part of a range of assessment items; looking at whether recorded or video-linked lectures offer a qualitatively different experience, from the students’ point of view…

Frankly I think this stuff leaves ‘traditional’ teaching methods in the cold :)

November 18, 2010

Redesigning my course

As a final assignment for my paper in the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice, we were asked to write a 3,000 word essay on a course or teaching module redesign.

I knew this assignment would come up, and started thinking about it early in the year. This allowed me to explore a few things during my first semester teaching, gather student feedback, and give my redesign a test during second semester. I also took advantage of the peer-review assignment to get some nice feedback from one of my course-mates.

One of the questions I asked myself was ‘what would my lecture look like if it was invented today?”. That is, what if I had no access to powerpoints I used in prior years. Would I use powerpoint or Prezi, or just the document camera? Would I give students printed notes or just make everything available online?

It was a great mental exercise (albeit exhausting!) so I thought a reflection on the process was worthwhile and I am happy to share here (with some corrections!).


As tertiary teachers we rarely come across the chance to redesign from scratch a course or a teaching module within a course. More often, we are assigned lectures for which we are to replace a departing faculty member, and in the process we usually inherit their class notes, their slide collection and sometimes even their exam questions. Different iterations of the course most often involve addition and subtraction of material, updates to recent discoveries, changes of images in the slides, but rarely a thoughtful process of reflection on our pedagogy, the values that we hold true, or careful thinking about ‘why’ it is we do what we do and how we go about doing it.

“These tacit beliefs about education are not purely an individual matter. They surface in the language that is used to describe educational goals, in the choice of what it is to be taught, in the design of teaching spaces, in the allocation of time within the course, in decisions about assessment.’ S Toohey, 1999

There are, in my opinion, two fundamental problems with the way in which we approach our roles as educators.

Firstly, at least in the sciences, too much emphasis is currently placed on content. Increases in student enrolment leading to larger class sizes, the increased use of of norm-referenced assessment, and the exponential increase in factual knowledge that is derived from scientific research have slowly shifted the focus of our classes to covering the ever increasing content, sometimes to the detriment of what are probably considered fundamental skills in science, that is, critical thinking, independence, collaboration, and healthy scepticism.

As a result focus in the process of learning is incrementally lost. In a recent conversation with a group of second year students they expressed how they increasingly feel that any learning outside of the boundaries of the material provided in class is both unnecessary, discouraged and detrimental. Their focus slowly becomes shifted from ‘keenly learning’ to ‘passing the exam’. This is in contrast with the views often expressed by colleagues who voice their frustration at finding it difficult to engage students in independent enquiry, and at hearing the old and dreaded question: ‘Will this be in the exam?’.

This mutual dissatisfaction cannot be blamed either on the students nor on the teachers, since they both seem to agree that learning could be a lot more fun if it was focused on, well, on learning! But despite both groups having (at least at the onset) the same objectives, somehow this becomes lost in the process of trying to get an academic degree (or pass a course). The only explanation then is, that it is the ‘way’ in which we go about teaching and learning no longer ‘works’.

The way we teach sends a clear message about that which we value about our teaching (and about our students’ learning). For the most part we lecture in rooms designed for top down instruction, we primarily use summative assessment to determine whether a student passes or fails, and we find it increasingly difficult to meet the demands of outside of the classroom activities that could provide students with formative assessment. A colleague of mine  (Pete Hall) argues that the increased use of norm-reference assessment may also create unrealistic expectations in our students: 90% will fail at being in the top 10%, and inevitably 10% of the students will be in the bottom 10%, no matter how well or badly a group may have met given learning criteria.

It is therefore not surprising that students would equate achievement with exam passes.

Secondly, we seem to have lost sight that teaching and learning is a form of communication, and we as teachers do not seem to be able to overcome the barriers of communication that result from the ever increasing student enrolment.

Teachers, especially those of an older generation, are accustomed to communication that requires face-to-face or at least one-to-one engagement. Students on the other hand, have embraced technology, using SMS text and on-line social network platforms to communicate with a large number of peers.

I would suggest that the barriers of communication that result from large student numbers could be overcome if teachers took advantage of the students’ ready engagement with digital communication. Discussions in the on-line student management systems, the use of social network groups, or collaborative note taking on wikis by a larger proportion of teachers could contribute to the increased communication that is needed to engage students in critical thinking and self directed learning.

Most of these problems can be traced back to the inheritance of pre-existing design. If there was value in this exercise, it primarily came from throwing away everything that I had done before and asking myself: What would this course look like if it was invented today?

And today means teaching students that spend a lot of time on-line, that are invisible in the classroom setting because of the class sizes, that want to know how well they are learning while they are learning and that want to ask questions without hearing responses like ‘You do not need to know that’.

It will be certainly interesting to reflect a year from now on those things that worked and those which didn’t.

The full essay lives here.

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