Thursday, April 16, 2015

Are Good Teachers Born or Made?

My name is Jemilat Salami-Oyenuga and this is my first year serving as a McDougal Teaching Fellow for the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning. I’m a 3rd year PhD student in the Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology Department at Yale and currently serve as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course in Cell Biology.

This blog post was inspired by a conversation I had with a close friend of mine (also a graduate student but at a different institution). She is in the process of deciding whether or not serve as a Teaching Assistant for a lab course and expressed a deep concern about not being a “good enough” teacher to make a good TA. She echoed sentiments that I had heard from other colleagues who have struggled with confidence in the classroom because they just “didn’t have the flair for teaching.” 
My curiosity grew and I began looking into whether or not effective teachers are born or made. To my delight, this turns out to be a very popular conversation among educators over the years. From my readings, I find myself leaning towards the argument that effective teachers are MADE/RAISED/GROOMED. I have included some of my readings below for your reference.

Great Teachers: Born or Made?
Natural Born Teachers
Teaching the Teachers
Excellence in Teaching

I must say that I came across a number of valid arguments for the contribution of an innate gift to an individual’s teaching abilities. However, with the proper tools and training, the lack of some innate ability should not be an obstacle that prevents an individual from achieving teaching success. Even the most naturally talented teacher would fail to be effective in the classroom without implementing practical elements such as preparation, organization, knowledge/love of content, clarity, stimulating student interest and being respectful. Furthermore, this article highlights nine characteristics of great teachers and it is reassuring to see that 8 out of the 9 highlighted characteristics are skills that an individual can learn and put into practice. This concept ties in very nicely with what we do at the CTL; we provide students and postdocs with tools that allow them to become effective teachers irrespective of natural gifts/predispositions.
Moving on to my dear friend’s dilemma, I wanted to provide a starting point for her and other individuals struggling with the fear of not being effective teachers, to begin to tackle this challenge. I have compiled a (very) short list of resources below that provide helpful information/tools to help one navigate the apprehension that could come with teaching, especially for the first time.

Chapter 1: Teaching the First Class
Tips for First-time Teachers

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this discussion. Are good teachers born or made? Please also feel free to suggest other resources you have found helpful along your journey as a developing teacher.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Rat Race: An Exploration of Learning versus Performance

My name is Rob Wickham, and I’m a fifth-year graduate student in the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program and a first-year teaching fellow in the Center for Teaching and Learning here at Yale. My teaching experience includes formerly being a lab instructor at the University of Minnesota for a zoology course for two years, a Teaching Fellow at Yale in psychology and an adjunct professor at Albertus Magnus College.  

A big part of my research focuses on the neural mechanisms of learning, which in part, requires me to assess on a day-to-day basis whether or not the subjects in my experiments learn.  This got me thinking: "How do I know my students are learning?" or better yet…"What are my students learning?" Let's do a quick experiment to demonstrate why these questions matter.  

Figure 1: The rat can solve this problem in multiple, often unexpected, ways.

The experiment
Let's put a rat in a simple two tunnel maze (Figure 1). Each tunnel has a marking on the floor: triangle or star. The goal is to get the rat to learn that the path marked with the triangle leads to the cheese. Over multiple maze runs, he eventually starts going down the triangle path more and more often.  Mission accomplished...right? 

Let’s revisit our goal. Our goal was for the rat to learn that the triangle path leads to the cheese.  The rat performed the maze perfectly--he got the cheese, didn't he? But how do we know he completed the maze by using the symbols on the path? Maybe he guessed. Maybe he learned to choose "left", not "triangle". Maybe he smelled the cheese. Or maybe he did learn that the triangle path led to the cheese.  This is a classic example of the "learning versus performance" (LVP) problem.

The LVP problem, in its essence, is the task of determining "what" is learned by examining the performance, or behavior, of an organism.  Even for the simple maze, we cannot tell "what" the animal learned by simply examining its behavior.  We have to do a few tricks in order to tease this information out:
·         We have to counterbalance (i.e. switch the location of ) which path has the triangle on it.
·         We have to make the paths long enough so the animal can't smell the cheese (or mask the cheese smell with another smell).
·         We have to make sure the animal is not just going down the path that is "not the star". One way to do this would be to add a third symbol (e.g. square), in place of the star. The animal should then learn to avoid this path.
If we do all these things and the rat is still able to get the cheese, then we can probably assume that the rat learned that the triangle path leads to the cheese, and thus, his choosing of the triangle path reflects this learning.

The validity of an assessment
In the classroom, the LVP problem is analogous to assessment validity. Assessment validity is the ability of an educational assessment to predict the degree of learning in a student.  Assessments usually come in two flavors: formative and summative. Formative assessment is generally more informal, such as calling on a student to answer a question, and is used by the instructor to gauge student progress.  Summative assessment is generally more formal and is typically used to generate a grade (e.g. exams, presentations, papers). 

Whether formative or summative, a valid assessment permits good scores (performance) when the student has learned the material and poor scores when the student has not (Figure 2).  An invalid assessment can produce two distinct populations of students: overperformers and underperformers. An overperformer performs better than they should given how much they have learned, whereas an underperformer performs less than their potential given how much they have learned. I know producing an overperformer may sound like a good thing, but like the case of our rat friend, you do not know what your students are taking away from the class. Having a student ace a test, despite learning nothing, isn't much better than having a student fail a test, despite knowing everything.

Figure 2: Valid assessments occur when the degree of learning matches the degree of performance. Invalid assessments can occur either if a student performs below what is expected given the amount of learning achieved (underperformer) or if the student exceeds what is expected given the amount of learning achieved (overperformer).

The valid assessment has a particular relationship between learning and performance. Let's imagine we had perfect information about what our students learned and had the perfect assessment tool (Figure 3; blue dotted line).  Optimally, the relationship would be some variation of a line.  Thus, if a student learns X information they will have Y performance: no less, no greater. If the assessment is invalid, however, deviations from this line will occur. Overperformers will achieve higher scores (Figure 3; green dotted line) and underperformers will achieve lower scores (Figure 3; red dotted line), relative to what they should receive based on the degree of learning. 

Figure 3: Theoretical depiction of the relationship between learning and performance. Blue dotted line: maximum possible performance given the amount of learning achieved. Red dotted line: A student who underperforms.  For underperforming students higher degrees of learning don't produce comparable increases in performance, indicative of a failure to translate and express their knowledge. Green dotted line: A student who overperforms. For overperforming students, lower levels of learning produce higher than achievable performance, suggesting student is using strategies and skills other than the assessments tests.

Figure 4: Short-list of potential reasons for underperformance and overpeformance.

Underperformers and overperformers
A valid assessment minimizes the chances of creating underperformers and overperformers. One way to approach the creation of a valid assessment is to understand what makes an individual underperform and overperform. The reasons why a student may underperform are many and varied (Figure 4). Remember--they know the material, but they just simply cannot translate this knowledge into performance. Overperformers, on the other hand, are somehow achieving levels of performance that cannot be explained by their knowledge of the material. One caveat is that overperformers may be integrating information from outside the classroom to achieve these levels of performance. While not necessarily a bad thing, having students use skills outside of the ones taught in the classroom can be a detriment if they need the class skills for a future course or future learning.   

Making a valid assessment
Remember the goal of an assessment is to determine "what" is learned. Learning, unfortunately, cannot be directly measured, and we must use a person's performance to infer learning. Thus, assessment by its nature is a noisy process. That is OK, we are not seeking perfection.  However, there are some simple heuristics to get as close as possible! These tips will be placed in the context of minimizing creating underperformers and overperformers (Figure 4).

(1)  Generate specific learning objectives: The more specific your learning objectives, the more control you have over your students' learning. For example, the learning objective: "learn to integrate mathematical functions" is far too vague. There are numerous ways you can integrate mathematical functions and get the correct answer on an assessment. An alternative version, "learn to integrate functions by u-substitution," is far more precise. Now, the only way to get the correct answer is by using the approach outlined by your learning objective. Then, for the assessment, you can ask students to use this specific approach to answer a problem.  This approach minimizes the likelihood of generating overperformers.

The other benefit of generating specific learning objectives is that it is easier to match assessments to the objective.  Therefore, there will be less of a chance for an assessment that is incompatible (Figure 4: underpeformers) with the content.  For example, if you want students to "organize all the presidents of the United States in order of entering office,” you may want to have an assessment that does exactly that, such as providing a list of presidents and having students organize them. A less compatible assessment would be to have students list the presidents by recalling them (no list available) and then organize the presidents. This type of assessment would be incompatible with the learning objective, since the objective was to "organize" and not "list and organize."  Thus, specific and clear learning objectives can also aid underperformers as well. 

(2) Have students show their work: Permit students the opportunity to show what process they are using in their head.  Most people think of "show your work" for quantitative type problems. For the example above, having students show each step of performing u-substitution (demonstrating learning of the process) is fairly easy to ask. However, this approach can also be used for more qualitative subjects and assessments. For example, in writing composition courses, permit the student to comment on the margins (such as in Microsoft Word) to explain their writing process. Furthermore, the instructor can assign questions about the student's writing process . This also minimizes the likelihood of generating overperformers. Moreover, since showing work permits students to operate outside the bounds of an assignment, there are more opportunities for expressing their ideas. This will also help prevent underperformance.

(3) Use a variety of assessment tools: This approach is highly tailored to help potential underperformers translate their knowledge. In order to perform, a student must access the information they have learned.  Even if they can access the information, they must then translate this information into some observable form. Some students can more easily translate their ideas in writing versus speaking, or vice versa.  Moreover, some students can translate ideas more efficiently if asked a very specific question versus a general, open-ended one, or vice versa. Permitting more translation options for students will minimize underperformance.

(4) Match formative and summative assessments where appropriate:  Asking a student to do something on an exam that they have never done before will generate underperformers. This is not to say you shouldn't ask them to solve a novel problem; rather, the skill or approach required to answer the problem should not be novel. One way to prevent this is by matching the form of assessment in class and during the exam. For example, if you have students do a matching assignment to align the base pairs of DNA in class, also have them do it for a different sequence on an exam. The problem is different, but they are applying the skills and knowledge you want them to learn, and hence, creating a valid assessment.

Let's hear from you!
These heuristics are ones that I have come up with in my experiences as an instructor. Hopefully, they will be valuable to you, but I write them knowing that there are alternative approaches and strategies for creating valid assessments. Please comment below with any other suggestions/heuristics, comments, praise, or disagreements.  I would love to hear your thoughts!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Impact of Technology on Teaching

Sara Sanchez Alonso

Technology infuses classrooms with new devices, such as iPads and tablet computers, and it expands course offerings with a variety of online resources. It also provides new ways to enhance student engagement through innovative instructional techniques such as the “flipping the classroom” model or “blended learning” opportunities. However, the introduction of technology into the classroom may pose important challenges to instructors: how can instructors find time to learn these new techniques while simultaneously trying to integrate them into the classroom? Will they need to rethink and redesign their course’s objectives?  

These are some of the questions that will be explored in this year’s Spring Teaching Forum (STF), organized by the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, on April 24th. The discussions will revolve around the two-way interaction between technology and learning: first, how do learning goals shape the use of technology in the classroom? Second, how does this wide range of new tools enhance learning goals? In this post, instead of providing an answer to these questions, I will try to begin the conversation and motivate readers to start thinking about the topic. In particular, my goal is to make the concept of “technology” more concrete and accessible by presenting some ways in which new technological devices can impact the classroom.  

An online search for “teaching and technology” provides so many results, it can be overwhelming at first to choose where to start. The large number of results, however, shows that technology is already having a huge impact on our teaching, and it is worth exploring this interaction. Here are some of the ways in which we can start thinking about the impact of “technology” on teaching:

1. Collaborative Tools

Collaborative tools, such as blogs, wikis, Twitter or new platforms, such as “Piazza” provide new opportunities for interactions between students and instructors, as well as promote student-student interactions. Collaborative work, whether in pairs or small groups, increases learning gains, in terms of recall, critical thinking and application of concepts to new situations. With these new tools, teaching is not limited to class meetings, but active learning and feedback can happen outside of traditional face-to-face meetings. For example, blogs encourage online writings and threaded discussion groups, and the use of wikis, i.e. a webpage that anybody can edit, can help in creating group projects or group brainstorming.

2. Information Visualization Tools

Whether it is a small data set or complex data, technology offers tools that can help users visualize and structure information as well as analyze and manipulate that information in new ways.  One of the most common tools is Geographic Information Systems (GSIS), which allows users to manage and interpret geographically-reference data by showing the different patterns and trends. Another example would be JMOL, an online platform that allows users to view the chemical structure of molecules in 3D.

3. Flipping the Classroom

This new teaching approach consists of giving students a first exposure to the material before class and using in-class time for interactions that require understanding the concept through active learning activities. It does not require the use of technology, but tools such as online videos, podcasts and quizzes are becoming more prevalent in flipped classroom settings.

4. Tablet Computers

Tablet computers offer many possibilities for teaching. On one hand, they allow for better course management by providing gradebooks and annotations to mark up PDF files with highlights and texts. They can also enhance content creation in class through applications for concept mapping or music composition, such as “Mindomo” or “Symphony Pro”. Students can also use tablets as presentation tools with slideshow viewer applications, timers and or even digital whiteboards to draw or graph.

5. Online Courses

Despite the challenges posed by the lack of face-to-face contact and the additional prerequisite of computing skills, the number of online courses is growing. In addition, several online platforms have been created to support learning management online, such as “Sakai” or “Blackboard”. Here are several great websites with tips for creating an online course. Be sure to check them out!

There are many other ways in which technology can enhance learning, such as podcasts, and presentation software tools, but I hope this guide has served as a snapshot of the many shapes that technology in teaching can take. If you want to hear about the pros and cons of technology in the classroom and learn how to achieve a balanced technology-integration of your own, come to the Spring Teaching Forum on April 24th!

In the meantime, I want to close with a quote that I recently came across online:
Colleagues sometimes ask if a specific technology will enhance student learning. That’s a bit like asking whether a chalkboard or book will. Low-tech or high-tech, a tool’s learning benefits depend on when, where, how and why you use it.
- Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence, Carnegie Mellon

Have you used technology in the classroom? What was your experience? Let’s get the ball rolling on a great discussion! J


Thursday, March 5, 2015

What to Consider When Considering Flipping Your Classroom

Susie Kimport
Last semester, Fall 2014, I taught calculus in a flipped classroom environment.  Before every class, my students would watch short videos introducing the topics of the day and complete a series of online “prep-problems” for each video.  A few hours before every class, I received a computer-generated summary from our web platform of how my students did on these problems.  The hope was that I could use that data to better tailor examples and in-class activities to the topics with which my students were struggling.

This is normally how a flipped classroom is designed.  The basic idea is to take introductory material out of the classroom and instead use class time for hands-on examples and more interaction between the instructor and the students.   The main difference between my experience and that of most people who talk about flipping their classrooms is that I did not create or choose the videos for my students.  I was teaching as part of a coordinated course and it was our course director who created the videos two years ago.  This meant that I entered into the semester hoping to learn more about the flipped classroom and honestly, to be convinced that it could work, without having to invest a large amount of time into implementation.

While most of the things I noticed during the semester are specific to our implementation and our videos, I think the following three points are valuable to anyone considering flipping the classroom:

1.      Think about content. A pre-class video is another way to present material, just like lecture, demonstrations, or using props in class.

a.       There is some material that lends itself wonderfully to videos.  I loved the videos that meant I did not have to attempt (and fail) to draw 3D pictures on the board.  Many students spoke highly of the videos where the main goal was to derive a formula.

b.      But for the more conceptual ideas?  Videos did not cut it.  Yes, students could pause and rewind, but the explanation never changed.  This meant that some students came to class already extremely frustrated that “the videos didn’t teach [them] anything.” You may want to consider having an alternative explanation or teaching method on hand for difficult concepts.

2.      Think about the in-class experience just as much, if not more, than the videos. Before you flip a classroom with videos, you need videos.  In April, Simona Lorenzini and I will lead a workshop exactly aimed at creating this video content.  But once you have the videos, you have to use them!  The most important questions to ask yourself are:

a.       How do I gauge what my students have learned from these videos?  How can I leverage that to improve the in-class experience for all my students?

b.      How do I make my classroom as active as possible, so students stay engaged despite “learning” the material via videos?

c.       How can I make the constant transition between video and in-class and back again as seamless as possible?

3.      Just because students watched a video does not mean they have learned and internalized everything.  One selling point of the flipped classroom is that it removes some of the tedious lecture from class and therefore allows instructors to do more.  However, the students are not always as far along after watching the videos as you might hope.  Speaking from my own experience, I was often tempted to use the videos and prep-problems to justify (to myself) skipping some more basic examples. 

When I taught Calculus II without videos, I would do 3-4 simple examples in class with the students (let’s say level 1 or 2 for a scale).  If those went well, I would do a couple more complicated problems (say level 3 or 4 if they were really getting it). Last semester, one basic (level 1) example was in the video.  The prep-problems (usually) asked the students to do 2-3 level 2 or 3 examples.  Thus, it often felt natural to start class with a level 3 problem and then dive in to level 4 problems.

The problem with this: students often struggled through the prep-problems and (since they were online) sometimes got the correct answer without internalizing why.  Therefore, starting class at level 2 would have been a safer bet.  If that example goes off without issue, then slowly make your way up to levels 3 and 4.

Overall, I am happy that I tried the flipped classroom and would look forward to doing it again, though most likely with videos I picked out or created myself.  It is a different type of teaching and I think its value comes in how each person can adapt (or steal from) the concept to improve and critically reflect on their teaching, including taking those ideas back to a “traditional” classroom.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Four Things I Learned about Using Webinars for Teaching and Learning

Tyler Smith

In December, CTL fellow Simona Lorenzini and I co-facilitated a pair of webinars on the use of webinars in online learning. In a post on this blog last month, Simona reflected on our planning process. We had fun and learned a ton in our preparation for and facilitation of the webinars. We got a lot of it right, too: we produced a goal-driven lesson plan and rehearsed ahead of time; we designed ice-breakers and activities to keep our participants engaged; we were punctual in starting and ending; and we accounted for digital fatigue and distractibility by keeping the meeting short and sweet. But would we do it all over again in exactly the same way? Absolutely not. In this post, I’d like to explain some of what we learned along the way.

The webinar model most people are familiar with is focused on content delivery and usually involves one or more presenters, a behind-the-scenes navigator/troubleshooter/producer, and a listening audience. Because we were working with a smaller group and wanted to mimic the seminar-style atmosphere of a typical CTL Advanced Teaching Workshop, we tried to operate in a more collaborative, interactive mode. We were surprised to find, from the post-workshop feedback we received, that the most effective and appreciated moments in our webinars happened when Simona and I were “delivering content” rather than facilitating discussion. The takeaway: Webinars work best for sharing well-defined content with a crowd.

We offered the webinar twice, each time to a group of about a dozen participants. These upper limits were partly due to the limits imposed by Google Hangouts and partly because we thought that between ten and fifteen participants would be the sweet spot for a seminar-esque conversation. We bumped up against a significant challenge, however, in that we were working with groups of people without significant shared histories. This circumstance would also have been true had we met in person, of course, but we discovered that it is more difficult to “break the ice” online than in person. The takeaway: Collaborative webinars work better for people who have a shared history.

Though Simona and I spent a lot of time crafting our learning goals and a lesson plan, our meeting was not structured around a single, collaborative task. We might have been able to get away with throwing a bunch of strangers together for a general conversation if we each had a specific role and were collaborating on a specific task, like building a website or organizing a conference. But we wanted to facilitate a general discussion about webinars—when they might be useful in teaching, and what their advantages and disadvantages might be—as well as give our participants a first-hand experience of what it might be like to participate in a collaborative webinar. The range of questions we were interested in engaging might have worked well in a seminar, but felt in this medium like waffling around without focus. The takeaway: Webinars work best for groups of people who have a single task that can be accomplished in a compact timeframe.

In the early stages of planning, the idea of discussing webinars in a webinar seemed like a fun way to model the best practices we were promoting. As we neared the event, it turned out that this was our only “Really Compelling Reason” for having this discussion online rather than in a seminar room. We weren’t in a situation where participants were geographically dispersed, nor did weather conditions, physical disabilities, travel times, or financial considerations pose obstacles to our coming together. The conversation we were having didn’t require us all to be on our computers (e.g., manipulating data on a spreadsheet or composing a jointly-authored text). Had we met in a physical classroom, though, we wouldn’t have experienced the weight of these lessons as immediately and memorably as we did. The takeaway: educators should only opt for online meetings when they can say why a webinar better suits their participants and goals than a face-to-face meeting.  

In the feedback we collected, our participants appreciated first-hand perspectives on the tools of a webinar and the immersive dynamic that wouldn’t have been possible had we simply discussed these lessons in the abstract. But a part of us also found the form and the content to be uncomfortable bedfellows. Webinars are exciting and efficient vehicles for some kinds of teaching and learning scenarios. By preparing for them, teachers are learning to be more focused, efficient, and accessible. But webinars can’t do the same kinds of reflective, interactive, relationship-building work as a seminar or a workshop, and it would be unrealistic to expect them to. This is worth remembering at a time when some entrepreneurs and proponents of online learning are pushing to “unbundle” or even eliminate bricks-and-mortar universities as loci for learning.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Five Secrets for Creating Effective Slides

Namratha Vedire

From cave paintings and hieroglyphics to modern day video conferencing, human beings have invented different ways to communicate visually with each other. In today’s technology saturated world, PowerPoint presentations have become the most commonly used method to visually convey ideas. Unfortunately, their pervasiveness has also made PowerPoint the most abused tool. Thanks to inbuilt templates and the largely design-agnostic masses, we not only tolerate but have come to accept badly designed presentations. Not surprisingly, skeptics and cynics commonly label it a crutch. As teachers, academics and researchers, we lean quite heavily on this crutch. And even worse, accept poorly designed presentations as the norm.

As an engineer, and a theorist at that, I have sat through my fair share of classes and talks featuring downright bad presentations. Yet, I firmly oppose the idea of labeling PowerPoint as a crutch and refuse to put up with poorly designed slides anymore. I believe that when used well, the simple constructs that PowerPoint provides can create powerful and moving presentations. Don’t believe me? Al Gore’s Academy Award winning documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth” is an adapted and edited version of his PowerPoint presentation. Now, you and I might not have Mr. Gore’s resources when it comes to creating our presentations, but there are a few global design principles you can use to make your slides stand out.

In this blog post, I have limited myself to 5 ideas to make your slides compelling, which are easy to adopt when making new presentations or editing those already built.

1. Ideate - Finding Non-Cliché Images

A picture is worth a thousand words. But, we rarely look beyond PowerPoint’s inbuilt clipart gallery full of cliché images like the one below showing a baton being handed off for, say, teamwork. Even if we do turn to Google images for fresh visuals, it is often hard to cull the plethora of search results for an image that fits our need. For instance, consider that you need to replace the cliché teamwork image. Before you even open your browser to find an image, employ a method called Ideating.

Ideating is a way to systematically brainstorm and open your mind to different possibilities by listing all words/phrases/analogies you can think of for your key word; here our key word is “teamwork.” Below is one instance of me ideating for teamwork.

From the above process I could now choose a picture of ants or an orchestra or a team of superheroes—say, the Avengers—as my stand-in for the cliché image depending on what works best for my presentation. Now I can turn to Google and find a focused, copyright-free image. I chose ants and I particularly liked this image.

2. Data

There are three cardinal rules while designing a data slide:

i. Pick the right tool for the job.

Determine what relationship your data portrays and then choose the tools that highlight that aspect. Some examples:

ii. Highlight what is important.

Use differentiating colors or animation to highlight the important data points/ deviations from the standard. This is a much better tool than relying on your laser pointer to draw focus because there are no uncertainties with runaway pointers. It is controlled and you already know how it will play out.

iii. Tell the truth.

I cannot stress this enough—ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH. Use the above two points to tell the truth and communicate effectively the point you wish to make.

3. One Message per Slide

Limit yourself to conveying one message (concept/ idea) in a slide. While it is okay to have overview slide to introduce your talk or section, keep to one concept in the slide. Strictly enforcing this rule should stop you from putting too much text, graphs, images or all of them on one slide.

4. Use Relationships

After isolating the one message you want to show in the slide, it is important to represent the message clearly. All I want to say on the subject, I learnt with

5. Slide Master

If you are a certified PowerPoint expert, you still might not be aware of all the handy features of PowerPoint’s Slide Master. The Slide Master is the global slide that can control Font, Color Scheme and Layout of all your slides at once. Anything you add (remove) here appears (disappears) on every slide – think logos, background color, header and footer. Learn more about accessing and editing your slide master here.

Once in the slide master view, in addition to adding global visual elements, consider adding a grid to help keep a uniform layout for your slides. Create the grid using the line tool in PowerPoint. Once you are done creating you slides, just delete the grid from the master and you are left with a consistent presentation. Explore more layout options here. As an example, I created this grid:

Setting your color scheme and choosing your font and font size is easy with the slide master. When choosing colors, keep in mind that some of your audience might be colorblind. Make sure there is enough contrast between your background and main text/ images. For color inspirations, check out paletton.

For fonts, there are a lot of options and, as I have come to realize, the choice is very personal. In addition to setting theme fonts, the master slide is a great place to delete the second, third, fourth and fifth levels of text (bullet) indents so you don’t use them to make text heavy slides. To enhance the clarity of your text, err on keeping the size medium to big. A rule of thumb to know when your text size is too small, step 2.5 feet away from your computer and if you cannot read the text – it is probably too small. For inspirations, look at fonts here.

It is important to remember that just like any other software package, PowerPoint is only as powerful as you make it. This post was written with the intent of making you aware of tips and tools to push PowerPoint’s effectiveness and enable you to create powerful presentations.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Putting the "Active" in Active Learning

Becky Van den Honert

Think of a few of your worst classes in high school or college. What made them so awful? What about your favorite classes? Why did you love them? When I think back, I remember professors that showed their passion for the material, challenged me to think in a different way, and didn’t just regurgitate facts from a textbook.

Today, I am a Psychology PhD student. I’m studying how your brain makes memories, so the topic of what helps people learn is near and dear to my heart. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about “active learning” and why it seems to work so well. Defined broadly, active learning is an approach to teaching that engages students through reading, writing, discussion, problem solving, and other sorts of activities. Almost by definition, a lecture does not fall into this category. This is where I start to get uncomfortable. Some of my all-time favorite classes have been lecture-based. Is it really the case that classes based on active learning are better than those fantastic lectures? I don’t think so.

Why do certain lectures work very well and others don’t? It has to do with why I think active learning approaches are so effective.

Below are three major factors that will improve students’ retention of information.

1.     Engagement. Students have to pay attention and fully process information they encounter in order to remember it.
2.     Integration. In order to learn, students must integrate new information into things they already know. Having a way to organize information is what turns it into knowledge.
3.     Remembering. Merely being reminded of something by hearing or reading it again will do very little to improve a student’s memory. Instead, if they voluntarily remember something (e.g., by quizzing themselves), they’ll be better able to use that information down the road.

Active learning capitalizes on all three of these things.

An activity is likely to boost students’ engagement in a number of ways. Maybe they wake up a bit by having to interact with other students. Maybe they see a real-world application and so are motivated to pay attention. Maybe the activity requires that they process some information more deeply than they would if you just told them a list of facts. But a good lecture can do all of these things too. A good story told in a history class, for example, can wake you up, can make you see real-world applications, and can be thought-provoking enough to make you process the lecture in a deep way.

A well-designed activity can also help students integrate new information with what they already know. Maybe they are forced to make connections to last semester’s material? Maybe they’re asked to relate what they’ve learned to their daily life. But again, a good teacher can organize and deliver their lecture in a way that makes you do this in your own mind.

Finally, an activity might help students remember information that they wouldn’t otherwise think of on their own. Maybe they’re asked questions that force them to recall the lessons from last week? Maybe the activity reinforces something they just learned. You won’t be surprised, now, when I say that a lecture can accomplish the same thing. Don’t forget, lecturers can pose questions. They can even support a small amount of discussion.

I worry that the phrase “active learning” makes us forget that what counts is that students’ minds are what are active. An activity that doesn’t increase engagement, integration, or remembering will be as ineffective as a boring speaker. It might just be that including certain activities in a class is among the easiest ways to create an active mind.

So take heart if you get nostalgic when you think of your favorite teachers who “just lectured.” They weren’t doing anything wrong, they were just exceptional at teaching the traditional way.