On ditching bulletpoints, a personal experience.

I am encouraged that various friends and colleagues are having positive experiences in developing their presentation skills beyond bulletpoints. I have asked for some of them to share their experiences. The first is University Lecturer, a friend and colleague @Dr_JD_Moffatt who also has runs an excellent online, interactive learning resource at http://www.nataliescasebook.com/  

First year undergraduate students think they know what they need from a lecture, but a good proportion are relying on the accumulation of facts rather than the understanding of concepts.  This is a pity, because it is latter that is examined, whatever they may think from how they were taught to cram factoids for their A-levels.  In previous years, I’ve always had good feedback from students, probably because I put pages of bullet points in their hands to hold in front of them while I discussed them one by one.  Heads were always down while students underlined or highlighted points while I chatted away. I didn’t really need to be there, and many never got the basic concepts. But I was doing everything right as far as the students were concerned: don’t be boring, unapproachable or deliver clumsily and provide good handouts. Dr Good-Guy, make him teach the whole course.

Why would you change anything, if it might mean lots of bad feedback?  I’m a scientist. Give me a testable hypothesis that isn’t too mad and I’ll do the experiment to test it.  (If I forget, nag me over and over until I do.) 

So, I gave a single lecture that I give every year to a group of mature students (this is important) with not a bullet point in sight. Lots of bright pictures and the odd diagram that you really can’t do without.  It turns out I do know the material well enough to not need bullet points to remind me.  A picture of a baby filling the entire screen prompts an empathic response from the audience and reminds me that babies are something to talk about for a few minutes. You could hear a pin drop for the full 50 minutes and the feedback was incredibly positive, spontaneous and instant. More importantly, the online resources I provided got hit very hard for the next week.  Then nothing. Learning was apparently complete.

Running the same experiment with a series of lectures to first year students was more likely to be problematic.  Some early feedback (you have to force most of them to provide feedback) has been good, some has been critical of the amount of “extra work” each lecture entails.  Whether they know it or not though, they’ve probably only needed to learn the subject once and they probably understand the concepts much better. The worst feedback will come from those who went to the lectures, thought it was very good but are going to try to revise months later from a set of unannotated pictures.  I imagine someone is going to have a word with me about that: I’m not doing it right and some students are complaining.  It will be the same every year I give these lecture now.

Ultimately though, I like my students and I don’t want a consultant shouting at them in a couple of years because they don’t understand a simple concept. Tough love indeed.

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