Tag Archives: Student Learning

PowerPoint: Let’s Make a Meal of It

Steve Volk, October 3, 2016



PowerPoint is used by a huge (I believe that’s the technical term!) number of faculty, students, administrators, business people, yoga instructors, plumbers, toddlers, and just about anyone else you can name except your cat. (Now we know who’s the smart one in the family.) In this post, I wanted to raise the question of whether we should be sharing slides with our students: If yes, then when (before or after class), and in what format (verbatim from class or edited, as slides or PDFs); if no, why not?

But then I thought: Why not make a whole meal of it and go over various aspects of PowerPoint use, not necessarily the technical (how do I get the transitions I want between slides, how on earth do I insert video, etc.?) but more the educational and aesthetic side of it. So, put your napkin on your lap, have your fork and knife at the ready, and let’s tuck in.

Amuse Bouche:

Is it PowerPoint, Power Point, or Powerpoint? Microsoft would have us believe that it’s PowerPoint, but are we going to let them boss us around? Well maybe for this time only for sake of consistency.

Appetizer: What makes for a good PowerPoint presentation.

Beyond a doubt, the best book ever on PowerPoint design (only 32 pages! only $2.00!)  is by Edward Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Tufte, if you’ve been busy updating your Facebook status for the last few decades, is a statistician, artist, and Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Statistics, and Computer Science at Yale University. Tufte has been called the “Leonardo da Vinci of data” (New York Times), the “Galileo of graphics” (Business Week), and the “Gordon Ramsay of visualization” (Food and Drink). OK, I made the last one up.

Tufte is the one who made the chart below instantly recognizable to millions. He describes this as “probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” It is a map by Charles Joseph Minard that graphically portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812. The peach-colored band is the size of Napoleon’s army as he marches into Russia from the Polish border; the black-colored band is its size as he retreated from Moscow. The temperature and time scale is below. If we have some military historians in the crowd, throw out your lecture on the defeat of Napoleon and just show this graphic.

Charles Minard, Napoleon's Russia Campaign, 1812

Charles Minard, Napoleon’s Russia Campaign, 1812

That’s Tufte and Minard. Breathtaking suggestions on how to use information graphically, i.e., now to make interesting PowerPoint slides. Given that we’re mere mortals looking for tips on how to improve our slides, I’d turn to the following for useful advice:

I’ve already clearly ignored Godin’s recommendations about bullets and the NRA, so I’ll continue the appetizer with a few summary points when thinking about improving your slides:

  • Fewer words per slide! There are a number of reasons for this besides the obvious: Your slides should not be your lecture written out and distributed in chunks that you then read to your students. Fewer words per slide (can you keep it to 6?). This will:

(a) Force you to concentrate on what you think the main point is that your students should be getting;

(b) Allow your students to concentrate on that main point;

(c) Allow for more discussion about those points;

(d) More easily engage students than if they are frantically trying to copy down what’s on the screen EVEN if they know you will share your slides with them.

  • Design a slide using images or other data visualization in order to help students absorb the central points you want them to remember; Tufte’s main point, and the essence of all data visualization work, is that good graphics can bolster learning. Just imagine teaching a course in biology or physics, for example, without the use of a graphic, chart or image to help explain a point.
  • Communicate emotions: Research shows that memory is enhanced through emotional engagement. Slides that convey emotion can help students remember the content that is being discussed.

For more information on data visualization and image use in the classroom, see “Drawing to Learn: Beyond Visualization.”

Main Course: Slide Sharing with a Side of How and When

spagettiSo we’ve reached the main course: Should we share slides with our students? The answer, of course, depends on many factors. But let’s dig in:

Slides that are primarily textual. It’s probably a good idea to share your slides with students if they primarily carry content information that would be hard for them to copy down or take notes on during class. This is particularly the case for information that will be needed later (on exams or papers, for example). Further, making this information available will remove any disadvantage from students who are not fast writers (either on laptops or with pen and paper), have not yet developed good note-taking skiills, or who, because of a disability, are literally unable to take note s effectively. (Note: not all students who, because of a documented disability are eligible to be assigned a college-provided note-taker, will actually take advantage of this.)

The question here is more when as opposed to if. Some faculty will provide slides of their lectures prior to the lecture; some only after. The answer (as with so much else) depends on your overall purpose in the lecture. Faculty who don’t want to distribute slides before the lecture argue that students will have no reason to come to class; faculty who don’t want to distribute slides after the lecture say that it’s “unfair” to those who “sat through class” to distribute them to those who didn’t make the effort to attend class. To both sets of faculty I would just say: something else should be happening in class that makes attendance critical (and not just an attendance policy).

It makes sense to distribute slides to class prior to the class if they will help students learn more effectively during the class session itself. Students should be able to use the information to better prepare themselves for learning in the class, to ask more effective questions, to pursue lines of thought they couldn’t develop in class on the spur of the moment. I would often think that if I gave students the slides before class, I’d be giving away all my good “punch lines” and they’d be bored in class (or see that I had prepared and wasn’t “spontaneous”). That certainly would be the case if one is doing no more than reading from slides, but concepts, to be learned, need frequent reiterations, so you’re really not giving anything away by sharing slides before class.

It makes sense to distribute slides after class in most cases (see below for exceptions), since they become yet another source that students can refer to when studying the course material. Slides, even if they contain only a few words of information, can help students recall central concepts and “replay” class discussions. To the extent that your slides function as mnemonic devices, why withhold them from students. (If you’re not already doing this, uploading your slide set to Blackboard is as simple as uploading any other file.)

opposingIf you are lecturing from notes on your PowerPoint slides and only want the students to see the slides themselves since you have other information on “background” in the “notes” section that you’re not using in the presentation (e.g. “Stress this point because Emily and Sam seem to miss it consistently”), you can either make an edited slide set to upload, or, more simply, convert the set to a pdf and upload that; it will only capture your slides, not the notes. (From the main PowerPoint menu, simply “save as” a PDF.)

Slides that are mostly graphic, with images only. The main question here is whether the slides can be intelligible to the viewer (students) without you as an interpreter. Most of my slides, for example, are images which make little sense without the context I (or other students in class) provide. So I don’t distribute slides before a class, but I do make them available after the class so serve, as I noted above, as mnemonic devices for the students.


Other considerations.

  1. Use of copyright images or other material: images that you use in class are protected; images that you post to Blackboard are protected; but if students take your images and use them in ways that are not protected, well, that could violate copyright law. At the very least, make sure your images are credited and that you have discussed proper image use with your students.
  2. Your slides are, after all, your slides, your intellectual property. I’ve discussed before reasons why faculty might not want to share their syllabi on the internet. The same considerations would apply to your slide set. This would come down to an individual’s choice regarding how one thinks about intellectual property and its sharing. But I would stress that sharing slide sets with students via Blackboard is in a different category, and that faculty should be encouraged to do this for the reasons listed above. (You can always put a notice on the first slide: Property of x; all rights reserved.)

Dessert: Taking Microsoft off the Table: Keynote, other presentation software?

Microsoft’s PowerPoint, of course, is the standard. Much like “zipper” or “Xerox,” the term has come to stand in for all presentation software. Mac users are familiar with Keynote (which I’ve usually found to be a better presentation software in many ways), but Keynote doesn’t play nice with those who don’t have Macs and if you are combining slides with a PowerPoint user, it’s a giant headache.

Prezi is another option, and you’ve probably see it in operation at a conference. (If you’ve ever wondered why the “slides” seem to be moving from place to place on a very large canvas, that’s Prezi.) Prezi is wonderful in the kinds of engaging presentations you can create, seamlessly inserting visuals, text, and video, but you travel a fairly steep learning curve before you can learn to employ it very effectively, and if you don’t manage it well, your viewers will likely suffer from motion sickness as they are whiplashed around the screen.


Slidebean, another source of presentation software, has a website on the “Best Presentation Software of 2016” which, not surprisingly, finds their own product to be the best. Visme, another company, has its own “top 10” list of PowerPoint alternatives. (Guess who’s #1?). The good folks in OCTET can offer their own opinions. But for the vast majority of us, the choice comes down to using the presentation software that is most readily available, easiest to use, and most accessible to all of our students.

If that’s the case, than the key is learning how to use it in the best possible ways, i.e., in ways that help students learn and remember the most. A Prezi presentation might be just the thing for a conference, but not necessarily for sharing with your students. So in choosing presentation software, as with any educational technology, always focus on what are your primary learning goals and use the technology that can most easily serve those goals.

The Chocolates on the Table

I hope your appetite for presentation software is fully sated, but if you’re still hungry for more, send me some comments on how you use PowerPoint or other presentation software. I’m happy to prepare another feast.

Evaluation Time!

Steven Volk, December 6, 2015

The debate over the value of Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs) is a long one, which I have reported on a number of times (see here and here, among others). As we move into the last week of the semester, I’d like to suggest two additional approaches to end-of-semester evaluations that can help both you and your students think about the learning that occurred in your classes. I’ll also include a “guide” I wrote in 2010 for reading your SETs when they are returned to you after grades are in.

What Helped Your Learning?

Students enter the "Natio Germanica Bononiae,“ University of Bologna (15th century). Public domain. Wikimedia

Students enter the “Natio Germanica Bononiae,“ University of Bologna (15th century). Public domain. Wikimedia

SETs are largely about how students experienced your course, and so the questions focus on issues of organization, pacing, clarity, grading, etc. As numerous articles have pointed out, Student Evaluations of Teaching don’t tell you about student learning, and they provide very little information to suggest what it is you are doing to support (or hinder) the leaning that goes on in the class. Linda Shadiow and Maryellen Weimer, writing in Faculty Focus on Nov. 23, suggest a series of questions that can help foreground student learning issues. They offer a series of fairly simple sentence stems for students to complete. For example,

  • It most helped my learning of the content when…because…
  • It would have helped my learning of the content if…because…
  • The assignment that contributed most to my learning was…because…
  • The reading that contributed the most to my learning was…because…
  • The kinds of homework problems that contributed most to my learning were…because…
  • The approach I took to my own learning that contributed the most for me was…because…
  • The biggest obstacle for me in my learning the material was…because…
  • A resource I know about that you might consider using is…because…
  • I was most willing to take risks with learning new material when…because…
  • During the first day, I remember thinking…because…
  • What I think I will remember five years from now is…because…

Shadiow and Weimer recommend that faculty also complete the same sentences. Having (almost) completed the semester, we probably have a good idea which assignments worked from our point of view and which didn’t; what readings brought out the most in discussion, and what didn’t; what homework assignments stretched student learning and what brought basically “meh” responses. Comparing our answers to the students can be revealing (or, perhaps, horrifying!).

These questions can be added to the bottom of the current SETs that you will be handing out. You can simply add an additional sheet with these questions which, still anonymously, can be returned directly to you rather than being tabulated by the department AA’s or becoming a part of your official file. Once you have you have let some time pass (see “SETs for Beginners,” below), you can look at them, particularly before preparing classes for next semester.

Student Self-Assessment

Cours de philosophie à Paris Grandes chroniques de France; Castres, bibliothèque municipale – late 14th century. Public domain. Wikimedia

Cours de philosophie à Paris Grandes chroniques de France; Castres, bibliothèque municipale – late 14th century. Public domain. Wikimedia

David Gooblar, in his “Pedagogy Unbound” blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education, recently wrote a very useful post on student self-assessment. [Note: For a good introduction to student self-assessment, see Heidi Andrade & Anna Valtcheva, “Promoting Learning and Achievement Through Self-Assessment,” Theory Into Practice 48:1 (2009): 12-19.] Ask your students to reflect upon the learning strategies they used over the course of the semester, and to consider their own habits of thinking. “Explain that the act of reflection is itself a valuable learning strategy,” he writes. Ask them how they studied for tests or what they did to prepare for their assignments; what worked for them and what didn’t? The answers you get may be quite basic, but the more often we ask students to reflect on their own learning, the more practiced at it they will become.

Gooblar calls attention to the work on metacognition undertaken by Kimberly D. Tanner, a professor of biology at San Francisco State University, particularly the “retrospective postassessments” she uses. Tanner asks students to think about what they now know about the subject (in general terms) compared to what they knew at the start of the semester. (For example: “Before this course, I thought neoliberalism was _____. Now, I think neoliberalism is _____.”) You can ask students to write about the specific ways they have changed their thinking about the topics you covered. Or you can have them write a letter to a future student of the course, to reflect on its high and low points, and tell incoming students what they wished they would have had known going in to the class and what they wish they would have done differently over the course of the semester?

Since I have my students set out their learning goals in a short paper at the start of the class – which I collect and keep – I return these to them at the end of the semester and have them reflect, one final time, on which of these goals they feel they have achieved, and which they didn’t, what they did to reach their goals and what they will do differently in their next classes. Whatever method you chose, the end of the semester is a good time to encourage students to reflect on the journey they have undertaken with you and how they are different at the end of the trip.

“SETs for Beginners” (first written Feb. 7, 2010 and slightly updated here)


A meeting of doctors at the university of Paris. From the “Chants royaux” manuscript, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

By now, as you well know, there is a very large literature on student evaluations of teaching (SETs). A lot of the research points to the validity and reliability of these instruments in terms of measuring very specific areas of a student’s experience in a completed class. Some writers continue to argue that they are a worthless exercise, citing evidence that evaluations handed out after the first day of a class will yield strikingly similar results to surveys conducted at the end of the semester, that they are a measure of the entertainment-value of a class, not any value added in terms of student learning, or that they can be easily influenced (just hand out doughnuts with the questionnaires). I have come to accept three basic realities about the use of SETs:

(1) on a broad level, they help to identify outliers – a class which seems to have been extremely successful or highly troubled; (2) they should not be used as the only evaluation of teaching (informed peer evaluation following a standard observation protocol and an examination of course syllabi by experts in the field are strongly recommended as well); and (3) SETs are not a substitute for an assessment of student learning in a course. But, when read carefully, they can tell you something about your teaching on a very specific level. The question is how to read them to get that specific information, and on that score, there is very little literature.

So here’s a first attempt at this question, a kind of “SETs for Beginners.”

Because of college rules, which are likely similar everywhere, we receive our teaching evaluations back only after grades are turned in. (You should consult with your department chairs for information as to how and when to hand out SETs, whether your students can complete them online or only in class, and how they are to be collected if you do them in-class.) At some point by mid-January or mid-June, after our hard-working administrative assistants have tabulated and organized the data, we are informed that our SETs are ready to be picked up!

First decision: do you rush in to get them, play it cool, like a cat walking around a particularly lovely kibble before pouncing, or pretend that they aren’t there until, sure enough, you have forgotten all about them? I usually take the middle route on this, but, in any case, I certainly won’t pick them up on a day when the auto shop called to tell me that the problem’s in the drive train or the best journal just rejected my article. Another hit that day, I just don’t need.

When I do finally make the move, I take them to my office, put them on my desk, pretend that they aren’t there while I take a look at my email which I already checked 90 seconds earlier. Enough, already. I open the folders and read, rapidly, the overall numbers: not what I hoped for, better than it could have been, whatever… Then I put them away for at least a day or two. I don’t think I’m ready to take them on-board just yet, whether the numbers are good, bad, or indifferent. I go back to the email, the article, the gym, until I’ve absorbed the larger quantitative landscape and feel mentally prepared to explore the terrain a bit more carefully.

When I do return to the SETs, I give myself the time (and space) to read them carefully (and privately). I don’t pay much attention to any individual numbers – those have been summarized for me, but I read the comments with care… and a mixture of interest, confusion, skepticism, and wonder. How is it that the student who wrote “Volk is probably the most disorganized professor I’ve ever encountered” attended the same class as the one who commented, “This was a marvel of organization and precision”? What is one to make of such clearly cancelling comments? So here are my tricks for trying to give my SETs the kind of close reading that I think they merit:

  • Do not dwell on the angry outliers. That’s advice more easily given than taken. I have read enough teaching evaluations, my own as well as others, to know that there are some students who just didn’t like our classes and have not figured out any helpful or gracious way to say that. The fact that these are (hopefully) a tiny minority and are directly contradicted by the great majority of other comments doesn’t seem to decrease their impact, or the fact that we continue to obsess about them. (I can still quote, verbatim, comments that were written in 1987!) These bitter communiqués probably serve a purpose for the student, but they really don’t help you think at all usefully about your teaching. Let ’em go.
  • Evaluate the “cancellers”. What do you do when three students thought you were able to organize and facilitate discussions with a high degree of skill and three thought you couldn’t organize a discussion to save your life? These are harder to deal with and can add to the cynicism of those who think that the whole SET adventure is a waste of time. For the “cancellers,” I try to figure out a bit more about them to see if they represent some legitimate (i.e., widespread) concern about the class or not. Is one side of the debate generally supported by the numbers? Do I score lower in the discussion-oriented questions than in other areas, lower than in previous iterations of the course, or lower than I would have really wanted? Does the demographic information that I know about the student evaluator add context that is useful and that I should take on board? I am more likely to trust comments from seniors than from first-years. Does it appear that there is a striking gender or racial difference in terms of how students respond to specific questions? That is extremely important information to lean from and it is why we collect demographic information from our student respondents. A careful reading of this information can help us understand what is going on in our classes on a more granular level.
Brian Carson, Backyard Flowers in Black and White, No. 2. Flickr Creative Commons

Brian Carson, Backyard Flowers in Black and White, No. 2. Flickr Creative Commons

And, if none of the above helps me think about why something I have done works for some and not others, I make a note to myself to ask students explicitly about it the next time I offer the class: Please, tell me if you don’t think these (discussions, paper assignments, readings, etc.) are working so that I can consider other approaches.

  • Focus on those areas that seem to be generating the most amount of concern from students. Are they having a hard time trying to figure out how the assignments relate to the reading? Do a considerable number worry that they aren’t getting timely or useful feedback from you? Is there a widespread upset that classes run too long and students don’t have enough time to get to their next class? For each of the areas where I find a concern that has reached a “critical mass” level and is not just an angry-outlier grievance, I consider what I think about their criticism and whether, given my own goals in the course, I find it legitimate. For example, I will pay no attention to students who complain about the early hour of my class. Getting work back on time depends on the size of the class and what I have promised: in a 50-person class if I say I’ll return work within two weeks, and do so, then I won’t think much about students who complain that I only returned their work two weeks after they turned it in.

Other issues force me to think more about how I teach and what impact that has on student learning. What of students who protest that “there’s too much work for a 100-level class”? I get a lot of those comments, and it makes me think: why do students think a 100-level class should involve less work than a 300-level class? Do we, the faculty, think that a 100-level class should be less work than a senior seminar? Certainly, upper-level classes will be more “difficult” than 100-level classes (i.e., they demand that the students have acquired significant prior knowledge and skills needed to engage at a higher level), but should there be any less work involved in the entry-level class? I, for one, don’t think so – and so I won’t change that aspect of the course.

But, ultimately, when student comments suggest what is a real area of concern, when they point to something I am doing in the class that negatively impacts how students are able to learn, than I need to regard that issue with the seriousness it deserves. I will think about how I might correct the problem, and, often, the best way to do that is to talk to my colleagues and find someone in my department or outside who can read my SETs with me. That has served me well every time, and it does point to the ultimate utility of SETs for the individual faculty member on a formative level: they can help us to design our teaching to more effectively promote student learning.

  • Finally, since Oberlin really does attract faculty who care about their students and the challenges of student learning, then my guess is that your evaluations are generally good, and you need to take great satisfaction in that (see: “Don’t dwell on the angry outliers”). I have never failed to find some comments on my own evaluations that remind me yet again about how perceptive our students can be and how fortunate I am to be here.

The Last Five Minutes: Class Endings and Student Learning

Steve Volk (Director, Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence), April 20, 2014

A recent article by David Gooblar in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s on-line “Pedagogy Unbound” section reminded me how important it is to end a class well, both individual classes (today’s topic), and the semester as a whole (which I’ll turn to soon). We spend a fair amount of time thinking about how we start a class: perhaps summarizing material from the past class, highlighting written responses to the readings that students have posted, offering a snapshot of what the day’s class will cover. But the ending is often less planned, particularly as we rush to get through the topics we had intended to cover that day.

Why is that? Probably a lot of factors are to blame, but the most common one I’ve encountered is that faculty try to put too much into the 50 or 75 minutes we have in a regular class session; we try to cover too much. Many, myself included, particularly when I was a bit newer to the game, are worried that we will run out of things to say before the clock signals the end of the class. As a result, we over-prepare … just to be sure. Of course, we never actually run out of things to say. Rather, we run out of time in which to say them. Now, when we look up at the clock, we find that there are five minutes left and we have 15 minutes worth of “stuff” still to deliver. What to do?

Usually we try one of these strategies:

  • We talk faster in an attempt to squeeze it in;
  • We continue to talk even as the students put on their coats, anxiously lean towards the door, and we spy next instructor assigned to the same classroom peaking into the room;
  • We carry over a the “untaught” material from that class on to the next (which only seems to exacerbate the problem if it happens every day);
  • We drop that part of the class where the students are asked to synthesize and share the main conclusions from the small-group discussions they had just finished.

Bud Collyer as host of "Beat the Clock" (1958) - Wikimedia Commons

None of these strategies, obviously, is optimal for student learning, but I’ve employed each of them enough times (and observed others doing so as well), that it seems reasonable to offer a few suggestions from my perch at the back of the room. Now, some students may be so deeply engaged in a class that they don’t notice the time…but that usually isn’t the case. Because they need to be in another class in 10 minutes or simply expect the class to be ending, any observer can see them closing down, as it were. They start to pack their bags, put on their coats, close their computers, or just look at the door. The key point is that they are not listening (or learning) any more, and going past the time the class is to end by more than 1-2 minutes only makes them more anxious and less able to hear. We may feel that we were able to squeeze in everything we wanted to say in those last few minutes…but they probably didn’t get it. Production but no reception.

Too Much Johnson, William Gillette, 1895 (Public Domain).

This can be even more of an issue when teachers sacrifice some of the most important lessons of the class because they have run out of time. This will often happen when students have broken into smaller discussion groups and you had planned to bring them back together both to share their observations and to have them (or you) synthesize the key points you wanted to cover. Not every small group discussion has to be shared or synthesized, and you can develop other ways to do this without re-forming into a group-of-the-whole (see Tips for Capturing Small-Group Discussions below), but if you count on that moment to raise the cognitive level of the class and you have to forgo it because of lack of time, you’re passing up an important moment of student learning. There’s no question that this will happen from time to time: issues might come up in discussion that are just too good to sidetrack. And you can always start the next class with a summary of the last discussion (although, usually, students aren’t as able to return to that discussion two days later as you would like them to be).

Why Are We Doing It This Way?

As I suggested above, we often over-prepare a class for fear of being caught with our critical pants down: we have come to the end of our useful knowledge for that day and have nothing more to say. Besides the fact that I think we can always find something to say or to have the students do (and it does get easier as the years go by), I think the tendency to put too much into a class often reflects the fact that we haven’t thought enough about what our specific goals are for that class session. As a history teacher, I know that my “goal” was often only to cover a given chronology. If I was talking about the origins of the Cuban Revolution, I knew I wanted to end up in 1959; 1956 just wouldn’t do, so I’d speak faster to get it all in before class ended. But as I continued to think about what I was doing and what the students were getting out of it, I realized that more is not always more – quite often it is less. You think the students have understood something that you squeezed in at the end, but they haven’t.  As I tried increasingly to get at the central analytic issues involved in any particular class, I realized that I could plan a class that didn’t have to cover all the material I was delivering (after all, they have readings and other resources), but could focus on a few exemplary moments to help them work through the central concepts (in this case problematizing the question of what revolutions are, what we mean by “revolutionary origins,” what was it about the specific history of Cuba that gave rise to the events of 1959). This extra planning hasn’t meant that I never run out of time in my classes, but at least the main part of the learning that I want to happen occurs sometime before the last few minutes of the class.

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro enter Havana, January 1959

How to Make Use of those Last Minutes?

There is an additional benefit to class planning: you can now use the final minutes of class in an activity that not only can hold the students’ attention, but can help you significantly in understanding what they got out of the class and how you might want to begin the next class. Use the last 2-3 minutes of class time to have them write. They can write a “muddy-point” commentary, noting something that they didn’t understand or would like further discussed in the next class. They can focus on the 1-3 points that they learned from that class. Or they can look ahead: what are their preconceptions of the next class. (I have posted a very short article on this topic, “The Final Three Minutes with 100 Undergraduates,” by Robert Hampel, on CTIE’s Blackboard site. It appeared in the most recent edition of College Teaching 62 (2014): 77–78.) These short exercises have the advantage of focusing student attention on a very defined task for the last few minutes of class rather than on wondering when you will stop talking, giving you an important idea of what they learned (or didn’t learn) in the class, and allowing those who have more to say (and who have the time to stay) to spend a minute or two more than the others with their comments. (Of course, there’s still the next instructor assigned to the class looking through the door wondering when she’ll be able to get in!)

Tips for Capturing Small-Group Discussions

Often, in discussions, I use one of two techniques as a way to help students develop and hold onto their conclusions. If I have 6-7 different small groups working at the same time, either on the same or a different set of questions, I have them to come up to the board towards the end of the time I have set aside for discussion and write down the conclusions, answers, or questions their group arrived at. If there is no time to bring these different “conversations” together, I take a picture of the board with my phone and post it to Blackboard. The students can refer to the image after class and I can start the next class with the image of the last class’s board projected on a screen. (You can do the same thing with post-in notes, having them write on the notes in their groups and then sticking them under appropriate headings.)

Partial image of chalk board after discussion (Steve Volk)

Arranging "post-it" notes (Steve Volk)

The other technique I use is to make sure that someone with a laptop is a part of each group. Before class, I have prepared a Google Doc with the same number of columns as there are small groups (add more columns if you’re not sure of the number), assign numbers to each of the discussion groups that has formed up, enter the email addresses of the student with the laptop into an “invitation” to join the document (all of which takes, literally, about 2 minutes), and then have them write conclusions, answers, or questions in their assigned column as they are discussing the material. I project that Google Doc onto the screen and can see each group’s discussion develop in real time. Again, if there is time to pull everything together, we do that at the end of class when we all look at the document that is projected; if we have run out of time, I save the document, post it to Blackboard for them to read, and (if I want) pull it up at the start of the next class.

Google Doc example from class (Steve Volk)

Google Doc example from class (Steve Volk)

Wake Up and Smell the New Epistemology

Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 23, 2009 (Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 55, Issue 20, Page B7)


Popular epistemologies are funny things. The latest one slipped into our party unannounced, slowly replaced all the food and decorations, and then stared back blankly when we asked how our Mexican fiesta had turned into a country-western barbecue. Only after the tequila wears off and we piece together the evening do we realize, with embarrassment, that the change has been a long time coming.

For decades, we professors and administrators drank deeply of notions like “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” and “the transformative power of the liberal arts,” paying little heed as the American populace shifted from widespread respect for the academy to considerable skepticism of it. Today our students occupy the leading edge of that popular shift, with no real interest in the elitist notions that we consume so readily. But they are wise enough to keep their views private, given the economic necessity of attending our party.

Our students arrive on our campuses with years of experience in observing disputes about what is and is not known, and with well-established ways of handling such things. For example, should they view Thomas Jefferson as the brilliant author of the Declaration of Independence and a “founding father” of the United States, as a political hypocrite who owned slaves and impregnated them, or as a dead president irrelevant to their own lives but important to their history teacher? Similarly, how should they view global warming, illegal immigration, and evolution?

Continue reading