Help my students see!
February 18, 2011 11:24 AM   Subscribe

The lecture section of my Human Bio class is in a roughly 25x50 ft computer lab. The class is packed, I barely have enough seats for everyone, and better than half of my students can't see what is going on in the front of the classroom. Help me modify my teaching style and technology so my whole class can see my notes, videos etc.

The classroom has a projector screen flanked on each side by modestly sized whiteboards. There is a desktop PC, projector and notes about a smartboard that doesn't seem to exist taped to the lectern. In addition I bring my Macbook to class.

My typical lecture style is to write my notes on the whiteboard and use a projector for illustrations and videos. I don't like to do my notes with powerpoint because every time I have done it my class turns into a sea of furiously scribbling students writing down everything on the slide and not listening to a word I say.

My problems are as follows:

1. Using the thickest (reasonable) marker my students in the back of the room cannot see what I write on the whiteboard.

2. The projector is crap - my students can only see the presentation well if I shut off all the lights in the room and then, because the room is so dark, they can't see their notebooks. What can I do to make my presentations more visible?

Also any tricks on getting them to slow down and listen to me instead of racing to write everything on the slide?

3. The videos that accompany the textbook are hard to see. They aren't the most engaging either but often help the students understand the concepts. Any tweaks I can do here?

4. There is no time for me to play around with the tech in the classroom. There is literally no buffer time between the class before mine, my class, and the class after.
posted by a22lamia to Education (11 answers total)
Also any tricks on getting them to slow down and listen to me instead of racing to write everything on the slide?

Print out your slides and distribute them in advance.
posted by muddgirl at 11:29 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

1) Make sure you have high-contrast markers, like black and blue, and not yellow, or red that's starting to dry up.

2) Is there any facilities person you can ask about upgrading the projector? If it's old, it may have a lamp in it that's not as bright as it used to be and could be replaced without buying a whole new projector.

"Also any tricks on getting them to slow down and listen to me instead of racing to write everything on the slide?"

Put less text on the slide. I found, when I was a student, that the less the professor wrote, the better my notes ended up, because then I had to actually listen and write down things that seemed important instead of just copying everything down without digesting it.

3) Would this be fixed along with the projector?

4) Is there sometime in the evening or on a different day when you could come in and try things out, so that you'd know how to do everything and could get things setup in just a minute or two at the beginning of a class after that?
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:41 AM on February 18, 2011

About the videos, it depends a bit on how many students you have. When I teach in computer science labs, and have one single thing to demonstrater, I make them stand up and come in front to watch for 5-10 mins. It creates a bit chaos in the beginning, but it also wakes them up. I always fabricate some bs about "successful people don't sit when they work", they grumble, and it adds a bit of movement and wakes them up.

I also get demonstration material printed in a very cheap online photo store. I pay 0,99€ for a pic roughly size 40*60cm, the quality of this is very high, and it's better and less hassle than posters or printing here at our uni. Shipping takes two or three days, but I'm usually a week or two ahead.

Getting them to not write? Well, my only method is to give out notes before the lecture (which is also a lot of work!). I'm not much bothered by writing, but on occasion I say something like this: "Lay down pen and paper, we're going to develop an idea. I'll help you write down the result later." It works, sort of, but there's always be students..

Sorry about your situation. I wish I had better ideas,
How do they others in this lab cope?
posted by mathemagician at 11:43 AM on February 18, 2011

Thanks for the suggestions - keep them coming!

I think the way I stated it created some confusion. I think writing notes out is a really important part of retaining information but I wish I could get them to listen to me and then write their notes. This is the main reason why I like using whiteboards - I control the flow of information on the board.

Getting a new projector isn't likely in the cards. This is a school in California, we are waiting to find out how much of a cut our budget is taking but it is going to be huge (4+ million) so no one is buying anything these days.

I don't know much about the other instructors as they are from other departments but I know understand why my coworker who had the room last semester was always begging people to switch classrooms.
posted by a22lamia at 12:12 PM on February 18, 2011

oops - now
posted by a22lamia at 12:18 PM on February 18, 2011

Are the students at computers? Have you considered making PPTs and distributing them electronically in class (by passing around 5-10 USB keys and just devoting the first five minutes of class to copying-pasting PPTs onto desktops, or using tech solutions like Net Support School software, which lets the instructor computer "take over" and project onto the classroom computer screens)? You can also embed photos and videos in the PPT. They won't be looking directly at you, but at least everyone can see.

You could do the same thing without PPT, just create a zipped "Week 1 class materials folder" with the pics, videos, and other content for that week's class, and direct students to, say, "click on file number 5" when it's time to watch that video. If they use Blackboard or another CMS you could also put the folder in there and make it part of their responsibilty to bring it to class on a USB key or laptop.

Also talk to a tech person about the Smartboard. The whiteboards & projector may be the smartboard, and you might be able to write on that and project to student computers or save the files so they can get a copy later of what you wrote (which might also lead to less frantic scribbling).
posted by holyrood at 12:44 PM on February 18, 2011

Might sound simple but in addition to other ideas above: To get students to listen THEN write.. make sure you give them time to write when you aren't talking.

So maybe put up an image/illustration/a few key words - nothing that immediately triggers the kids to write, do your lecture bit, then go onto a screen where maybe you list a bit more information and then tell the students "take 3 minutes to summarize in your notes the info we just covered before I go on. Let me know if there are questions." You can even set up a back-channel with a site like Poll Everywhere to let students ask questions back during that time (you can tell the kids where to tweet or text q's to and log on to a separate computer from where you are presenting to allow you to monitor it.. )

Even if you manage to get the students to listen without frantically copying everything down, you should build 1-2 minutes of processing time every 20 minutes or so. Even something as simple as "write 2 things you've learned in the last 20 minutes and 1 thing you are confused by" or "turn to a neighbor and talk for a minute about what you just heard, change turns after that minute." Allows students a chance to internalize some of what they heard. Put a timer up as they do this so that it's easier to quiet them down when you want to return to speaking. I do this with HS kids when I have to lecture and it actually works for my crowd.
posted by adorap0621 at 1:13 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

As someone who used to give out the Powerpoint slides for my lectures, I have had mixed results. At one school where I did this (a large state university), I put the slides online and students could go download them if they wanted to. Some did, some didn't, but those who did tended to print out the slides and then take notes directly onto the printouts, which seemed to work well.

Now I teach at a community college with a much different student population. There are no standards for admission and these students are at all points of the learning spectrum (from being able to barely put together a complete sentence in English to seasoned students who are taking classes for transfer credits or grad school prep). When I put the slides online for these students, I found that many of them printed out the slides and didn't take notes at all. They either used them as a replacement for coming to class, or came to class and sat there, arms crossed or texting the whole time, completely disengaged. So now I don't provide the slides for them; instead, I altered my slides to have much less information per slide and provide page numbers for them to cross-reference the textbook if they are expected to know a formal definition. Many times my slides will just contain a term or two, and I use the whiteboard that I project the slides on to write additional points as we get to them. I also have considered (but haven't tried yet) making the slides with bullet points that are revealed one by one as we reach that point in the lecture, instead of revealing a whole slide at once. I suspect that would cut down on the furious flurries of writing each time a new slide comes up.

Finally, you might want to guide them with some pointers on how to take notes with the slides. After I enlightened my class on some techniques for writing (write each point when it gets mentioned in lecture, instead of copying everything at once), that cut down on the frantic note-taking. Just make sure you are crystal clear on this--I had one student last semester who grossly misinterpreted this as me saying that I didn't want them writing at all when I was speaking. Considering that was not the only thing she completely misinterpreted and judging from her overall attitude towards me, however, that kind of thinking is much more the exception than the rule.
posted by Fuego at 1:56 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

At my school, most of the students are taking notes on their laptops anyway (I'm one of the few freaks who doesn't, but that's another story), and most of my professors post PowerPoint slides (which are only the very barest outlines of what will be covered in class, but the profs still remind us that the slides are not a substitute for note-taking - even though we are grad students and hopefully know that by now) on Blackboard in advance of class. Most people download the slides and then add further notes into their PowerPoint doc as class goes along. This way, if there is a big chunk of text in the slide they aren't having to recopy the whole thing (since they already have it), but for the most part they just have a template to follow along with and add to while the prof lectures. Obviously you can't force your students to adopt a particular note-taking strategy (as my stubborn insistence on pen-and-paper notes suggests), but you could certainly suggest/recommend it. This doesn't help with the videos though - not sure what the solution is to that.
posted by naoko at 5:18 PM on February 18, 2011

The best professors I've had either:

-Never wrote notes on the board, only examples, if necessary

-Only used PPTs in outline form, which relied on the students filling out their with the lecture.
posted by two lights above the sea at 8:43 PM on February 18, 2011

Offer an outline, not full notes. Is there time that can be worked in for either class-wide discussion or small group discussion? Can you allow the videos to be seen after class, too?

That being said, please don't misinterpret everyone frantically writing as not listening to you. I'm a reasonably successful student, and what works for me in terms of remembering important information is writing notes. If I'm in a lecture, I'm taking notes. I try to make sure that I'm participating in any discussions/question-and-answer sessions, making eye contact with my instructor, etc., but my frantic note-taking is a sign that I'm not only listening to lecture, I'm actively trying to retain it.
posted by asciident at 10:32 PM on February 19, 2011

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