Point Break: My experiment with dropping PowerPoint in a large lecture course

This post is by MSU Associate Professor Chris Waters.

A Change is necessary

I am the course administrator and sole instructor for the junior/senior level course “MMG 431:Microbial Genetics” of about 150 students at Michigan State University. Entering my seventh year of teaching this course in the Fall of 2015, I began to reevaluate my approach. Previously, I had implemented a fairly standard lecture course with PowerPoint slides interspaced with active learning “think:pair:share” exercises that utilized iClickers for students participation. The students were given the PowerPoint slides before class, and these were intended to be an outline for further note taking during class.

But each year the complaints of the students were the same: “too much material…”, “the instructor goes too fast…”

From my perspective, I was frustrated that half the class was clearly not paying attention, but rather felt that the 50 minutes of class time were ideal for catching up on Facebook, Instagram, or their favorite electronic distraction.

To address both of these problems, I decided to stop using PowerPoint (with a few exceptions for complicated structures or diagrams) and rather present information in a “chalk-talk” style where the students take notes as I write everything from scratch. Do any of you remember those days, say from the beginning of time until the year 2,000, when you came to class with a blank notebook, two pencils, and a readiness to take notes! Here is how this experiment unfolded last Fall…

Choosing a format

Although I refer to this style as chalk-talk, no chalk was actually harmed during the making of my course. Rather, I decided to use my touch-screen laptop and project what I was writing on two screens in my lecture hall. This has several advantages including more color options, the ability to switch between formats (the rare PowerPoint slide, online videos, etc.), and it allowed me to save every lecture so I could reference exactly what I had presented. I explored different formats but eventually decided to use OneNote 2013. OneNote allows you to have an infinitely large screen that you can zoom in/out, it has many colors and pen styles, and it nicely organized for keeping track of each lecture as a separate entry. To prepare for class, I would basically transcribe my old slides into handwritten notes in a bound notebook, and use this to give my lecture. Being my seventh year, I know the material inside and out so this was easy for me to do (it would be much harder starting out with a new course).

Fig. 1. The classic Hershey-Chase experiment. Sidenote: Alfred Hershey obtained his PhD from the Microbiology Dept. at MSU!

Here is an example of my description of the classic Hershey-Chase experiment utilizing phage to elucidate DNA as the hereditary material (Fig. 1). It doesn’t look like much, but remember I am drawing this from scratch explaining what is happening as I go along so hopefully the student’s versions would be filled with all kinds of additional comments that I only verbally present.

How did it work?

At the start of the semester I was quite nervous about pulling this off, especially given my tendency for sloppy hand-writing. But I quickly became comfortable with the new approach, and I grew to love teaching this way. I was more able to emphasize important points and comments, and as one student mentioned, “it’s very interesting to see the way your thought processes unfold when you provide illustrations”. Another fantastic aspect of this method is that is allowed me much more freedom to take the class in new directions or present a new idea on the spot. Unlike with PowerPoint, I was not fixed to a given order, and the students did not know what was coming next. Many times during the course I improvised in ways which I had not been able to do before. I loved the freedom! It also allowed me to better query the students and report their responses. For example, I could ask “What are some of the potential uses and drawbacks of CRISPRs?” and the students were not able to merely reference the next slide in that day’s lecture.

Importantly, the students were all “locked-in” during class! The unfocused, inattentive student had magically vanished. Check for solving my past complaint. And, let me tell you, it takes a heck of a lot longer to draw something out rather than flash up a PP slide. Not surprisingly, I quickly got behind my normal course schedule and had to adjust the information that I presented to cut details or additional examples. I would estimate I that I trimmed 35% of the material that I had given in the prior year, and students complained much less on the amount of content and lecture speed. Check for addressing the student’s complaints.

Quantitative data: student response and effectiveness

It is all well and good that I liked teaching in a chalk-talk style, but more importantly how did the students respond to it and was it effective?

Fig. 2. Student’s numerical review scores 2013-2015.

To address these question, I analyzed the student’s evaluations and course scores from 2013-2015. This entails the three years that I have been the sole instructor of MMG431. Scores are ranked from 1 to 5 with 1 being the best and 5 being the worst. The questions can be grouped into 6 categories such as “Instructor Involvement”, “Student Interest”, etc. Although 2013 and 2014 were fairly equivalent (both “normal” PowerPoint lectures), every single category improved last Fall with the implementation of the chalk-talk format (Fig. 2)! The biggest gains occurred in “Course Demands” and “Student Enjoyment”, historically the two weakest categories.

Fig. 3-Categorizing specific student comments.

In addition to these numerical scores, I also evaluated specific student comments from the last three years, grouping them into whether they had an overall negative, positive, or neutral view of the course. The results were striking with a huge increase in positive responses from 18-30% to almost 70% associated with a corresponding decrease in negative responses from 65-66% to 21% (Fig. 3).

Clearly the new approach resonated with the students. Examples of specific comments that I received were “It is extremely easy to take notes”, “I think the changes made on how to teach this course were super effective”, and “I wish all my classes would go back to teaching instead of reading material off of slides”. And the most surprising comment, which I have never seen a similar one in 7 years, actually wanted class to be longer: “If only classes ran 1 hour and 20 minutes 3 times a week instead of 50 minutes so we could cover more.”

Fig. 4. Student’s unadjusted final scores.

But how effective was the chalk-talk style? The hope is that they retain more information. To answer this question, I compared the final, unadjusted grades from 2013-2015. These are the raw grades at the end of the semester without any adjustment for overall course difficulty (Fig. 4). Although there was a small i

ncrease in the 4.0 group, it was not as dramatic as other groups, suggesting to me that the top students will do well regardless of what format you use. But the largest increases were seen in the 3.5 and 3.0 categories. These are students who likely would have in the past received 2.0 or below who were able to be more successful with the new style. Most dramatically was the decrease in the number of failing students, which has been one of my long-term goals for this course.

Getting to the point

The data indicate that for myself and my course, the chalk-talk style was highly superior to traditional PowerPoint lectures. There is no question that I will continue teaching in this manner. However, there is clearly still room for improvement.

A number of complaints focused on legibility issues. This comes from my own natural propensity for chicken-scratching and my laptop format, which was somewhat unnatural to write/draw. Before next Fall, I will switch to a tablet format which will hopefully improve these issues. More supplemental slides with complex diagrams was also a common request, and I believe I can make more of these available. Some students had a hard time keeping up with note taking, and I anticipate using two devices next year alternating between two screens so that material is displayed longer. In my opinion, many of them just do not have the experience or skill to take good notes-they have never had to do it before. Perhaps a primer on good note taking would be warranted. Other students such as non-native speakers or students with mental health issues expressed frustration that they would often miss points in class and it was difficult to make them up since I did not post lecture material. I plan to record my lectures and make an audio version available, and I am debating about whether to post lecture notes after the class is over. Any thoughts in the comments section about posting lecture notes are appreciated!

I consider “Point Break” a highly successful experiment that met all of my desired outcomes. On a fundamental level, presenting in a chalk-talk style just made teaching more fun. Consider me a convert.

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