The practice of teaching a class using PowerPoint is common at the University, with seating, video projectors and PCs in every teaching room all arranged to contribute to its adoption as the standard teaching method.

As a way of displaying information to a group, PowerPoint is effective, and whilst there are lots of other pieces of software (such as Prezi) that could lay claim to creating more vibrant and exciting presentations, few match PowerPoint’s effectiveness for its flexibility, ease of use, and the widespread digital literacy that comes with using such a popular Microsoft product.

It may sound like I’m rather fond of it, and yes I think it’s a good piece of software, especially as it’s fit for purpose, and almost certainly that there’s no better software for giving widespread presentations by a large group of staff.

So what’s the point of this blog post you may wonder?

Well, aside from the obvious technological differences, a lecturer standing at the front of a classroom talking over a set of PowerPoint slides is very much a reproduction of traditional teaching (otherwise known as didactic, direct instruction, or teacher centred learning).

That is, it’s a reproduction of how (most) lecturers taught 100-500 years ago when it was (and possibly still is) believed that students learned best by memorising the content that the lecturer taught and then reproduced that knowledge in an essay. Whilst it’s obvious that the educational landscape has changed radically, traditional teaching as a method has seen very little revision.

So before I jump into how active learning is different, let’s take a few moments to consider the benefits of traditional teaching with PowerPoint and the reasons it’s been so widely adopted.

  • It is (comparatively) easy to create teaching materials
  • It is easy to replicate lessons between groups
  • Materials can be easily shared online and between tutors
  • Many lecturers will have grown up with traditional teaching methods (and have been successful academically)
  • Lecturers are often specialists in their fields rather than trained as teachers and therefore unaware of other teaching methods.
  • There is often little communication between staff on teaching methods
  • Staff have tended to stay in post for long periods (because we love the job)
  • Classrooms with video projectors, smartboards and seating arrangements perpetuate the practice of teacher-centred learning
  • Lecturers are busy and do not always have as much time as they would like to think about how they might develop their teaching
  • PowerPoints are useful in consolidating your understanding of a subject

Clearly, it’s not all a bed of roses. We all know that creating quality PowerPoint presentations can take time, skill and a great deal of thought to get right.

In order to keep PowerPoint presentations up to date we have to:

  • Learn new software / keeping up to date
  • Research the subject, write and design slides
  • Learn how to upload for students via Blackboard
  • Load to PCs in class
  • Constantly revise content

With such an investment in time and effort and understanding the problems of teaching at this level, perhaps it’s little surprise that many lecturers are wedded to their traditional teaching materials (who wants to lose their babies?)

But what if I could offer you a better deal … less work with better student results? More motivated and engaged students, a more vibrant and exciting learning environment?

Yes that’s exactly what’s on the table,

An alternative to traditional teaching is active learning (also known as student centred learning) This is learning centred around activities rather than a lecturer presenting content and students listening.

An activity could be any number of things: a presentation; a debate; a picture; video; poster; notes on a discussion board. And students could work in groups or individually.

The main emphasis here is that the student learns by participating in an activity: they may research, discuss, and consolidate their understanding into an output. One key difference in this teaching method is that lecturers act more like a facilitator than a ‘sage on a stage’.

I think it’s important to note at this point that PowerPoint itself is neither a traditional or active teaching tool, it is the means of how we (mostly) deliver traditional teaching, however it is also often adopted by students for active learning.

What does that mean and how will it look?

Well let’s replace that hour long PowerPoint presentation (that takes three hours to produce) with something like the following:

1. a few introduction slides that introduce the topic
2. an activity for the students to engage in, (perhaps some online research, and a discussion)
3. verbal feedback
4. a few slides at the end to wrap-up the activity
5. an ongoing task, for students to consolidate their learning on their personal blogs

It needs fleshing out a bit but I hope you’re getting the idea.  It’s placing the focus on the participant rather than on you and allowing the students to do all the hard work.

The funny thing is that active learning is precisely the process that you go through when preparing a new PowerPoint (the process of research, writing, and reflection are all in there). We know it works as we do it all the time ourselves. The irony is that as lecturers we are getting a better learning experience than the students are.

You may be wondering what to do with all the PowerPoint files you’ve already made, and the answer is to keep them as your reference material. Not only can you dip in and out of them from time to time, stripping out slides as needs be, and share parts of them with students both in class and online, but they’re also a consolidation and document of your own ‘active learning’ journey, you can be confident that your time hasn’t been wasted.

Before I sign off, here are a few FAQs

How do you know my teaching methods aren’t effective?

I don’t, only you, the students, maybe an observer in your room, and feedback can tell you (honestly) if your teaching is effective. But generally speaking lecturers using ‘traditional teaching’ methods complain of ‘looking out on blank faces’, ‘students that are unengaged’, and a lack of understanding within assessments. This is an widespread observation and certainly not a criticism of your ability to teach.

Some of my students do very well at ‘traditional teaching’ why should we cater for unmotivated students?

It would be wrong to say that traditional teaching is not effective, for motivated students (especially those with a good memory) it can be very effective. But research shows that active learning provides better results for all students, especially those who are not traditionally academic. Rather than cater for the minority of motivated students, active learning offers a solution that’s more inclusive.

Is this new method of teaching tried and tested?

Yes, many teachers already adopt this style of teaching, especially those who have taught in language schools and HE, it just happens that it is yet to be widely adopted as the preferred method of teaching at this level.

Why should I learn a new way to teach? 

It’s almost certain that your teaching is constantly evolving, every new piece of content, module you teach and method of delivery involves new skills learned, whilst changing to active learning may seem a giant leap in teaching style, the reality is that the process will involve lots of small steps, much in the same way as any other changes you have made. As educators we don’t stop learning, it’s just that by ‘doing it’ we don’t often notice.

What happens if I don’t have the time to do this?

We all know that time is precious, especially mid term when you are in the thick of teaching. However Rome wasn’t built in a day, and if you’ve read it this far then I’d strongly advise you to reach out for a helping hand from the Institute of Teaching and Learning (ILT) and from our friendly team of Learning Designers. ILT are very keen to promote improved learning techniques through their PGCAP programme and their C@N-DO workshops and they have the pedagogic knowledge to set you off on the right course.  Another good source of help is to arrange a face to face, 1:1 session with one of the Learning Designers and see what happens – you will almost certainly find they’re full of good ideas and are there to help (email: LD@northampton.ac.uk).

If I already to this do I need to do anything?

There’s a good chance I’m preaching to the converted, but it’s still worth discussing this with a Learning Designer to promote good practice. If you’re doing this already then great, they’ll help you identify best practice and may want to use your teaching methods as a case study so you can help others discover the benefits of active learning.

Hopefully I’ve whet your appetite and you want to know more.

I hope you’ve found this blog post interesting, if so you may like to read the following posts:

Designing e-tivities – some lessons learnt by trial and error.
http://blogs.northampton.ac.uk/learntech/2016/08/18/designing-e-tivities-some-lessons-learnt-by-trial-and-error/

CAIeRO & Waterside.
http://blogs.northampton.ac.uk/learntech/2016/10/06/caiero-and-waterside-readiness/

What is the flipped classroom?
http://blogs.northampton.ac.uk/learntech/2015/01/16/what-is-the-flipped-classroom/

Will flipping my class improve student learning?
http://blogs.northampton.ac.uk/learntech/2015/08/27/will-flipping-my-class-improve-student-learning/

In the next post I’ll be reviewing a number of digital learning tools you can use in the classroom for active learning, the pros and cons of each and looking at a few examples of how lecturers are currently using these in the classroom.

Richard Byles
Learning Technologist.

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2 Responses to An alternative vision to Powerpoint teaching

  1. Alasdair Gordon-Finlayson says:

    The knee-jerk “lectures are intrinsically bad” thing is getting a bit old and honestly to those of us who have taught this way for a while it is annoying and even hurtful to be told over and over again by non-academics that we don’t know what we’re doing, and that everything we know is false and that no-one’s ever taught us to teach better than we do now.

    There are good reasons to lecture – in my lectures, I use my years of experience and my expertise to summarise wide bodies of literature into digestible chunks, filling in with personal anecdote, research evidence, humour, challenge, questioning, and in the course of an hour’s lecture I can pull together material that it would take a student months simply to locate let alone read, digest, make sense of and integrate. This is why we even have experts doing lectures rather than simply putting together a bunch of exercises and giving them to a bunch of students overseen by professional-education-supervisors-who-are-not-acaedmics-and/or-reseachers.

    Further, the ‘costs’ you list above are minimal, and apart from ‘time to upload’ (which is measured in seconds, not hours), is all stuff I would assume that any academic does as part of their professional life in any case. Simply moving away from lecturing doesn’t mean that I can drop PowerPoint, as I’m expected to use it – and very traditional sage-on-stage formats – at professional conferences all the time.

    I’m not saying I’m against innovation, against finding different ways to teach, etc. I’m saying that the global assumption that lecturing is wrong and bad and evil needs to be questioned as strongly as the assumption that lecturing is the only thing we ever need to do to teach at university. And in any case – I don’t know of anyone who only lectures – already I use flipped classrooms, seminars with set reading tasks, group activities outside the classroom, etc etc etc. Any one of my colleagues will tell you (and they do, frequently!) that most of their lectures aren’t one-way shouting matches or mumbled droning or whatever the cliched expectation is but that even in large groups there are chances to discuss, respond to challenges, and so on. Lectures can and do involve active learning.

    Please can we abandon this ill-conceived ideological attack on a perfectly good mode of teaching that is sometimes the most appropriate way to approach things, and sometimes not. Please can we have a bit more balance.

  2. Richard Byles says:

    Hi Alasdair, firstly thank you for taking the time to comment on the post, I can see you gave a great deal to thought to your reply and in fairness the post was always intended to be a strong case for ‘active learning’ and rhetorical in its voice.

    The post itself was written late night after lots of conversations with learning designers and technologists and was used to consolidate my own thoughts.

    I didn’t mention it in my post but I do have experience in teaching at both HE and University level, and have both given Powerpoint lectures and activity based sessions and feel that for me the ‘active model’ is much more effective and provides a more engaging experience for students.

    Within my new role as a learning technologist I’m very pleased to be able to champion new ways of thinking about teaching (pedagogy) as well as promoting new technologies. But rather than jump straight into the technology aspect (which are the best tools for ‘active learning’) I thought it would be best to lay down the foundations of why lectures may wish to use different tools.

    I’m sure they’ll be some lecturers such as yourself that strongly disagree with the ‘active learning model’ and it’s certainly very interesting to hear another side of the argument, but it seems we are in agreement that ideas about teaching should be questioned. However I would suggest that a learning technology forum is exactly the right place for proposing new ideas and engaging in constructive debate,

    As we move towards a new campus it’s been mentioned that a wider informal debate on teaching styles is being held by lecturers so I would be surprised if you don’t hear more about ‘active learning’ in the very near future, (none of us can claim to be King Canute) however I will leave this rich seam of debate for others to mine for now and move towards championing tools rather than methods in my next posts.

    All the best.
    Richard.