Lecturing on

Lectures bore students, and yet most professors continue to teach as they were taught, reports the Washington Post.

Some professors use PowerPoint, which they think matches their students’ lifestyles. But others say that’s “making a bad thing worse.”

Students spend all their time scribbling down what’s on the PowerPoint presentation, they say, and that leads professors to structure lessons around the visual presentation rather than creating a lecture with a beginning, middle and end that tells a story and can excite students.

The clicker, a remote control students can use to answer questions, encourages interactivity.

Last week, (University of Maryland Physics Professor Edward) Redish asked the students to use the clickers to state whether the acceleration in an experiment was positive, negative, zero or impossible to know. Within 10 seconds, he knew that most students had chosen incorrectly.

“Eighty-six percent got the wrong answer,” he said. “Physics is about data. Our first intuition is not quite right. We have to modify our intuition.”

Students say clickers keep them engaged, if not entertained.

“I feel like I’m in ‘ask the audience’ on ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire,’ ” said Landon Katz, 18, a freshman.

I remember sitting in the lecture hall calculating how much tuition I was paying per minute of boredom.

About Joanne


  1. We used clickers. They’re great when they’re working, but they’re buggy. And because of the way they were set up in the lecture hall, when they were buggy, they tended to crash the machine and the projector.

    And it’s not so much that we teach the way we were taught. We all recognize that lectures can be dull. But how else do you handle a class of 250 students?

    A good lecturer can be stimulating and interesting. It’s less the format than it is the presentation. I agree, however, that powerpoint is, uh, less than productive, at least as a presentation tool. We have our presentations online so students can download them and bring them to class. They can take notes on the powerpoint printout, and use them as test reviews. That’s about the nicest thing I can say about powerpoint.

  2. Robert Wright says:

    Lectures bore students?

    Everything bores students.

    Tough bananas.

  3. I teach biology at a community college and I lecture. I don’t use powerpoint – it’s me, a dry-erase marker, an outline, and a few chemical structures drawn on a crib sheet. My students thanked me for lecturing that way – they can ask questions, and I can add new things or explain things multiple ways depending on their understanding of the material. They seem to hate being confined to a preset powerpoint talk, and I agree. I make sure to refer to earlier lectures so that class isn’t a series of unrelated topics, and I get very few complaints. I do try to jazz it up with applications of the material (current research, diseases, etc) but they have a lot of material to learn so an interactive lecture where I talk and they ask questions seems to be the best way to make sure that they understand it all.

  4. Most of my husband’s science classes are taught by powerpoint and he hates it. He has to download the entire presentation the night before and when he goes to class, there it is again only this time it is being presented by a TA. Two hundred and fifty students, no lecture, no context, no explanations and certainly no professor to answer questions. And the $200 textbook is never even cracked open in class.
    This is not teaching. Don’t ever talk to me about the poor underpaid professors-and for those who are curious, this is The University of Texas/San Antonio.

  5. IMHO, lu-lu is right on target. PowerPoint is for lackwits who can’t lecture, who don’t understand the concepts.

  6. Ragnarok-
    I guess that I’m automatically opening myself to criticism by stating this, but I prefer to use PowerPoint at times. Like nearly every other educational strategy it has its weaknesses and its strengths… and if used correctly it can be highly effective.

    That being said, those who use PowerPoint for every lecture and keep it vanilla are abusing it. Yet these are usually the same individuals who would have instead lectured out of a book or from prewritten notes on the board, so PowerPoint cannot be blamed for their weaknesses.

  7. I doubt if the tool..whether it is PowerPoint or something else…is the main problem. There were boring lectures long before there was PowerPoint. The main problem, IMNSHO, is that many professors have so little respect for their teaching role that they’ve never bothered to learn how to give a decent lecture.

  8. Those who denounce PowerPoint users as “lackwits” are morons. Those who denounce bad PowerPoint users as “lackwits” have a point.

  9. Whether PowerPoint is useful partly depends on the subject. It’s essential for 6th-grade Geography, where I have used it to make slideshows with brief captions (no all-text slides) to give each country’s flag and map, followed by typical people, foods (guinea pigs on the grill for Ecuador), scenery, and important places. (With 6th-graders, it never hurts to end the show with an indigenous animal, either cute or creepy.) Of course, the pictures had to be put on my website, too, so students could review them for tests. And the URL had to be known only to the students, not linked to my website or the school’s, since most of the slides were found via Google images and I didn’t want copyright complaints.

  10. timfromtexas says:

    Bak,bak, bak.bak, as Shultz sees it. It’s a grackel in the play ground.

  11. I use a LCD projector and a smart board when I lecture, but I find the powerpoint too confining, so I just use folders of images and short video clips that I cue up at the proper point in my lecture.

  12. I rediscovered the art of the lecture when I sat in a lower-div history class with Prof. Eugen Weber at UCLA during my senior year. It was a course I needed to round out my degree requirements, and I sobbed at its glorious conclusion in 10th week. Each lecture was as engaging as a storytelling hour at the library, and they magically ended every day after 67 minutes of class. The care he took to craft those lectures was amazing, and sure, they’d been used time and time again, as the history he taught didn’t really change.
    Most professors, and teachers, craft syllabi and courses on the fly. The worst graduate professor I had would finish the powerpoints the hour before lecture. The best… his powerpoint lectures took hours to create and were archived for posterity on his website. Again… it’s not the format BUT the teacher.

  13. I’ve been thinking about lecture for several days now, as a result of this blog. I have a few thoughts.
    Lecture is not a method of teaching, even though they told us in ed school that it is. (Other methods are discussion, demonstration, group projects, etc, they told us, as I remember.). Rather lecture is a method of presenting information. The printed page is another method of presenting information. And in some contexts and occasions audio-visual technology is a method of presenting information, and that includes power point, of course. But presenting information, in practically all normal teaching situations, is only one part of teaching. Managing the students’ efforts is also part of teaching, even in college.
    I teach freshman college math courses. On a superficial level one can say I use the “lecture method” and leave it at that. But I think that is very superficial indeed. I have always thought that a careful explanation of the mathematical topic of the day is very important. It is not magic, just one important ingredient in the total mix that makes up teaching. I have also always thought that a well chosen homework assignment is a very important part of what I do for students. And the next step, again important, is that the homework assignment be graded. This is the tedious part. (I have seen posted on more than one math teacher’s office door, “I teach for free. They pay me to grade.”) Doing homework and grading homework (and quizzes and tests) is establishes a two way communication process between teacher and students. Lecture, at least in many situations, is a part of this process. If the class is not too large, and if the teacher gives good explanations, and if the teacher has reasonably good social skills, then the “lecture” is the platform for a good deal of two way communication and interaction. The teacher learns a lot from the students’ body language, as well as from occasional questions and answers. The students learn a lot from the teacher’s emphasis, repetitions, gestural and graphic punctuation, and perhaps other things.
    Lecture is not a simple thing. We should give it more thought.

  14. College is not about teaching. It’s about helping students teach themselves.

    Listening to a good lecturer is a unique opportunity to gain insight into the thought processes of serious researchers (the only criteria for promotion at most of the top 100 universities).

    So long as the best students do well and are engaged, colleges prefer it if the weakest students are bored and do poorly.

    It’s long been known that the “Best” teachers aren’t usually at the top universities. Great scholars often make so-so lecturers. Yet top kids continue to pour into the elite schools.

    Why? Because it’s all about research, signalling your intelligence/aptitude/diligence, and making of connections for graduate and professional school.

    In hindsight I learned a lot from some very brilliant but very boring professors.