unreasonable expectations

This post by a student who’s frustrated by professorial use and misuse of PowerPoint got slashdotted and as a result has a boatload of comments. The best/saddest/most intriguing of them is this one:

I’ve been a computer science professor for many years at a very good university, and in most of my classes I try to *only* use slides for images or diagrams that are so complicated or precise that I would not want to reproduce them by hand. Everything else is either me talking or writing on the whiteboard. Sometimes I have handwritten notes to remind me what topics I wanted to cover.
My students, for the most part, HATE this. It completely turns their expectations of a class upside down. After a few weeks, I start getting a deluge of “when are the slides going to be online” from the students who never attend class and don’t realize that there aren’t slides. Even students who *are* in class complain bitterly that they don’t have “anything to study from”. I’ve had students complain (in groups, sometimes with signed petitions) to my department chair and to my dean, saying that not providing slides creates (and I quote from one recent complaint) an “unreasonable expectation of attendance and/or note-taking”. I have fielded angry phone calls from PARENTS saying that their student isn’t doing well in my course because I’m not providing him/her with the “expected study aids.”
You gotta love that, don’t you? “Unreasonable expectation of attendance and/or note-taking.”

the art of the handout

This fits with what I hear from students all the time:

A study published in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal found that 59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw. The survey consisted of 211 students at a university in England and was conducted by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire. Students in the survey gave low marks not just to PowerPoint, but also to all kinds of computer-assisted classroom activities, even interactive exercises in computer labs. "The least boring teaching methods were found to be seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions," said the report. In other words, tech-free classrooms were the most engaging.

I think when slide presentations are used well the story isn’t quite so sad, but they are almost never used well — and, as Edward Tufte never tires of saying, there are few lecturing situations in which a paper handout is not considerably more useful than a set of PowerPoint slides. I consider The Handout a great pedagogical art form, and devote a lot of time to preparing handouts for classes. The keys are to (a) provide as much information as possible on the page (b) without overcrowding and (c) in a format that gives clear differentiating structure to the different points, ideas, and quotations. One of my minor fantasies is to be asked to give a seminar in handout preparation for my fellow teachers. Alas, it’ll never happen.