Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Golden Delegate Bridge

(Sorry, that’s a truly appalling title. Let’s move on.)

Just back from the APS annual convention in San Francisco, where I gave a poster and apparently vindicated some people. Which was nice, since everyone got to feel all warm and fuzzy.

The poster was about how putting more material on presentation slides can actually have a deleterious effect on how much is recalled afterwards. And the great thing was, people kept coming up and saying, I’ve thought this for years but never actually tested it. Or, I’ve been doing this; thank you for confirming my theories! Or — and this was my absolute favourite — I want to give a copy of this to all my colleagues.

So it went pretty well. I mean, nobody came up and argued with me
about the work, which I half expected (You did what? How does that prove anything?) I did have some useful discussions about the methodology (we should test recall later/tie it to students’ grades/replicate it in a teaching setting, outside the lab — the latter, at least, is done, though we’re only just about to start looking at the results.) And I got an excellent suggestion about how to test my two opposing theories as to why it all works – though first I need to write up the experiments we’ve actually done.

I also went to some great talks on education and use of technology, which I hope to write about when I’ve finished processing what I want to say about them. One of the unofficial themes of the conference seemed to be that Generation Y (millennials, if you prefer) is relatively narcissistic; another was about the need to eradicate pseudoscience (my colleague the Punk Psychologist would have enjoyed that). But really you could have walked into more or less any hall and found something to get your teeth into.

If there was any disappointment, it was mainly because I didn’t get to talk to enough other people about their pedagogical research, because they were presenting it at the same time as I was – that, and all the stuff I wanted to see, clashed horribly (holding the bulk of the Teaching Institute on one day just seems cruel). But I imagine it’s pretty hard to run a multi-track conference and please everybody all the time.

Bonus: San Francisco is a nice city. People smile there, and it’s
eminently walkable, if you don’t mind serious hills. And the fog! Wow.
San Franciscans dress quite like the Brits (lots of black, even when the sun is out!), perhaps never knowing when the weather is going to turn on them.

I haven’t slept for nearly 30 hours. Take that, body-clock!

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How to be a presentation rock star

Things people don’t want to hear at the start of your slide presentation:

“Most of you will have seen this talk before …”

— Then why are you giving it? And why haven’t you tailored your talk to this audience? Academics — who are pretty good at wasting time on their own terms, by the way — get fractious when you start wasting it for them.

“I’m just going to skip through a few of these slides, because I know time is short … ” [this is then followed by going through every single slide, point by point, and running over time; people start looking at their watches]

— Actually, this one reminds me of the Marcel Achard quote: “When I give a lecture, I accept that people look at their watches, but what I do not tolerate is when they look at it and raise it to their ear to find out if it stopped.”

Beginnings like these can really lower people’s expectations — about you, and about future presentations in general. That might be me next week, standing up there — don’t make me clean up your mess!

“How to be a presentation rock star” was just a throwaway title I gave this post at the draft stage, until I actually started thinking about it, and then I realised it worked, albeit in a cheesy kind of a way.

1. Be mysterious. Don’t give your presentation. Instead, provide people with a document to read in their own time. Most of us read faster than you can talk, and we can do it at a time that’s convenient for us (I guess this is one reason that why email has been so successful). You may not experience their gratitude overtly, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a fan-base.

2. Be controversial. If you absolutely must present, make it interactive; arrive armed with provocative examples to stimulate your weary audience, who have probably been told that they must come to this meeting and listen to you. (Obligation and motivation are usually not the keenest bedfellows.)

3. Find a catchy hook. If you’re selling something (most presentations are, and this includes teaching — ask anyone who teaches statistics to people who are taking it as a course requirement), pitch me two or three case studies of how people have benefited from it, so my mind starts freewheeling: “Wow, I wonder what I could do with this brilliant resource”. Presentations built around mundane procedures and structures will always be a tough sell. Hell, be bold: skip straight to the Q&A — mostly, people just want to know what’s in it for them.

4. Create rapport. Jim Morrison wasn’t necessarily the world’s greatest musician, but what he did have in spades was charisma. Give your audience as much attention as you lavished on your slides; if you find yourself alone with the sound of your own voice, that’s great if you enjoy tumbleweeds or are steeling yourself for a difficult birth into the world of amateur stand-up comedy — but remember to ask yourself how much the audience paid to get in. If they’re not really present, don’t be afraid to cut it short and go off-road in order to hold their interest. If that means you end up missing a few things out, then that’s okay — just make sure people know where to reach you.

Often, it can be tempting to stick with your plan, however hostile or bored the audience (or perhaps because they’re bored and hostile; your plan is your security blanket). That’s okay: uncharted territory is scary, particularly when other people are involved. But if you want to be a presentation rock star, you need to be ready to do the unpredictable. I’m not suggesting that you crowd-surf or start handing out beer; just be willing to let go of your slides and give yourself up to the moment.

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Beauty, abstraction and storytelling

Garr Reynolds, consummate presenter. Check out those slides – just beautiful. I’m a huge fan of his book, too – Garr’s presentational style is really something to aspire to: simple, elegant, and entertaining. Also, he frames everything using stories, something for which I’m a sucker; I think storytelling is an aspect we often ignore when constructing presentations and/or writing slides for teaching, because we get distracted by the structure and format of the slides.

Also, via Garr Reynolds (yeah, okay, this post is just a big, late Valentine) comes this: guy does stuff with moving dots, makes sense. Watch the videos; chew on the method. It’s way easier on the brain than just talking about things in the abstract with no visual aids. Sweet. I’m going to try this next time I have something complicated to explain that doesn’t really come with pictures attached.

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Being clear about uncertainty

The Guardian reports Professor Dylan Williams as saying that exam results are unreliable:

“People who manage and produce tests have a responsibility to be honest about the margins of error and report them. By pretending exam results are completely reliable, we have encouraged people to rely more on them.”

This is not really news to anyone in education, but may shock students and parents who, I’m sure, would like to think that we always get it right. And we should be striving to improve the system, because, well, it should be as fair as we can possibly make it.

But wait a minute …

“By pretending exam results are completely reliable …”

Who’s pretending? The Institute of Education? Schools?

Well, maybe. No-one likes the appearance of being unfair. But I think there’s another party here, too: the media.

The message of this news story is that the system is not perfect. But of course, no real, living, breathing system will ever be perfect! There will always be exceptions, and in any system involving measurement, there will be a margin of error — except that this is hardly ever reported in the UK media. Here, on a good day, you get sampling information.

It’s a different story in North America: there, it’s routine to find statistical data, such as polls measuring political approval ratings or voting intentions, accompanied by information — often quite detailed — about the margin of error. And they take it pretty seriously, too.

When I read these stories in the New York Times or Globe And Mail it makes me feel like we’re statistically illiterate in this country.

I’m not saying this is all the media’s fault – we could do way more to ensure statistical literacy while people are still in school. But maybe reporters should try including information about margin of error anyway. I’m thinking that even a vague awareness among the general public that there is some uncertainty about the results of any statistical exercise would be better than unthinking acceptance of whatever numbers emerge. What’s the worst that can happen?

(PS – I’m reminded that polls are the worst way of measuring public opinion and public behaviour — except for all the others ;o)

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Time taken to decelerate after stopping work = about two days (coincidentally, the length of a weekend. Life is cruel).

Time taken to accelerate after not being at work for ten days = ??

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