Monthly Archives: June 2009

Laugh? I nearly got a D: teaching as stand-up comedy.

Just been watching a clip from last weekend’s Presentation Camp LA (which, if I’d known more than 12 hours in advance that it was happening, I’d have found some way of attending) — Lisa Braithewaite talks about the importance of enthusiasm, but she also touches on the theme of storytelling, about telling anecdotes that engage the audience. This TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, in which he uses a string of often humorous anecdotes to make some very serious points about education, illustrates the power of storytelling to inform and educate.

I mentioned before that I’m not the best when it comes to anecdotes, particularly those acquired through personal experience. I have all this self-conscious stuff going on: “Oh but Chris, you talk about yourself all the time already …” That, and quite often my brain moves too fast for my mouth, so stuff comes out wrong. On the whole, I’d much rather listen to you tell your funny anecdote, and give a reasonable facsimile of it later to my husband, who doesn’t mind — too much — if I sometimes step on the punchline.

But to be an engaging presenter, sometimes you just gotta tell stories. So I decided I would make a list of personal anecdotes that I could use in teaching.

Guess what: I totally blanked. Nothing. Nada. Rien.

Brief rewind: I spent last Friday night watching Sarah Pascoe and Ardal O’Hanlon do standup routines, part of the Cambridge Comedy Festival. They were funny; it won’t surprise you that they were all about storytelling, and I found myself wondering how much of it was based in reality.

My own life is hardly dull, and while I’m constantly making jokes about the things that happen to me, these are entirely disposable; my humour is all about creating stuff on the fly, which is maybe one of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much. But I just can’t really get my brain to do anecdotes, unless they are jokes I have told a lot (which is why the joke that begins “It is summer … it is France …” gets better every time I tell it).

The more I think about it, the more I realise that teaching is basically improvisation; a sort of educational stand-up comedy. It really helps to be able to use humour, and to deal with things on the fly, segue random dialogue back into your central theme and have everyone see how it fits in.

There’s also a synergy (a gestalt, if we’re flying the 800 Verbal flag) between a teacher and their audience that belies the common student expectation that teachers will somehow fill their passive minds with the knowledge they need; I don’t think students always realise how much they are a fundamental part of teaching, just as an audience is part of the comedy routine. This synergy is a beautiful thing: even if two classes are ostensibly the same, something different is created each time, because of that interaction between the teacher and the students. I often have to teach the same session several times, but it’s rarely the same twice, which is wonderful because it stops things from getting stale.

Kevin McCarron wrote a wonderful piece on his experiences as a lecturer and stand-up compere. In it, he raises several of the points I’ve been thinking about, such as the dynamic formed between teacher and students, but also offers some challenging opinions: for example, good political stand-up can make you angry, and McCarron argues that this can be highly educational. Evoking an emotional response from students is important; he reminds us that the students who drop out are those who have failed to engage.

McCarron also points out that if the audience knows the punchline, you don’t have to tell it. This can be a pretty frightening concept to academics, who are classically conditioned to be obsessively completist about information delivery. But it works beautifully: watch Eddie Izzard do it at the start of this clip (contains language NSFW). The audience does the work, and that’s the meat of the joke; learning is not a passive process any more than humour is. Izzard is also a master of the recurring motif: just when you think he’s wandered off into the wilderness, never to be seen again, back he comes with the punchline. A good comedian — a good teacher — takes you with them on their journey, and the more outlandish (=memorable) it is, the better.

Kevin McCarron’s article, which I hope you will read, also turned me on to this book by Oliver Double, stand-up comedian and lecturer, which I have ordered. We need to think a lot harder about that dynamic, that synergy, in the classroom, and McCarron is right: doing a PhD does not prepare you for teaching.

So, yeah, I’m gonna learn to tell anecdotes. From a book. Because that’s how we do things in academia :P

(When I originally googled “teaching is like stand-up comedy”, I found this, which was exactly what I was looking for, except that (a) it was a bit short on laughs and (b) I couldn’t finish it, it was so dull.)

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Presenter non grata: are custom slide animations the new PowerPoint?

Way back when, presentation slides were the best thing since sliced bread. Nowadays, we have Death by PowerPoint, with slideware being blamed for uninspiring presentations and comatose students, and generally derided as the root of all evil. But now there’s a whole new threat: custom slide animations.

There’s been a lot of noise this week about a new journal paper by Mahar et al (2009, in press), initially picked up by Science Daily, claiming that custom PowerPoint animations could be detrimental to learning.

To summarise the experimental design: the authors used either static screenshots or custom animated slides backed with identical audio narratives to teach some basic concepts in secure computing, testing students’ knowledge/understanding before and after they viewed the presentation. The non-animated version had all visual prompts (screenshots/signals/bullet-points) visible at once, with the voiceover addressing each in turn. The animated version had each item appear in turn as it was discussed (screenshot components and bullet-points), though it’s worth noting that the bullet-points on a given slide didn’t disappear once they had been narrated.

The SD article itself doesn’t give all that much away, but Olivia Mitchell did some seriously high-quality digging and managed to acquire from the authors some samples of the materials used, and basic figures showing that students’ correct answers in the static condition rose from 38.4% before to 82% following instruction, compared to the animated condition, in which students’ scored 71.4% correct. Olivia, because she is awesome, also addresses the study’s results in the context of cognitive load theory: you should go read her posts.

Ars Technica also weighed in, providing some more details — and a note of caution — about whether animation made things worse:

Both presentations dramatically improved the students’ scores, which were a bit below 40 percent correct in the first administration of the quiz. But the animated presentation brought scores up to 71 percent, while the animation-free version got them to 82 percent. Of the nine questions, only one saw the animated group outperform their static peers.

[… ] Animations that are intended to increase focus can be just as distracting. Note the “can” in that sentence, however — the differences between the scores of the two groups ranged from insignificant to nearly 25 percent, so it’s clear that animation isn’t uniformly harmful to learning, a point the authors themselves note in the discussion.

(Love that balanced reporting, by the way)

What I find frustrating here is that nobody is talking statistics: while a difference of around 10% sounds impressive, it could conceivably be non-significant; I’m twitching, waiting for the article to arrive via inter-library loans, so I can see what statistical tests the authors ran.

The other thing making me crazy is that I don’t know exactly how students’ recall or understanding of the information was tested. The Science Daily post says:

[the authors] … tested the students recall and comprehension of the lecture.
The team found a marked difference in average student performance, with those seeing the non-animated lecture performing much better in the tests than those who watched the animated lecture. Students were able to recall details of the static graphics much better.

Recall and comprehension are quite different beasts. Even just testing basic recall is complicated: do you use multiple-choice question (MCQ) -style responses, or get students to write down an answer based on their own, unprompted recall of the information? That distinction might sound pedantic, but it’s pretty vital: it’s easy to spot the right answer among distractors in MCQs, just based on familiarity, but to generate the correct answer yourself with no prompts requires that you have actually internalised the information; this distinction forms the basis of the remember-know paradigm. And that’s before we get into the nitpicking of ‘recall’ versus ‘comprehension’ …

So far, early research conducted with my colleagues Andy Morley and Melanie Pitchford suggests that recognition of the correct answer based on familiarity isn’t affected, but unprompted recall gets worse under conditions of high cognitive load. So I’ll be fascinated to read what Stephen Mahar et al have found, and whether it’s consistent with our results.

As to whether custom animation might be “bad”, I’m still pretty cautious. John Sweller, the de facto king of Cognitive Load theory, is on the record (for example in Presentation Zen) as being highly critical of PowerPoint, but I’d argue that this is an oversimplification: it’s all about how we use the technology. Slideware*, when used sensibly — i.e. with an eye on cognitive load, design aesthetic, and audience involvement — can be a brilliant tool for learning; I’d love to see a study in which custom animation can be shown to actively contribute to learning, perhaps through more minimalist slide content than that used in the study by Mahar and colleagues.

John Timmer at Ars Technica rightly points out that after slideware hit the classroom, it was a long time before anyone thought to ask whether it was the right tool for the job. I don’t think that’s an unusual response (“Hey! Shiny new technology! Let’s use it … because it’s shiny!”) but I think now that we have a culture of researching instruction, the onus is on educators to demonstrate that the tools they are using are good ones, rather than just being technological magpies. I have no doubt that slideware can be a great teaching tool; it’s up to us to find ways of using it that enhance, rather than detract from, the learning experience.

(By the way, if anyone wants to send me the full article by Mahar et al., my contact details are here, and I’d be much obliged!) Thank you Olivia! Much appreciated.

* Gotta love how it’s never “death by Keynote” :)

Mahar, S. et al (?) (2009). The dark side of custom animation. International Journal of Innovation and Learning, 6, 581-592.

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Blogging: brain imaging for the mind

It’s 1995, and a student is moving flats for the fifth time in three years. She finds – again – the shoebox of diaries from her teenage years; curiosity forces the box open. Instead of packing, the student spends half the weekend re-reading the diaries and re-living her teens.

Then she shreds the lot and throws them out with the rest of the trash.

Re-encountering your 15-year-old self in writing is right up there with watching yourself on video as an exercise in mortification. But both represent great ways of kick-starting some metacognition: wow, did I really used to be/think/dress like that?

Thinking about your own thinking, learning, or understanding is one of the most valuable things you can take from education. Writing it all down makes it easier: when you can see your thoughts on paper, it’s much easier to critically evaluate them than when they’re all sloshing around inside your head. We are a very visual species, which is why we’ve developed so many ways of visualising abstract concepts. (That link, courtesy of @scottabel, is a beauty: mouse over each element and marvel.) Journalling or blogging is just one more way of visualising information; it’s useful both for understanding your own thought processes, and for reviewing your own progress over time.

At the APS conference in San Francisco, the poster next to mine was about how blogging can help students understand their own learning process. Then at the University Conference the other day, I got to listen to Jenni Barrett talking about how she asked final year students to blog regularly, and how this not only gave them space in which to reflect on their own learning, but also enabled part-time students to build a more cohesive community among themselves. Perhaps most critically, blogging may promote better academic performance by encouraging active, student-centred learning.

I’m going to start encouraging students – especially final year project students – to blog or keep a diary/lab-book about their studies, so they have another visualisation tool at their disposal, one that will promote metacognition. If you write/draw/create authentically, blogging or journalling of any kind can be a superb diagnostic tool, allowing you to visualise and evaluate what’s going on in your own head.

My favourite advice about blogging comes from Merlin Mann: good blogs are weird, and reflect focused obsessions. Be yourself, in all your nerdy, quirky glory. The more you you are, the stronger your connection to your own thought processes will become, and the more you will be able to develop your ideas – which, incidentally, is why it’s so important to choose research projects that speak to your interests.

(As usual, this post is not the one I sat down to write; I never know until I see it in front of me what needs to be added or removed. Visualisation tools are brilliant.)

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The power of stories in education

If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen.

– John Steinbeck

My colleague Andy Morley and I spent some of yesterday afternoon trying to persuade our colleagues that one way to enhance students’ understanding of lectures is to set the context by telling stories. (Andy, by the way, is much better at remembering and telling anecdotes than I am.  This would be a good skill to learn.)

We recently conducted a survey of colleagues, asking – among other things – about how they write and construct lecture slides.  Our results suggest that while many staff think that the structure of a lecture (that is, the order in which information is given) is very important, a significant proportion (around a quarter) think it very unimportant.

Stucture is important!  Without structure, there is no story.  If I tell you that Little Red Riding Hood arrived at her Grandmother’s house and narrowly escaped being eaten by a wolf, but only much later do I add that this wolf had previously eaten the grandmother (who in turn had previously eaten a chicken, which had … yeah, okay), you’re not really getting the full picture, and as a result, you’re unlikely to remember much of what I said.  Here are some great experiments that explain why understanding context is so critical if we are to remember anything about the experience.  Now apply those to learning: we’d be crazy not to tell stories about the context of the material we teach – right?

I bet every one of our first-year psychology students could tell you what happened to Phineas Gage, even if they can’t always articulate what this tells us about the brain. What people remember afterwards is the stories. So make them good ones!

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In defence of free scientific speech

Dear Tony Lloyd,

I am a scientist and senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, and your constituent. I am writing to you regarding the libel laws in England.

At present it is possible to sue someone for asserting that there is no scientific evidence in support of a particular theory.  As you may be aware, The British Chiropractice Association is suing the journalist and science writer Simon Singh for libel after he wrote that there is little evidence that chiropractic treatments are evidence-based.  There is a useful summary (and petition, which I and many others have signed) here.

This is not how science works.  Science thrives on debate, and on use of the scientific method to demonstrate whether, based on the available evidence, a given theory is likely to be correct.  Freedom of speech in science is vital and is one of the greatest forces contributing to intellectual progress: if I believe you are wrong, I state my opinion and then back it up with appropriate scientific evidence; if you then disagree with me, you present the evidence supporting your counterargument, and so on.  In this way, we approach the truth about science – sometimes tangentially and almost always incrementally – but we do move forward.  To bypass this route is to silence the voice of rational, reasoned, evidence-based debate in science and medicine; is this what we want for our country?

On the matter of the BCA vs. Singh: if the BCA has any evidence in support of their case, then they should present it and let it be debated, rather than resorting to litigation – that they have not done this rather suggests that their evidence would not withstand scientific scrutiny.

But the bigger point remains: it should not be possible to sue someone for making a scientifically verifiable assertion based on the available evidence to date.  This case, before it is even resolved, sets an alarming precedent that anything asserted by a scientist, however well-grounded in verifiable data, could be challenged under current libel laws.  This would be a markedly retrograde step at a time when the doors of scientific debate are open wider than ever before.

If we in the UK wish to be taken seriously as a hub of scientific and medical excellence, and build on our ‘knowledge economy’, it should not be so easy to silence that debate.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Chris Atherton

(Hat-tip to David Farbey for the petition link. And yeah, this wasn’t how I was going to spend this morning, but Burns was right about those best-laid schemes.)

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Pecha Kucha and Ignite: the sonnets of presentation

Sometimes we get our students to give talks – with slides – instead of writing yet another essay. I like this – it challenges them in new ways.  Some students clearly find the experience very uncomfortable (maybe I would have, too, at that age) but it’s always interesting, and sometimes they surprise and delight us.

Mostly, we are fairly strict about the timing: talks are usually in the range of 10 – 15 minutes, plus a little time for questions.  This partly reflects class size: any longer and we would have to find several afternoons in the timetable, instead of two or three; this would be hard, since time (particularly for staff) is at a premium. But even within that small space, students are able to demonstrate the extent of their knowledge and excitement about a particular topic.  In fact, I’d say we’re probably giving them more than enough rope with which to hang themselves.

One of the problems I think students have with giving presentations is that they readily conflate slides, and slide content, with the presentation itself; this is often expressed as reams of text on slide after slide, which students then read aloud.  They’re not thinking about added value – the value they themselves add.  Perhaps this is partly the fault of lecturers and presenters everywhere who do this too, and perhaps institutions – mine included – are to blame for placing the emphasis on making slides available after lectures/presentations/workshops, as though the slides were a ready substitute for the talk.  (They’re not; if they are, we’re in slideument territory.)

So if we’re going to assess students on the basis of their presentations, perhaps we should focus more on actual presentation skills.  I get very excited about Pecha Kucha (20 slides at 20 seconds each: a 6-minute presentation) and Ignite (same format but 15 and 15, giving a 5-minute presentation).  These represent the presentation equivalent of a sonnet: a strict form, but total freedom therein.  Constraints are often a spur to creativity, which is why trying to write haiku is so much fun (graphic designers, pregnant women and those of a nervous disposition may want to steel themselves before clicking; I have never seen such frightening wallpaper).

Of course, there are potential downsides to using this approach: how do we grade a student who just loses it in the moment? Will the presentation content be too simplistic because of the time constraints? Is it even possible to stuff serious academic material inside one of these talks?

But I think there’s a counter-argument to be made there too: five or six minutes is enough to get a message across, but in a really focused way. Both formats force the presenter to think hard about what goes on the slide, and what they’re going to say in the allotted time; they encourage development of real, actual presentation skills.  Ignite and Pecha Kucha also kill Death By Bullet-Point, kill it dead, since you can’t reasonably expect people to read more than a few words in 15 or 20 seconds.

If we shift the focus of making a presentation towards actual presentation skills, that’s surely good for students’ employability.  Presentation skills are increasingly important in our blah blah knowledge economy, and employers want graduates with a bit of polish (yeah yeah, add your Modern Languages jokes to the pile by the door).  And we need polish: I would do almost anything to avoid a repeat of the mortifying shared experience I once had, watching a presenter stumble over one of the fundamental technical terms in her presentation: after the first bungled attempt to pronounce it, she just skipped blithely over it – “yeah, I can’t say that word”. Ouch.

We can do better.

(Sometimes I think about starting an Ignite/Pecha Kucha club here, and then I remember how much free time I don’t have.)

Edit: My husband just pointed out that it’s not unusual at academic conferences to be asked to give a talk lasting less than ten minutes, so maybe it’s possible to squeeze enough science into five or six.

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Visual identity in the classroom

When I was in high school, we had a history teacher who had long stringy hair and the voice of a 60-a-day smoker.  She gave the appearance of having lived two or three times over in her fortysomething years; the rumour was that her desk drawers were full of empty vodka bottles.  But don’t ask me what I learned in her class, because I’ve no idea (and I liked history) — everything that happened there was much less interesting than my teacher’s unconventional manner and appearance.  The mind loves to cling to distinctive things.

I think a lot about my visual appearance in the classroom because I am vain because I know from first-hand experience that physical appearance can overpower the message.  And it’s worse when your audience doesn’t know you, because then they make stuff up about you; the mind loves a good mystery.  Stories are sticky and actively putting a story together helps you remember it better later on, so it’s no wonder that people remember more about the (imagined) life of the speaker than they do about the actual content.

Businesspeople have known about this gig for centuries, which is why they mostly dress smartly but anonymously: level the sartorial playing field, and the message comes to the fore.  (Arguably, the same thing is going on in the army, the martial arts, and in schools that require a uniform, though I guess some of that is also about minimising the influence of status and personal identity.)  If people’s dress-code is consistent, anonymous, then their sartorial message remains the same, day to day: I am a professional person and I subscribe to the values and/or directives of this organisation.  (Of course, sometimes it’s fun to play on those assumptions.)

I am absolutely not telling others what to wear – that dubious privilege rests with my high school headmaster*.  I’d just like people to think about it first; if you at least have some idea of the distractions facing your audience, you can decide which to eradicate and which to ignore — for instance, some days I get out of bed and I just want to wear orange.  But I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that Steve Jobs, who appreciates the value of uncluttered presentation, rarely takes the podium without his trademark black turtleneck and jeans.  Seth Godin, who makes a living teaching people how to sell their message, believes so hard in minimising irrelevant distractions that he has no hair ;-)  When celebrities who are normally better known for their red-carpet attire get serious and start promoting charities or UN work, then out comes the suit. The distinction is clear: pay attention to my message today, not to my body or my outfit.

At the APS convention there was a neat poster about how dressing less formally made students rate lecturers as more approachable — but this effect diminished over time (presumably as students got to know the lecturer a bit more and stopped having to rely on quick and dirty attributions).  So I guess the take-home message is: the less well you know your audience, the more you should consider the impact of what you’re wearing. Which is probably pretty intuitive anyway, but now there is data.

* My high school went through a patch of making all first- and second-years wear uniform, or something close to it; after we hit third year they more or less ceased to care, though I never did forgive the headmaster, who had a bit of a Mr Bronson thing going on, for not letting me wear my beloved fedora.

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