Tag Archives: cognitive load

Teaching naked in the age of big education

PowerPoint is currently making headlines in education, though probably not for the reasons Microsoft would like.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that José Bowen of Southern Methodist University has banished computers from his classrooms:

Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool. Class time should be reserved for discussion, he contends, especially now that students can download lectures online and find libraries of information on the Web.

That same article in the Chronicle cites research conducted by my colleague Sandi Mann, showing that many students find lectures boring, and that the most commonly-cited reason for this is use of PowerPoint.

So perhaps ‘teaching naked’ (sans PowerPoint, gentle reader) might cure students’ boredom and encourage instructors to write more creative, interactive classes?

Well, while I’m curious to know where José Bowen’s nebulous ‘often’ statistic comes from, it may be true that lack of confidence encourages instructors to rely more on slides: in a recent pilot study, Andy Morley and I found that of the university lecturers we surveyed, 91% said that since starting teaching, they had reduced the amount of text they used on their slides. We interpret this to mean that increased practice leads to increased confidence; the more comfortable you are with your subject, the less material you ‘need’ on the slide. However, it’s still a big leap from there to asserting that instructors routinely use slides “as a crutch”; there are plenty of other reasons they might choose to use slides, something Mr Bowen apparently chooses to overlook.

There are really two issues in play here: taking slides out of the classroom, and making higher education more interactive. They’re kind of all twisted up together, so here are my thoughts about teaching naked, and why student engagement and class size present such a knotty problem in this era of massification and McDonaldization in HE.

1. Large class sizes turn higher education into a broadcast medium

Maybe José Bowen only teaches small classes. If so, he is very fortunate, because small-group teaching is brilliant. It allows instructors to get to know their students and allows students to engage, make mistakes, and ask questions in a relatively low-pressure environment.

But try getting students to do these things surrounded by 300 of their peers — it’s like pulling teeth. Not to mention that you need a decent pair of lungs, or a microphone, to maintain order. On this scale, education is pretty much a broadcast medium, and there’s not much you can do about it except ensure that, when you are talking (which really shouldn’t be all the time), you have appropriate visual aids, since we know these benefit learning.

So no, teaching naked is not necessarily the best thing to do when you have really big classes, as many of us do. It might be appropriate, but then you also need to consider that:

2. Teaching naked is more suitable to some subject areas than others

Some of my colleagues teach slideless, and their lectures are enduringly popular, seemingly undiminished by the absence of visual aids. To take one example, material in social psychology is rarely inherently visual; what’s important is the ability to spin a decent yarn, and I am glad to know and work with people who exemplify this approach.

But when I give lectures (remember, 300 students) on neuroanatomy or the visual system, I show diagrams, because then students can see what I am talking about. I could, of course, describe the brain’s visual pathways in excruciating detail, but students would soon be adrift in a sea of unfamiliar anatomical terminology, and I expect my lectures would be bitterly unpopular. Why add unnecessarily to the lecture’s extraneous cognitive load? Writers everywhere know the answer: show, don’t tell.

Of course, I don’t have to use slides as my visual aids, but they’re a highly visible medium that I know I can use well in large classes, so I use ’em. (Your mileage may vary.) But this then throws up a whole new problem:

3. Students expect that their classes are about information delivery.

Slides have become a big part of this expectation. Yes folks, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t: students have been known to complain when staff don’t use lecture slides, or don’t make them available. There are probably many reasons for this (ease of note-taking, knowing how to spell technical terminology, zoning out and missing something critical, or missing the entire lecture and needing a frame of reference — and no doubt there are plenty more), but I think they all boil down to the importance of possessing information.

Implicit in this delivery model of education is the suggestion that students are passive vessels into which learning is transferred via their attendance at lectures, a situation which may be exacerbated by use of slide-based handouts. The Chronicle notes that:

The biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen’s ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods.

Of course, if students are to take a more active role than sitting in lectures, this requires that they have done some reading around the topic. But getting students to do even basic reading prior to class isn’t that straightforward; for one thing, since the introduction of tuition fees, many students now hold down part-time or even full-time jobs to pay their way through university. I have known students choose modules on the basis of what will fit around work, rather than their own academic interests, and I have found out the hard way that even when you say “this prior reading is mandatory for the session”, you either quickly reduce the number of people coming to that class, or end up adapting the session to accommodate those students who have not, despite your advice, done the reading. So here too, ‘teaching naked’, if we take that to mean ‘facilitating student discussions of material they have read outside class, in the absence of computers or other overt delivery methods’, might not work well.

So, should I kick computers out of my lecture theatre?

My honest feeling is that that teaching naked, much as I admire the principle, isn’t always compatible with how big higher education actually functions. We do have small-group teaching, and we try to keep that as interactive as possible, but plenty of our teaching is still lecture-based, and I think it’s a mistake to rejected computers (and slideware) out of hand, no matter how cool it is to diss PowerPoint right now*.

Fundamentally, it’s dogmatic to apply any hardline approach, whether that be ‘no slides’ or ‘slides all the way’. Educators are supposed to be smart — so let’s act like it.

* Actually, it’s been cool for quite a while. Lincoln took some stick about the Gettysburg Address and it all sort of snowballed from there.


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How my husband broke my brain: a user’s guide to cognitive load theory

It’s the weekend. Other couples tour Ikea, visit garden centres, wipe chocolate ice-cream off their children’s faces. My husband and I debate whether or not it matters that people don’t understand what a browser is.*

My argument is that if they can’t tell the difference between a browser and search engine technology, that’s just good design. Browsers, search engines … who cares what they’re called, so long as everyone knows how to use them?

His argument is People who don’t understand the simple fundamentals of the technology they use are only ever going to scratch the surface of what they can do with it. The full benefits of technology shouldn’t be the preserve of the few, but of the many, and people need to take responsibility for learning about this stuff.

Of course, we’re both kind of right … so we throw some ideas around, iron out wrinkles in the discussion. He can’t believe that people might not be interested in how their technology actually works; I point out that a lack of understanding of basic physics never stopped anyone from enjoying radio, television, or a movie.

And then he drops the bomb.

“I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the benefits that have accrued from understanding of new technologies. For example …”

By the time he gets to ‘accrued’ in the first sentence, I’ve lost it. “What?

“It’s not that complicated,” he says. (My husband is frequently smarter than I am, and most of the time he knows whether I am genuinely lost or just being an intellectual slob.)

“It is if you don’t know what the idea at the end of the sentence is,” I say, miffed. “If I’d been reading your sentence, I could have gone back and parsed it again. But this … there were like four abstract concepts before it even began meaning anything.”

“Huh,” says my husband.

“You totally overloaded my working memory!” I say.

My husband, who is used to comments like this by now, says nothing.

“It’s the curse of knowledge,” I tell him.

“It’s what?”

The curse of knowledge. When you know what you’re talking about, but the audience doesn’t, and you can’t share their perspective, because you know it already, and you can’t put yourself in the position of un-knowing it, so it biases how you communicate. You knew where you were headed in that sentence, but I didn’t have a clue. I couldn’t activate a schema until I knew what it was about, so I was overwhelmed by the intrinsic cognitive load of what you were saying.”

“Okay,” says my husband. (Not “What?” or “It was just a sentence,” or “Do you have to bring your work home with you?” Reader, this is why I married him.)

There is a pause.

“I think,” he says, “I think I tend to do that a lot, because I like making people laugh, and the punchline always has to go at the end.”

He considers it for a moment. “The benefits of understanding new technologies cannot be overestimated.”

“Perfect.” And we go about our day.

There was a point to this story, beyond confirming your suspicions that my husband and I are perhaps not the sort of people you want at your dinner party. The point is simply this:

Give your audience some context from the outset, or you will lose them immediately. This applies in general, but especially if the information you want to convey is complex or abstract.

And never underestimate the curse of knowledge.

* My favourite bit of the video is the guy at around 1:19 who says he uses Firefox “… because my friend came over to my house and erased all my other browsers and installed it and said ‘you’re using this now.'”

[Edit: My husband wasn’t entirely satisfied with how I had represented his argument, so I’ve reworded that section since this was first posted.]


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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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