Tag Archives: teaching

Getting out alive

No escape: decal of a struck-out person fleeingOne Friday in May of 2011, I locked up my shared office, went to the pub with some colleagues and students, and said goodbye to my job as a senior lecturer in psychology.

On the following Tuesday (it was a bank holiday weekend) I started a three-month stint as an intern at a then-mid-sized software company. They were pretty clear that there wouldn’t be more work at the end of it; all I had going for me was that they were paying me — a lot less than my academic job paid, but hey, it was money. (Let’s not even start on the ridiculous exploitation of young people by companies looking for free labour, or how unpaid internships exclude those who can’t afford to work for free.)

Anyway, so … lunacy, right?

Maybe. But maybe it saved my life.

I cannot possibly supply a complete list of the things that drove me out of higher education. Some of the factors, in no particular order, were:

* the way the system effectively punished people for caring about ( = preferentially putting time into) teaching, denying them a legitimate career route with equivalent promotion opportunities;

* relatedly, teaching and educational research being seen as second-class citizens to subject-specific academic research. I won lots of praise from colleagues and students for my interrogation of and challenges to typical lecture-theatre methods … and nothing else. Alanis Morissette was right: it really is like 10,000 slideshare views when all you need is a peer-reviewed journal paper.

* seeing colleagues struggle with depression and stress-related illnesses, without support or sympathy from senior management; the relentless, meaningless “do more with less” that rubbed everyone rawer, year on year

* not being allowed to reform teaching on a large scale, because timetables/curriculum/this is how we’ve always done it

* widespread bullying by an incompetent manager, to the absolute indifference of senior management

* prioritisation of commerce over crafting quality learning experiences; massified, McDonaldsized education

* ceaseless adding to the already-overloaded workload of academic staff with no thought for how much work they were already doing (see also: aggressive expansion of higher education; franchised degree programmes)

* resistance — in some cases hostility — to change and growth (personal and institutional)

* too much time, distance and obfuscation between what we did all day and how the organisation as a whole performed

* an itch I had that wasn’t being scratched: creating and building useful, beautiful things (there’s only so far even I can go with lecture slides)

* realising that there were plenty of people out there doing jobs who weren’t exhausted (because they weren’t working 55-hour weeks), weren’t demoralised, weren’t on the edge of a mental health precipice, and who could see, almost every day, a connection between what they had done and how their organisation was moving forward)

* the sad thought that maybe higher education was broken and that, despite having nearly boundless energy to do something about that, I couldn’t fix it on my own, or even alongside people who agreed with me

* weariness at being an ‘expert’ all the time. (Maybe being an expert sounds great to you. Maybe I just have imposter syndrome. But trust me: having undergraduates unquestioningly write down everything you say gets old.)

The drain of good people from higher education has become A Thing. Way back, I wrote about Mark Changizi’s decision to leave, and since then there have been several waves of “screw this, I’m out” from academic refuseniks who just didn’t want a piece of that anymore. I’ve written before about disruptivity and taking risks, and recently I talked about it in person too (slides from the talk here). There were some pretty low moments; I remember sitting in an all-day meeting that was absolutely a waste of everyone’s time, never more so when the person chairing the thing visibly gave up bothering with it, but kept us all there anyway. I remember thinking, “I have to get out of here, but I don’t know how.” At that point, had I needed to reapply for my own job, I might not even have been granted an interview. I was perishing, not publishing. Despite passionate advocacy for teaching quality, and throwing myself into researching better teaching methods, none of it was doing me a blind bit of good.

So I left.

It’s taken me three years to write about this, and even now I’m a little hesitant to talk about it, in case I accidentally explode, covering everyone around me in something unpleasantly bitter and acidic. That sounds pretty overdramatic, but teaching was, as the cliché goes, my vocation. I loved — LOVED— my students. I never understood the detachment and burnout you sometimes see in academia (where, fortunately, the consequences are rather less severe than in disciplines like nursing). Every single student had potential, even the ones who didn’t know why they were there — and you didn’t have to dig very deep to find a human being who was just trying to do well and figure out how they fitted into the world. They were all, individually, amazing people. I still want to write something for and about them. But this is not that post.

In the first year after I left, I fielded several calls and emails from other academics (mostly in the behavioural sciences) who wanted to get out too, but didn’t know how. This post is for you guys, and especially for D, who’s waited a long time for an answer, and probably gave up on me way back: let me help you remember all the things you’re capable of. You might never get all the dents out of your self-esteem after the years you’ve spent in academia, but I might be able to help you with it a little, if you’ll let me.

Let’s dispense with the easy stuff first. You (probably) have a PhD. I’ve alluded before to how people Out There are actually impressed by this. Lord knows nobody in academia gives a rat’s ass, and so neither do you, anymore. But think for a minute what that means. Firstly, you are an expert at something, however much you might not feel like one. This is huge. You have in-depth knowledge of something. Don’t gimme no backtalk about how that’s only useful in academia. That’s just the story you tell yourself because you’re unsure of what to do next, or because academia has left you with Stockholm Syndrome. You know stuff about stuff, and somewhere out there is an organisation with someone in it who wants you to do your thing, for them. As an example, I’ve taken what I knew about cognitive psychology and put it to work in software usability and user experience, and information architecture. I took a decade’s experience of running research with human participants and channeled it into learning how to research the ways that people interact with software. Somewhere out there is a practical application for the academic stuff you know how to do. It might even be a non-profit, if you’re uncomfortable at the thought of doing the corporate dance. (It wasn’t all theory, either — I got to have fun too, storyboarding and scripting educational material like this short animation, which I decided would be more entertaining for everyone if we did it entirely in rhyme.)

A second consequence of having done a PhD is that you are persistent as fuck. This is one of the best-kept secrets of academia: even the basic entry criterion requires immense tenacity. Whether or not you have a doctorate, continuing to put one foot in front of the other for year after year, sometimes in the face of harsh criticism and crushing disappointment, is a measure of what Taekwon-do calls indomitable spirit. Treasure that; it was hard won, and it will get you ’most anywhere. You can absolutely call on it to get out of your academic job if you’re unhappy there.

You (probably) aren’t fazed by addressing groups of people. Don’t get me wrong: for the first few years, the really big lectures (nearly 450 students at Peak Psychology — those were the Cracker years) were pretty scary. Some weeks I was literally only one chapter ahead of the class, because when you first start teaching after your PhD, like the hedgehog, you know one one big thing … but departmental teaching structure requires that, like the fox, you know many things. There’s a fine line between that existence and imposter syndrome. But eventually, you learn to be heard for 50 minutes or 100 minutes at a time. You learn to craft stories and handle questions and manage crowd control in a big room. Of course, it doesn’t stop there if you present your work at conferences, where the questions are a lot harder, sometimes even hostile.

And now think of all the times in so-called corporate jobs when people are called on to present information and take questions. You’ve been doing that for so long, it’s not even a thing anymore. You intuitively know how much information will fill an hour. You can plan and deliver a workshop without drama (unless the workshop is actually about drama). You might not love it, but it’s something you can do. If you are lucky, you will love doing it. Either way, someone out there is willing to pay you to do this.

You are adaptable and flexible in your thinking, because you aren’t afraid of complexity, ambiguity, or new information. The other day, my husband, also an academic by training, said “I’m really glad to have had an education and career that has involved always being on the edge of intellectual comfort. I think [that] makes it much easier to learn new things.” I couldn’t agree more. Academia is all about re-evaluating your position when new shit has come to light. Sure, this makes it harder for other people to get a straight answer, because your response is usually something like “Well … that depends. A, but on the other hand B, and in fact if we consider C …” It might be infuriating for others that you can’t give them something that’s pithily black and white, but living with this relativism represents a daily practice in flexible thinking, and in not reaching conclusions so entrenched that you can’t argue your way back out of them later as more information becomes available. You’ve become the kind of person who, if they really want to know something, reads or asks until they understand it. Maybe you’ll even get massively into the topic as you start to find out more. Do you know how many organisations out there are crying out for people who can do that, who are intellectually self-sufficient?

You can effectively argue a point, in writing and (probably) in person. Being able to read or listen to something someone else has written, and unpick and critique it, is immensely valuable. Our education system doesn’t really foster critical thinking skills as much as it might, but you have had plenty of practice defending your own work against this dispassionate taking-apart. If you’ve done much teaching (or marking of student work), then you’ve also had the experience of trying to explain to non-experts why an argument doesn’t stand up, or is subtly wrong. Out there, in Beyond Academialand, are many, many people, some of them quite senior, who need help with this — often because they want to get it right, but also sometimes because they don’t want to look like idiots. At least some of them are willing to pay you to do it.

You have immense resilience and can work as hard as anyone. It’s still sometimes a shock to me that in my post-academic life, I get to arrive at work around 9 and leave again around 5 or 6. I don’t take my work home with me, beyond idle mulling of the occasional knotty problem. I don’t work weekends. I don’t feel remotely guilty for not working evenings and weekends. Contrast that with the typical lives of academics, who pull long hours and spend so many evenings and weekends writing papers. Some of that is for love, but much of it is practicality — because who can get anything done during the week when there is teaching and admin to be done and people keep knocking on the door? There is no traffic-cop for academic workload; it just keeps piling up. If something else needs to be done, because the university or the subject governing body says so, then somehow it will just have to get done, and that means longer hours — or shoddier work. Like the triangle says, you can have it good and fast, or fast and cheap, or good and cheap, but you can’t have all three. As for resilience, it’s only anecdotal, but I have seen a lot of academics — and teachers generally — put off being ill until a time when it was less inconvenient (the holidays). Don’t tell me from resilience.

I’m not saying there aren’t jobs out there where your employer will cheerfully bleed you dry, or that there aren’t places with long-hours cultures that disadvantage anyone not young, single or rudely healthy. But either you’re used to those long hours anyway, or you’re highly motivated to work somewhere where they’re not expected. Your life can be better than this.

There will be some readjustment; this is unavoidable. The first interview I went to when I was trying to get out of academia was with a medium-sized, well-respected software company in Cambridge. I was fairly pleased with how I’d done until about halfway home, when I started to realise all the rookie errors I’d made. That trickle became a flood, until I thought I would die of embarrassment. It took me months to get over it, but they were right not to hire me, because I didn’t have enough experience: they couldn’t afford to spend time bringing me up to speed while they were trying to ship a product. As I gained more experience in software and digital, I had to learn the hard way to think in hours and days, not in semesters and years. To track time, and report back to people who needed to know what I’d been doing. I had to learn to work in a team again — to have conversations about work, with the people I worked with, every day. To own it when I messed up, instead of hoping nobody would notice (out here, they do notice. And that’s a good thing). To keep regular hours and be in the office every day. This might sound regimented compared to the largely unmonitored life of an academic, but it was surprisingly easy to adapt to. The same self-discipline that got me out of bed at 6am to give a 9am lecture (I had a one-hour commute, which, when it went wrong, went really wrong — and you can’t be late for 200 people) helped me adjust to keeping regular office hours.

Adjustment isn’t big or hairy enough to justify putting off leaving. Admittedly, going in somewhere as an intern was a relatively safe thing for me to do: the company’s expectations were fairly low, so it was an easy bar to clear, and they got someone with way more experience and knowledge than they were paying for. Everybody won.* I’m not saying I didn’t screw up a few times, but every single incident taught me something, and the enforced humility was good for me. And that’s the thing: a radical change of environment was good for me. Saying “I don’t know” and not being an expert — or having anybody treat me like one — was good for me. Those first few months, by the time I got to Friday I was totally exhausted, because I was having to learn so many new things. It was like being back in school again, and I mean that in the best ways. But without the feelings of inadequacy; occasionally I would enjoy surprising people with interesting and relevant things from my background in psychology. And one thing I never expected about the transition was how much more seriously people take you when you’re older, even if you don’t really know anything (as opposed to when you’re 18 or 21 and absolutely everyone except you knows that you know nothing). It’s an unfairness, but given how much our world capitulates to the cult of youth, especially if you work in software, it’s one I can live with. And anyway, 37, my age when I went off to be an intern, is hardly old. Point is: my life is better in almost every way.**

This has now come full-circle: my husband just quit academia. Despite a publication record considerably more handsome than mine ever was, he grew tired of the succession of temporary contracts and empty promises of a permanent, senior position. He doesn’t quite know yet what he’s going to do; I’m finally returning the favour he did me when he agreed to be the breadwinner while I figured out how I was going to make a living. We don’t have kids, and I acknowledge that it would have been a lot harder for either of us to do this alone. But I’m not convinced any of it’s insurmountable.

Look: my old colleagues are tired and bruised after a long battle to see if anyone was going to have redundancy forced on them (end result: no, but four voluntary redundancies. I think the oldest is in their mid-40s. These are not people taking a sweet handout before sloping off into retirement — they are getting the hell outta Dodge). Nobody trusts management anymore, and who can blame them? Academic staff have seen their jobs go from does-anyone-want-to-get-a-coffee to locking-myself-in-the-office-and-taking-my-antidepressants in a span of a few years. This is not what we signed up for.

So go, or at least think seriously about going. Think hard about all those hard-won skills that you take for granted every single day. Skills employers want. Skills that someone somewhere else will pay you to use. I use what I learned in psychology (the theoretical stuff and teaching-related skills) every single day. I still use empirical data to justify decisions — the decisions just have different, more practical, and usually more immediate consequences. And I really like that. I like visible progress. I mean, there is literally a weekly chart of how much closer our team is getting to where we want to be. It’s incredibly motivating.

And if you choose to stay (and I have the utmost respect for those who do), make sure it really is a choice. Don’t tell yourself you’re no good for anything else, because that’s just not true. Call me (my personal inbox is in perpetual meltdown, but I have plenty of time to take calls on my lovely walking commute). Call any of the people who have decided academia’s no longer worth the pain. We think you’re amazing, and we’d be happy to remind you of that anytime.

[Edit: I neglected to thank the many people who helped me make this transition. As well as being eternally grateful to my husband for his love and encouragement, I am forever indebted to the friends who let me stay with them while I was interning (and who refused to take any money from me), and to the many friends and former colleagues who wished me luck and success, and offered connections they thought might be helpful (and who, if they had any doubts about my plans, kept those to themselves). Thank you all :) ]

* except the young person somewhere who might have had the internship instead. I like to think that my time as a lecturer (and for a while as an assistant Taekwon-do instructor), investing time in young people, might begin to make up for some of that, but it still bothers me.

** I miss teaching, I miss my old colleagues, and I miss my students. But I knew I would, and I jumped anyway.

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On success and reward in academia

So it’s been six months since I blogged here, which is frankly atrocious. Having said that, it doesn’t really feel like six months, because everything is whooshing past at such a rate (although interestingly, while we all like to agree that time is speeding up as we get older, the evidence for this is equivocal).

Anyway, time to fill the void. Hi, void. How are you?

VOID: HI, CHRIS. WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?

I’m coming to that, but I need to tell you some stories on my way there.

VOID: OKAY. I LIKE STORIES.

(Aside: are you following @FEMINISTHULK on Twitter? You should; CAPS LOCK has never looked so attractive.)

This post is coming out of several conversations I’ve had recently about what it’s like to be an academic, and how academics spend their time. I think a lot of this is really not transparent to people who don’t work inside academia; a lot of the time, I don’t think it’s all that obvious to students, either.

First up, here’s Mark Changizi on why he just left academia:

You can’t write a grant proposal whose aim is to make a theoretical breakthrough.

“Dear National Science Foundation: I plan on scrawling hundreds of pages of notes, mostly hitting dead ends, until, in Year 4, I hit pay-dirt.”

Lots of research is by nature theoretical and speculative, the kind of thing you just need to chew on, indefinitely, until you make a breakthrough. But increasingly, funding bodies are turning away from this sort of thing in favour of applied research. Indeed, there’s a massive hoo-hah about HEFCE‘s new Research Excellence Framework (the thing that used to be the Research Assessment Exercise — that is, the attempt to objectively measure how “good” a university department’s research is) and exactly what they mean by ‘impact’.

It’s pretty hard for theoretical research to have impact. (I guess the clue is in the word ‘theoretical’.)

Mark again:

in what feels like no time at all, two decades have flown by, and (if you’re “lucky”) you’re the bread-winning star at your university and research discipline.

But success at that game meant you never had time to do the creative theoretical leaps you had once hoped to do. You were transformed by the contemporary academic system into an able grant-getter, and somewhere along the way lost sight of the more fundamental overthrower-of-dogma and idea-monger identity you once strived for.

Mark’s a theoretician, an absurdly talented one (I can’t even envy him for that, because he’s such a nice guy) — if anyone should be able to thrive within academia, it’s him. But he’s gone, because universities are changing from environments in which academics are free to consider ideas and theories into income-seeking machines.

Wait — you thought universities were about educating people? Well, keep reading, but you might want to be sitting down.

Mark’s experience is different from mine — he’s a theoretician, and I, after many years of not knowing how to describe what I do, have finally started calling myself an applied cognitive psychologist. (My mind is much better at applying theory to existing situations than it is at coming up with entirely new ideas about how the world works.) But what our experiences of academia have in common is that it’s hard to find anyone who will reward us for doing the things we do best, even when those things are ostensibly pillars of academia.

Example? Sure. Here are the things about my job that people senior to me notice whether I am doing:

* Authoring research papers (preferably in high-impact journals)
* Bringing in money through grant funding
* Bringing in money through other means (such as knowledge transfer or consultancy work)
* Attracting negative feedback from students
* Giving a class lower- or higher-than-average marks
* Completing the requisite admin tasks required for my teaching
* Meeting my personal development goals for the year
* Turning up to the relevant staff, admin and committee meetings

Here are some things about my job that nobody senior to me will notice whether I am doing unless something is on fire:

* Teaching well (unless I am namechecked by students right in front of them)
* Reviewing and revising my lecture notes from one year to the next
* Keeping up to date with developments in the theory and practice of teaching and learning
* Being involved in learning and teaching projects at a university-wide level
* Innovating in my teaching (and encouraging or helping others to innovate)

Above all, as I found myself explaining to an incredulous American friend last week, it is pretty much impossible to get promoted on the basis of being a stellar university teacher. I don’t actually think I’m a stellar teacher — but what I’m saying is, there’s no real incentive even to try, because all I’m doing, in striving for teaching excellence, is making work for myself: not only do I have to try to squeeze all this teaching innovation in, I also have to find time to do and write up my ‘real’ research.

So what have I been doing since February? I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but here goes:

leaving the office on time, and going to the gym.

This would be the bit where I proudly announce that I now have a life, right? But actually? I’m exhausted. And it’s not from going to the gym. I’m exhausted because it’s nearly impossible to do my job inside contracted hours if you care about teaching quality. Or if you have many research projects on the go that might one day lead to publications; I have about five of these, and they eat up time and money with no guarantee that the results will ever be publishable, assuming I even have the time and energy to write them up.

teaching vs research time.png

(Disclaimer: the above graph is purely conceptual, being based on no data whatsoever, but I think most academics would recognise it.)

Did you know that academics are estimated to work somewhere in the region of 50 hours a week? Why? Well, as I can now attest from personal experience, it’s the only way they can get anything done.

So where have I been? Mostly, trying not to have a breakdown. Trying to balance having a life with conducting teaching and research to a high standard. Trying to find a balance between using the summer to write up my research findings and taking the vacation time I’m owed (and which I never have time to take during term, because, hello, teaching and admin). Trying to rationalise what I can do, and what I can’t. Practicing saying ‘no’.

It is hard. And the students are back in just over a month and I do not feel rested at all, and I haven’t done half the work I hoped to. And last summer was exactly the same.

So, void, that’s where I’ve been. Interesting times.

It’s not all doom and gloom. I’m learning things about myself, like for instance that I’m a ninja copy-editor — when you give me your poorly-written paper to co-author, I will turn it into something sublime, geeking out for hours while my fourth cup of coffee in a row goes cold. (Now I just need to figure out how to work this way with all my co-authors.) I’ve embarked on a big e-learning project, more about which soon. And I’m slowly getting more clarity about what I want and don’t want in my job. These are all good things.

And the gym? I’ll definitely keep going to the gym. Being fit is great, but more importantly, you should sponsor me to run a half-marathon for charity :)

Thanks for listening; it’s nice to be back.

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Ask, Don’t Tell: the power of questions

Scientists are not trained to ask questions.

No, excuse me — scientists are absolutely trained to ask questions. In the lab. In the lab we are rabid information ferrets, and we will run up every trouserleg that the great wardrobe in the sky sees fit to provide.

Scientists who become lecturers are not trained to ask questions — at least, not questions of the classroom variety (remember, we’re preoccupied with being subject matter experts). We are trained to talk. And talk. Seriously, if you like to pontificate, you could do worse than become a scientist. It’s like our national sport or something.

And so, at the end of class, because we know we’re supposed to ask this, we ask any questions? and nobody says anything — instead, the entire class launches into a frenzied scramble for their bags and coats. Because “any questions?” is about the worst thing you could possibly ask, and my students know it, even if they don’t explicitly realise it.

And yet, in defiance of the mute, are-we-done-yet hordes, a small trickle of students invariably arrives afterwards to ask questions, or to share something interesting and relevant from their lives. And sometimes, it feels like more teaching and more learning happens in those little conversations than in the whole of the lecture preceding them.

I experienced for myself, and am trying hard not to propagate, the cycle of abuse that is didactic, teacher-led education. “Sit down and shut up” is a powerful message to impose on children — and it’s clearly a sticky one, because by the time my students arrive at university, that’s their expectation of what should happen in class1. Ironically, when students don’t want to interact in class, it’s actually even harder not to ask things like “any questions?”, because we do it out of habit, and stressful situations are great for dredging up our most-ingrained routines.

“If you want to improve any element of your life, learn how to ask better questions.” (via Paul at Brain Friendly Trainer).

I’m a huge fan of asking questions: they’re the fast track to learning (a) how interesting the other person is [seriously: people are fascinating] and (b) all the stuff they know that you don’t. And pretty much everyone likes talking about themselves and their thoughts, so asking questions is good social grease, too.

Asking great questions is also a brilliant habit to build in the classroom. It’s a skill I’ve been quite slow to develop, but I’m getting into it. So here are a few ways that I’ve tried to bring more questions into my classes:

I already posted about how I turned a two-hour lecture into a two-hour problem-based learning session. This was great for two reasons: firstly, I asked the students a ton of questions, which normally isn’t something we make much time for in lectures. Second, and even more exciting, was that the students then started asking their own questions. In front of 60 other students. Seriously, if I do nothing else of value this academic year, I’d almost be okay just with that. (Well, not really. But you know.)

I added media clips to my lectures as an excuse to ask concept checking questions. I showed my students Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk about the subjective experience of having a stroke. Watch it if you haven’t already — not only does she bring great insights from her knowledge of the brain (she’s a neuroscientist), but she also gives the talk with great humour and humanity. And instead of giving students multiple-choice questions afterwards (Did the stroke attack (A) the left (B) the right or (C) both hemispheres of Jill Bolte Taylor’s brain?), I asked much harder questions: What are the physical and emotional consequences of a left-hemispheric stroke? How do you see objects that appear in your left visual field? Outline the path taken by information through your brain. And so on. (I let them talk through it with a partner first, before I threw it open to the class. Small steps.)

For reasons outlined here, I changed the format of student presentations to Pecha Kucha (which I must write about soon, because it completely deserves its own post). And we went from from “mostly the student talking” to “the student talks for a while and then everyone pitches in with questions and discussion” — which, for the record, is a way better experience. For everyone. (I collected questionnaire data that says so, too.) Nothing makes a class interactive faster than getting students interested enough in the subject to ask each other questions.

I stopped telling and started asking. This wasn’t a class-specific intervention, just something I’ve consciously started trying to do over the last couple of years every time students get stuck: I answer their questions with questions of my own. It seems especially useful when working with very reticent students, but it’s also a handy tool when guiding students who are struggling to express their thoughts on paper: how do you know that? What evidence do you have? Why is that relevant?

What have I learned? Asking questions works. I’ve had really positive feedback from students about these sessions, and I know in my heart that I’m asking better questions and getting students to think more actively about the problems I’m setting. I’ve also learned that if your concentration lapses, even for a moment, it’s really hard not to reflexively ask “any questions?”, so deeply ingrained is the concept. (I guess the only solution to that is more practice.)

Yes, these activities are all things I should have been doing to begin with — but remember that didactic, scientific background, and show me a little mercy; breaking the cycle of abuse can take a while.

And now I want to add a whole session on “asking questions” to the teaching certificate.

.

Edit, one day after posting: One other thing that I learned, just today, is that sometimes it’s okay to ask if there are any [further] questions, if everyone is good and warmed up, and you have time to spare. Because they were, and we did – and students came up with some great questions. Stuff I had no idea about, but about which it was fun to speculate. But I think people really have to be in that headspace and comfortable with the idea of asking questions in class before this will work.

1 Okay, some of students’ reticence in class is also driven by not wanting to look like an idiot in front of their peers, in case the question is “a stupid one” … one day I might turn up at class wearing a t-shirt that says THERE ARE NO STUPID QUESTIONS — ONLY STUPID LECTURERS, but you just know that’s going to backfire in ways that are both immensely embarrassing and completely predictable.

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When giving presentations, the only rule that matters is the rule of attention

Recently I was discussing presentations with a friend who is a student. Although being asked to make a presentation is a fairly common part of the student experience, and he has a reasonable idea of what’s involved, nobody has ever taught him or his peers how to do it.

Because I spend more time thinking about presentations than is strictly healthy, I offered to write my friend an email, summarising my thoughts. But once I got started, it very quickly turned into a monster email, the kind that people tend to skim once and then write a quick one-line reply along the lines of “Thanks, that looks really interesting — I’ll come back to it when I have more time,” maybe because they’re intimidated by the sheer volume and content of it all. (Yeah, okay, this is really about me and how I procrastinate over reading emails that look like they will be hard work. You’re listening to WKLJ — the sound of guilty conscience.) Plus, numerous URLs turn email into hyperlink soup.

So instead of sending my friend an email, I wrote this blog post. It’s ostensibly about the mistakes students make when they give presentations, but really it’s about how the only rules you need to know about giving a good presentation are the ones about human attention.

Here are some common mistakes I see in student presentations:

* Not having practiced the presentation enough.
* Not knowing enough details of the story, including germane technical details/terminology/pronunciation.
* Not picking a topic that they actually find interesting
* Confusing slide preparation with presentation preparation.
* Putting too much information on each slide.
* Not thinking about what it will be like to be the audience for this presentation, rather than the presenter

Notice how ‘being nervous’ is not on that list. We understand that students will be nervous about giving a presentation — being nervous about doing something fairly new in front of other people is completely understandable, and aside from one or two freakish individuals who take to presenting as though they’ve been doing it all their lives, everyone’s in the same boat. So relax :)

None of those mistakes are really about what happens during the presentation: they are all about how students prepare for the presentation beforehand. My impression from several years of watching students give presentations is that they are quite relaxed about the preparation, then get scared when it comes to the presentation itself. But by the time you are ready to give your presentation, it’s too late to be nervous — because by then, you’ve either put in the work, or you haven’t. Preparation is worth being nervous about; standing up and talking isn’t.

Ignore all the ‘rules’ about how to structure your slides. For every rule, there will be at least one instance in which it is not valid. Knowing which rules to follow and which to break is mostly a matter of practice and experience — which you may not have. So ignore, or at least treat with extreme suspicion, anything that sounds like a rule. Common rules include:

* Use X lines of text/bullet-points per slide
* Plan one slide for every N seconds of your talk
* The 10/20/30 rule

These all sound perfectly sensible, but the trouble with rules is that people cling to them for reassurance, and what was originally intended as a guideline quickly becomes a noose. My opposition to putting reams of text on slides is well documented, but I bet there are presentations out there where that’s exactly what’s required — at least, on one or two slides. Likewise, having more than ten slides might be exactly what you need; hell, you might need a hundred. Rules stipulating the number of slides you should have, or how fast you should transition between them, conveniently ignore that these aspects of your presentation depend on (a) what you are talking about, (b) what’s on your slide, and (c) how long that takes your audience to apprehend. Rules about slides are rubbish, because they stop you from thinking critically about what — if anything — you need to show in support of the point you want to make.

Ready-to-fill slide layouts are just another kind of rule. When you open Powerpoint and Keynote, they instantly start making suggestions about the layout of your slides. Bullet-lists feature prominently. When was the last time you enjoyed a presentation that had page after page of bullet points? Once you’ve figured out the story you’re telling, think about how each point could best be conveyed visually, and about whether you even need slides or visual aids at all.

Concentrate on the rules of attention. The thing you most want during a presentation is people’s attention, so everything you do and say has to be about capturing that, and then keeping it. The rules of attention are more or less universal, easier to demonstrate empirically than rules about specific slide formats, and can be neatly summarised as follows: people get bored easily.

Some specific rules of attention are:

People can really only retain about four bits of new, unrelated information — and sometimes not even that many. Don’t overstuff your presentation, and take care to signpost the key points — visually, verbally, however you want.

It’s hard to process spoken and written words at the same time. Integrating your spoken words with pictorial slides makes it easier for the brain to process these two streams of information efficiently. This also helps your audience remember more of what you said.

A story will keep people’s attention, because they will want to know what happens next. At Playful ’09 last week, Tassos Stevens talked about the compelling nature of indeterminacy, and asked the question Once a ball has been thrown, is it possible to look away before you know whether someone catches it? If you don’t know what your story is, or don’t convey that story clearly to your audience, they won’t stay focused; as Hitchcock knew very well, it’s all about suspense.

People really like looking at screens. If you’ve ever been in a pub with the TV on and the sound off, you’ll know that screens are an attention-magnet. This is great when you’re giving your presentation and there’s something on the slide that you want people to look at, but not so great if they are still looking at the slide while you are talking about something else. There’s an easy fix — press B or W while in Slideshow mode: the screen will go black or white, respectively (this works in both Keynote and Powerpoint), and people’s attention will focus on you, because now you are the moving, shiny thing in the room. Toggle the same key when you’re ready to direct the audience’s attention to the screen again.

Sustaining audience attention requires frequent changes. Simon Bostock once tweeted something great about how flow is when you stop noticing the joins between one parcel of attention and the next; this is the state you want to induce in your audience. Paradoxically, in order to get them to concentrate on something for a long time, you need to keep changing the thing they’re paying attention to, or they will get bored. Change stuff mindfully: I don’t mean adding clip-art or unrelated animations to your slides, I mean introduce something seriously astonishing. (Unexpectedness is a brilliant tool for wrangling people’s attention.) Less dramatically, you could use changes in your tone of voice, speaking volume, or where you are standing to draw the audience’s attention to a particular point. Evaluate your slides and consider whether they could be less formulaic; consider introducing some audience participation to get everyone out of the you-talk-while-they-listen rut.

Your audience will tell you when their attention is wandering. Hopefully not out loud, and hopefully not by harshtagging your presentation. But you will know from looking at their faces where their attention is, and if it isn’t on you or your visual aids, you will know that you need to change something. Don’t be afraid to go a bit off-road in the service of keeping people interested; it’s a kindness and a courtesy to stay with your audience, and a presenter on auto-pilot is not a pretty sight.

There are so many more things I could write about attention and presentations, but this is already overlong. So yeah, last rule: short is good. Like I said, rules are for breaking.

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Edit: There are some great additional points in the comments below.

Edit 2: Olivia Mitchell has written a great post about seven ways to keep your audience’s attention. We’re all about attention hacks here at finiteattentionspan!

[Marginalia: (1) Aesthetic is not a rule. Having a consistent look-and-feel (good colour palettes, consistent use of fonts and text size) can really elevate a presentation. (2) Constraints are not the same as rules. Obviously, most presentations will have a time-limit, and you need to respect that. And if you are doing Ignite or Pecha Kucha, there are some very specific constraints about slide timing (and, necessarily, about what goes on the slide, since viewing time is so short). But constraints are great news for creativity.]

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Everything is upside-down: turning lectures into homework with problem-based learning

The other day, I stumbled (via Tony Baldasaro) on this gem:

How much more could happen in our classrooms if we created more opportunities for students to learn basic skills and content outside of class? … Class, rather than being a time when all kids sat and received instruction, could be the time when they reinforce skills by doing problem sets, worked on real-world application projects, collaborated with teachers to reinforce concepts, etc…

The post is called Inversions; go read it, it’s only short.

This is such a wonderful, simple idea. And of course, many good instructors and educators are already doing just that — as Chris Lehmann points out, this is essentially what happens in English class when kids read a book as homework, then discuss it during class time. Students use out-of-class time to acquire content, freeing up class time for process. Because processing, doing, is how we learn, and students can get instant feedback from the instructor. Dialogue happens; moreover, students have the opportunity to learn vicariously from other students’ participation.

But this isn’t happening enough in universities, for reasons I have written about before. Big classes and a student body working to pay university fees — or to be able to afford food — mean that often, lectures become an info-dump, because you can’t guarantee that the majority of students have done the reading — and in my view, good teaching takes up from where the student is, not where they should be.

And I do get tired of the sound of my own voice in a two-hour lecture. Oh, I can teach for two hours; this post isn’t coming from a place of laziness. On some level I am probably even a bit of a show-off, or I probably wouldn’t enjoy teaching as much as I do. But, you know, no matter how enthusiastic I am, just talking for two hours is going to lose even the keenest student for periods of time, as their attention ebbs and flows. Estimates of attention span vary wildly, and a big chunk of that is about whether you are in flow.

Passive listening probably does not encourage flow in our students.

Attention span also varies as a function of ability, which is one reason why it’s so important to teach in a way that reaches everyone. And it’s unreasonable, I think, to expect anyone’s attention to last for a two-hour lecture, which is why so many of my colleagues are currently trying to think of ways to break up the time a bit. (The university schedules two-hour lectures in the way that many people schedule one-hour meetings: it seems to be a convenient and universally-understood unit of time, but may not be exactly what is needed.)

So how about we approach this problem from the other direction: make the classroom about practice, and perhaps we can nurture people’s curiosity in the topic and encourage them to pursue the more detailed background content afterwards?

Obviously this strategy is not without risk. Techniques like problem-based learning (PBL) have been found to improve students’ engagement and critical thinking skills, and students who have used PBL seem to hold their own against students educated more traditionally. But I have heard many concerns expressed that PBL can lead to patchy subject knowledge, though I am having trouble digging up much in the way of evidence for that (if you can help me out here, please leave a comment!). Wikipedia has a nice section on the cognitive load issues around problem-based learning; the key thing seems to be to start gently and gradually withdraw support, with the instructor increasingly becoming more of a facilitator.

I wouldn’t necessarily have tried this with first-year students, who perhaps haven’t acquired enough basic subject knowledge. But final-year students have been up to their elbows in the subject for long enough that I figured I could probably meet them halfway.

So, I rewrote my lecture.

In fact, my slides didn’t actually need a great deal of reworking, though I took some more of the text off them. I made lots of duplicate slides: the first with an image, and a question or two; the second, with simple labels. It was a pretty basic format: here’s some stuff — now figure out what you’re looking at.

PBL hippocampus question.png

And then, when they’d had a few minutes, in small groups, to try and work out what was going on, I’d ask for suggestions, and we’d talk a bit about those, and then I’d show them the second slide:

PBL hippocampus answer.png

… and we’d talk about that for a short while. I started off with some basics, and then we got into more and more complex stuff. Occasionally I would remind them, “start with what you already know.” Students had a worksheet that duplicated the images and questions, so they didn’t waste time and attention copying things down, and could concentrate on the what and why.

We did this for two hours (with a break), in a warm lecture theatre, in the afternoon, and nobody fell asleep. Students asked questions, made guesses. It was genuinely interactive.

In many ways, I was lucky. This lecture was all about the visuals: pictures of brains with stuff wrong with them. Had I been discussing highly abstract and theoretical concepts, it may not have worked well. Further, the lecture theatre was pretty much exactly right for the size of class: small, with about 60 seats and an aisle up the middle. I could, and did, reach all the groups; had we been in the 450-seat lecture theatre with people sprinkled everywhere, much of that class dynamic and atmosphere would have been lost.

Of course, not everything went brilliantly. There was a little too much content, and what I should have done was set the remainder as homework, rather than trying to cram it all in. I lost one group at the break, though this isn’t uncommon and you never really know why they’ve left; often it may be nothing to do with you and everything to do with their personal circumstances, and I never like to ask, in case it really is the latter and they are mortified that you’ve brought it up, or noticed their absence.

I won’t really be able to gauge the success of the session until the exam results, and student module evaluations, are in. But overall, it felt right. It felt like a good way to teach, and I really, really hope it inspired students to tackle the background reading. The explicit feedback I have had from students so far has been pretty positive, and a colleague who sat in on the session to observe seemed to really enjoy it, and said some very nice things. All of which gives me a little more faith in my own experience and enjoyment of the session.

Next stop: trying this again, with a bigger class. Anyone want to play along?

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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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Harvey: why every educator needs a pet pain in the ass

My friend Harvey is in the enviable position of being an instructor and having a job in the real world. (He insists he’s not an academic, but among his many other talents, he’s a damn fine educator.)

Harvey is routinely upset by the extent to which ostensibly prosaic ideas about education are treated as revolutionary. For example, I was tweeting about George Papandreou‘s speech at ICICTE, and how he was evangelising the need to empower people to understand and use technology, and the need to educate them about how to evaluate information and judge its authenticity. It was basic reportage; this guy might be Greece’s next Prime Minister — his father served as PM, by the way, so there’s precedent — and it was interesting to hear what he had to say about the intersection of education and technology. Asher Rospigliosi summarises the key points here.

I thought Papandreou talked a good game; nothing very new, to a conference of people already sold on the adoption of technology in education, but he expressed himself very clearly and seemed to have genuine commitment to change. He gave a brief nod to Barack Obama when he said that it was important to educate people about the coming changes and the responsibilities those would bring (he did explicitly mention Obama, though I’m sure I wasn’t the only one wondering whether Greece’s leader of the opposition is also a secret Spider-man fan).

So I tweeted some of the key points of George Papandreou’s address, and Harvey was all, like, “Yeah, and? This ain’t rocket-science.” (I paraphrase; I think his original tweet used the phrase “bleedin’ obvious”.)

This comes on the back of conversations with Harvey in which he was dismayed to learn that educators do not routinely make deliberate use of narrative in structuring their lessons; that they are not all aware of the complex attentional demands created by having to read dense text off slides during a lecture; that they are not, in short, necessarily all that educated about attention and learning, outside their own subject areas.

So by now you’re probably thinking that Harvey is a royal smart-ass and world-class know-it-all, right?

Well, yeah.

But the thing with Harvey is that he’s way ahead of the curve in terms of adopting narrative in his teaching, encouraging student interaction, making appropriate and minimalist use of visual aids, etc. Much of this is surely down to his non-traditional background and subject specialism, but a substantial chunk of it is absolutely down to his being a professional pain in the ass.

And I love it.

Because, when Harvey points out that this stuff is, to use his terminology, bleedin’ obvious, it encourages me to test the things he take for granted, to be able to demonstrate empirically that they work. I work in science, and we’re all about evidence; pretty soon now I hope to publish a paper on why minimalist slides are so important for learning, and then I can approach my colleagues and say “Look: here are the numbers. This really works.”

Critically, I know the concepts I’m championing are not in widespread use right now, else educational conferences wouldn’t keep inviting me to present my work. (Okay, so really, there’s nothing new under the sun; but maybe these ideas need to be recycled once in a while — we’re certainly in need of them right now as we struggle to avoid being derailed by the very technology we seek to promote.)

What I’m trying to say is this: having my ass kicked on a regular basis about the fundamentals of teaching, by someone with a bit of objectivity, galvanises me to educate my colleagues — because if I’m learning anything from my travels in educational research, it’s that there are many educators out there to whom this stuff is often far from obvious.

Thank you, Harvey; education needs more pains in the ass like you.

[This article has been edited since its original posting; this is what happens when your posting deadline is the lifespan of your laptop battery.]

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