Slides before lectures - academics’ views 

14 Dec 2016 - 11:45
Lecture hall

Image credit: nikolayhg, Creative Commons CC0

Should students be given slides before lectures? This is a contentious issue, so we asked two UCT lecturers and past recipients of the UCT distinguished teacher award to share their views. Jenni Case is a Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and student advisor to first year students. Ian Rijsdijk is a senior lecturer in the Centre for Film and Media Studies, and director of the African Cinema Unit. 

1. What role do your lecture slides play in teaching and learning in your courses?

Jenni: I use lecture slides as a baseline for supporting my teaching in chemical engineering but most probably 90% of the content is added during the class by my annotating the slides by using a tablet (what I would have previously done on a blackboard). The slides do sometimes also contain graphics or images that I might refer to in the class. But mostly ahead of the lecture the lecture slides are 90% blank, directly after the lecture I upload the annotated versions of the slides, a record of all the writing that was done during class.  

Ian: Images are an important component of teaching film. Before PowerPoint, I would copy images onto OHP transparencies, or use jpegs cut and pasted into word documents, and even slides and a slide projector! The slides give structure to the lecture and allow me to integrate images and text. I prefer very brief bullet points which are supplemented by my lecture comments and clips that I show. I don’t tend to embed my clips because I have seen and experienced so many hitches with trying to run large files in PowerPoint.

When students look at the slides, they should be able to relate the slides to notes they have taken, or audio files they have recorded. This process of synthesis, in turn, should give them the right preparation for small-group tutorials where they examine course material in more detail.

2. When and in which form do you share your lecture slides and why?

Jenni: I upload the mostly blank slides before the lecture, as some students like to use these on their laptops during the lecture, especially to be able to see details in diagrams. And directly after the lecture I upload the annotated slides. Students can also access recordings of the lecture. Why? Students have to do work with what has happened after the lecture and I see them making many different uses of these resources. Some go back to bits of the video clips, others access the annotated slides - during tutorials I find it interesting to see my ‘boardwork’ on students’ phones / tablets / laptops. I cannot really imagine why you would not make available to students as many resources as possible. In terms of attendance, my experience is that if you have a sufficiently engaging lecture, that even making all of this available does not diminish the baseline attendance - in fact I think it enhances their awareness that actually being in the lecture is always a bit different.  

Ian: I normally upload the slides just before I give the lecture. I used to wait until afterwards as a way of trying to ‘encourage’ attendance, but I’ve realised that some students like to add their own notes to the slides on their devices. I now think that posting slides earlier enhances the experience for students in the lecture and might encourage attendance.

3. How do students report using your slides?

Jenni:  Some students write extensive notes during class and therefore don’t use the annotated slides much, while others like the freedom to not have to write madly during the lecture and rather to mainly listen.

Ian: Students have complained loudly when other lecturers in my courses do not upload slides, and I have responded by saying that lecturers are not required to upload or even use slides. I am disappointed by the way PowerPoint slides have become an expected component of the lecturing process. However, I enjoy using them and see no point in withholding them once the lecture has been delivered. I can’t think of any specific comments about my slides. I don’t really see them as being apart from the whole lecture experience. I encourage questions from the class during lectures and encourage multiple answers so that the class feels connected to the lecturer, and I think this helps to integrate the slides into the lecture.

4. Are there any particular good practices or advice you wish to share with students around the use of lecture slides?

Jenni: I don’t think there are any rules here. The key thing is that your learning needs to be aimed towards understanding the material and being able to use the concepts and tools in solving problems. So of course if you are trying to memorise what is on the slides this is mostly not going to help in chemical engineering, but I think students learn that quickly.

Ian: (1) Slides without the lecture are less effective and might even be useless or harmful to learning. If you cannot attend, make the effort to get notes from someone who was there. If you just download the notes and try to make connections yourself, you might produce an incorrect assumption or interpretation that might not get corrected or discussed in tutorials. (2) Use the slides as a frame around which to build your understanding of the work. The slides are most effective when combined with the lecturer’s words, the course readings, and the tutorial discussions.

5. What can lecturers do to scaffold preferred uses of lecture slides in their courses? 

Jenni: I talk with students about their learning on the course, on what the key challenges are, and on what they need to be aiming towards. I am not in any way prescriptive about how students will use class resources but I point them to many of them. Some of them use the textbook more than do others. Some of them search out other online resources, there is so much out there.  

I must say I am pleased I don’t teach in a subject that leads itself to ‘death by bullet’ via PowerPoint. I cannot see how you can engage students if you are reading through bullet by bullet. You need to pose questions and problems, and you need to be 'live' to what comes up in class, to new ways of seeing things, to new questions. I think pre-prepared slides are potentially very dangerous for undergraduate teaching. Again no rules, but you must sit in a few lectures yourself to see how extremely boring it can be. I don’t blame students for turning to Facebook. And I am also not dismissive of lectures as inherently passive or whatever. I think there is nothing quite like a good lecture, there is an energy and something shared collectively in the moment that is important.

Ian: They need to recognise slides as a collaborative tool rather than a pure instructional element to teaching. In other words, they need to take time at the beginning of the course explaining how they are going to teach not just what they are going to teach. This includes introducing them to the role of the library in their studies, how research is used in writing, maybe even the lecturer describing their own experience with researching (the pitfalls and successes). In my 1st-year course I give lectures on writing and ethics, how to do basic research using search engines on the internet and the library: these are about the how and why of the course not the what.

I also think that slides can be used more constructively to set up class discussion, especially in the early stages of a course when students might be getting to grips with the subject. This means using the lecture space to encourage questions and discussion where concerns voiced by a student might be shared by many others in the class.

In conclusion, it is clear that slides given to students before lectures can be valuable, and do not replace the lecture itself. For ideas on ways to develop slides to serve multiple ends, see the CILT Guide.

Compiled by Dr Nicola Pallitt