Releasing slides before lectures – is it really a good idea?

I’ve recently been considering the risks and benefits of sharing presentational slides before lectures, and the effect it has on both attendance and performance. Some conclusions from my scoping are shared below. This review is not a recommendation that linear presentation software should be used in classes, clearly this is not the only way to structure learning.

Sharing lecture slides (almost universally PowerPoint slides) before a class is widely believed to not negatively impact attendance (e.g. by Billings-Gagliardi & Mazor, 2007; Frank, Shaw & Wilson, 2009; Worthington, & Levasseur, 2015). Billings-Gagliardi & Mazor (2007) conclude “Fears that the increasing availability of technology-enhanced educational materials has a negative impact on lecture attendance seem unfounded” (2007, p573). The evidence is not entirely unanimous though, with some research, particularly before 2006, pointing to a connection between pre-lecture release and attendance.

Sambrook & Rowley’s (2010) research had students report that their peers have used slides as a substitute for attendance, but even so, non-attendance was most likely to be linked to other factors such as illness or crisis, and slides were likely to be an assistive facility rather than a root cause of non-attendance. Dolnicar’s (2005) research showed why students attend lectures – he included such factors as students wanting to: find out what they are supposed to know;  avoid missing important information;  find out about assessment; and make sure they learn the key content, and they also attended because of university expectations. Others, for example Fitzpatrick, Cronin, & Byrne (2011), have looked at reasons for non-attendance at lectures and reported factors such as curriculum overload issues and poor quality of teaching. It is perhaps unsurprising that, according to the balance this evidence, lecture notes alone don’t appear to have an impact on attendance.

Within their research on making slides available through online environments, Sambrook & Rowley noted that “The most emphatic response [in their survey] was to the statement “lecture notes should be available on Blackboard” … the availability of webnotes has become expected” (2010, p.35). The value placed on pre-release of slides is also emphasised in students own pro-active stance on virtual learning environments (see for example Cain, 2012).

Research shows that electronic materials, which are shared before a class, are perceived as helpful to students’ preparation for learning, which in turn encourages attendance (Billings-Gagliardi & Mazor, 2007; Sambrook & Rowley, 2010). Specifically, as a result of advanced publication of notes online, students reported: i) better opportunity to retain content in the lecture when they had prepared, ii) being more organised note taking iii) recognition of opportunities to pick out areas of the lecture where they will need further explanation (e.g. to ‘zone in’ during actual classes) – these points were especially important for international students and students with dyslexia (Sambrook & Rowley, 2010). Additionally “[b]y posting slides before lecture, students have the opportunity to prepare in advance for class and perhaps feel more comfortable in volunteering thoughts and opinions” (Babb & Ross, 2009, p.878).

The sharing of slides before lectures is associated with better note taking and/or perceptions of better note taking (Frey & Birnbaum, 2002; Babb & Ross, 2009). Sambrook & Rowley (2010) suggest “Providing lecture notes in advance can address cognitive processing problems student face with working memory overload, when they are trying to both listen to the lecturer and write their own notes”. Some research does however point to an over reliance on slides as limiting note taking, so the benefit of processing information in note taking is diminished, in turn this could be linked to achievement: “In short, many instructors fear that … slides encourage less encoding and that less encoding will translate into less learning” (Washington & Levasseur, 2015, p.15). Often students note taking skills are not well developed (Haynes, McCarley, & Williams, 2015; Pardini et al. 2005). Making slides available in itself is not a silver bullet for note taking, but students do report using slides as a structure for their thoughts. Actions to develop skills note taking skills are recommended (Haynes, McCarley, & Williams , 2015).

Irrespective of early or late release, use of PowerPoint in a way that oversimplifies ideas can stifle discovery, hinder deeper learning, and provide knowledge in linear and disconnected forms (Kinchin, Chadha, & Kokotailo, 2008; Isseks, 20011). Sambrook & Rowley, through their review of literature, indicate that slides can be associated with knowledge being fashioned in restricted ways, but they go on to add that this is a consequence of the way the tool is used rather than the tool per se. Maxwell (2012), Apperson, Laws, L. & Scepansky (2008) and Iseeks (2011) advise that the use of bullet points on PowerPoints should be reduced with more use being made of visual stimulus and lecturer engagement to provoke deeper, authentic and human engagement and to “complement and enhance” delivery (Maxwell, 2012, p. 48).

Having explored some literature it is clear that early release of slides is an increasing expectation. There are considerable benefits of early release to some students (particularly international, dyslexic and those with less confidence to speak out in class).. On balance, understandable lecturer concerns about attendance are unsupported in more recent literature and there is even evidence that some more vulnerable students are more likely to attend classes if given time to prepare. The factors affecting lecture attendance concern a wide range of variables; where these lead to non-attendance, the slides provide a helping hand. Nevertheless, it is also clear that efforts to develop note-taking skills in students and the development of skills in the effective use of PowerPoint for educators would be well placed, to avoid students falling asleep with their eyes open (such is the title of a paper by O’Rouke et al, 2014) . In reaching this conclusion it does throw up a puzzle – if we use presentation tools for pictures, artifacts and stimuli, instead of an explicit guide to content, is their any point adding these to a virtual learning environment before a lecture? There is no evidence either way, or at least none that I have found, but presumably  some other means of pre-class indication of what to expect would enable the benefits of early release of slides outlined above (which rather presume a focus on course content) to be realised while maintaining engagement through a more creative use of presentational software.

Finally, it may be useful to note that there is experimentation occurring in to how to support learning through alternative technologies, particularly as the university’s role as authoritative transmitter of knowledge is under review, again O’Rouke’s paper provides a useful starting point for considering other modus operandi for the provision of resources.

References to download

Viva preparation

Having survived my doctoral viva on the EdD programme at the University of LiverpooI, I wanted to share some of my own experiences in the hope that they might be useful to others.

  • To prepare for my viva the first thing I did was take six weeks away from the research and from even thinking about the doctorate. This was an important preparatory step to make myself objective about the thesis when re-engaging; essentially it allowed me to come back with fresh eyes and a clear mind. I questioned whether this was a wise thing to do as some advice says keep  reading around your topic in the gap, but I really valued the break.
  • I then read my thesis back (twice), from cover to cover. As I read I annotated typographical errors. I decided not to berate myself for their presence, since that would be a distraction. Finding these minor typographical and phrasing errors early on was helpful as it removed any sense of thinking that the viva will be the final step (it became clear that I would need to make modifications). Getting this realization over and done with earlier in the process made my expectation management much easier.
  • As I read, I noted areas where I felt I should have said more. Particularly I noted areas where I had said more and then, for editorial reasons, cut back on the detail. In these cases I read through the words and diagrams that were reluctantly cut out of the final draft (I always saved copies of earlier drafts of each chapter). Logically I figured, if I had struggled to cut out certain sections, their eventual absence may be of concern to the examiners. Reacquainting myself with this material was invaluable. By example I had cut out text which explained how the two strands of analysis in my study were synthesized. I had cut out this detail in the editing process, but re-familiarizing with it in the viva preparation allowed me to answer questions on this apparent gap in the thesis.
  • I  used a number of websites to generate common viva questions. I found one from the University of Leicester particularly helpful (see http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/gradschool/training/eresources/study-guides/viva/prepare/questions ).
  • Armed with the lists of questions, I generated answers in my mind. I did not write them down, frankly I didn’t think this helped. I sometimes committed two or three questions to mind and mulled them over while driving. This was a useful exercise as I could happily mumble answers to myself in the privacy of my car. Answering two or three at a time was enough to keep concentration. Tackling  more that three questions in one sitting was not particularly productive for me.
  • None of the ‘text book’ questions came up, but without doubt, these generic questions focused my attention and provided very good preparation.
  • I made a conscious effort to talk with others about my research before the viva. This gave me an opportunity to clarify my own understanding and to make the research accessible. Responding to my ten year old son’s question, what is your thesis about? Was actually the most challenging and the most valuable step in this process. he pushed me to be able to explain it in a way that he could understand.
  • Another  useful pre-viva question to consider was ‘which three works most influenced your research?’. Answering this  really forced me to focus on how I had used different influences, in turn this brought further clarity to the themes and ideas within the work.
  • Keeping perspective was very important in getting ready. One side of my brain felt like my doctorate depended on the viva. The other side constantly reminded me that the thesis and viva are, in reality, part of an extended study journey and should not be seen, as with a PhD, as the only product of assessment. Essentially I was two-thirds of the way to success without the project. This was a calming fact.
  • I found it really useful to ask myself ‘what would be the worst questions that could come up?’. Answering this is a real test of knowing your own limitations and those of your research. Sure enough my worst question came up (after all if I recognised this as a weakness in my research, surely others would too!). Having accepted this area as a weakness in advance, I was able to read around the issue and fill the gap. I was therefore comfortable on the day with defending my position, while accepting that some of the things I had learned through revisiting the issue would be usefully incorporated in modifications. This is a long way of recommending viva candidates face up to the areas that you know are weakest, in advance of the viva, and use the new found impetus that this phase of your journey brings to resolve any concerns that might have seemed unfathomable under the pressure to complete for submission.
  • Practically, I used post it notes to separate the chapters of the tome. This was useful for finding my way around the parts quickly when questions were asked. Also I researched the outcomes of the viva, so that I was prepared to hear the judgment and absorb the critical information, rather than get lost in the terminology.
  • Finally, one of the biggest challenges was to manage my own, and my supporters, expectations of completing the viva. While some friends/family/colleagues/strangers on a train congratulated me, with minor modifications outstanding I couldn’t fully celebrate. I had anticipated feeling like the viva was the end of the doctorate, but on the day it was just another milestone (albeit a significant one). This was a massive deflation. I wanted to keep the champagne on ice a little while longer. This was tricky to manage when others saw this as the finish line. In the end I settled on celebrating twice. In your mind be clear whether you feel your doctorate is over after the viva, or when any modifications are in. For me it was the latter.

Feedback technologies – benefits and limitations

A part of my doctoral literature review I endeavoured to collate the benefits and limitations of different technologies for use in student feedback. The file below briefly summarises the findings. This can be used as a reference point for anyone looking at evaluating different tools.

Feedback tools evaluation table

Action research for higher education practitioners: Booklet

I have formed a short guide to action research particularly to support colleagues in higher education who may be undertaking action research for the first time. This is absolutely not intended to be a substitute for literature but it is offered as a ‘first stop’ for anyone contemplating this methodology. It offers practical ideas and tips and seeks to answer some of the key questions that I understand new action researchers to have. As ever, any feedback, additional inclusions or suggestions for revision would be welcome.

Capture7

Download the booklet here: Action Research Introductory Resource

Course design think sheet

In considering how to support curriculum design for new programmes I have developed a question framework for course design teams to use to help them to deliberate and discuss the shape of new programmes. It tries to encourage a balance of looking back at what has worked before, and looking forward at how designs could be improved. It encourages discussion in the context of the discipline, but focuses on the underpinning structure of the design rather than specific content.

Download the course design think sheet

Looking at the value of lecture capture

Looking at lecture capture led me to ask questions about the technology’s effectiveness. I can’t help feel that lecture capture is  counter-intuitive, since we know transmission based learning is less effective than active learning (so, why would we invest more in it and replicate it?) and we know that concentration spans for online engagement don’t readily lend themselves to hour long broadcasts (my own concentration sees frustration after 15 minutes!). Nevertheless adoption is on the increase  and students clearly appreciate the opportunity to apply catch up TV principles to learning – they value the flexibility.

As lecture capture heads towards the mainstream, I thought it useful to look at the evidence of the benefits and challenges of this technology, especially in light of a prediction that we may begin to move away from capturing lectures to viewing lectures as performances – something Professor Phil Race constantly emphasises with the idea of making the lecture unmissable and engaging.

My reading notes can be downloaded but the headline points were:

  1. More research is needed in to actual, rather than perceived effectiveness of lecture capture.
  2. Students appreciate lecture capture and believe it helps learning but the actual impact is unclear. Critically there is little or no evidence that lecture capture really impacts performance. Some subsets of users appear to show higher scores, but this may be associated with their diligence rather than the impact of heavy usage of downloads.
  3. The circumstances in which lecture capture is effective and the reasons for it are also unclear. Research suggests that content heavy subjects are best suited to this technology and interactive subjects less so, and this makes good common sense. By implication then, this point raises the question would lecture capture lead to a less interactive delivery style?
  4. Lecture capture is suspected as having a connection with more effective note taking and students appear to selectively watch lectures to address tricky concepts. These recurrent findings, irrespective of the growth of lecture capture, point to the value of addressing how students take notes as an academic skill and raise the question of how media can be used to address difficult concepts in watchable and debunking, even (dare I say) enjoyable ways.

If they are useful please help yourself to my lecture capture quick notes.

Using technology for student feedback: Lecturer perspectives. In their words

The document posted is a collection of short narrative portraits that has been constructed during my doctoral research, titled, ‘Using technology for student feedback: Lecturer perspectives’. Within the study, fifteen participants were interviewed. Each told their story of how and why they used technology in feedback. This illuminated challenges in the development of academic practice, it uncovered some of the ways in which feedback practice is formed, and it showed some of the ways in which lecturers internally mediate technology selection.

Individual interview transcripts were reduced to portraits (essentially these are mini accounts). This was done using a systematic and reflexive process articulated by Seidman (2013). The portraits themselves, and the process of data reduction, provided learning which fed in to the wider analytical process. These portrait stories are not all included in the final thesis in their full form, however given that narratives can provide instant knowledge (Webster & Mertova, 2007) I wanted to publish the collection. The participant portraits are presented here because they stand alone as insights in to the formation of academic practice.

DOWNLOAD Participant stories – in their words

Seidman, I. (2013). Interviewing as qualitative research: A guide for researchers in education and the social sciences (4th ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Webster, L., & Mertova, P. (2007). Using narrative inquiry as a research method: An introduction to using critical event narrative analysis in research on learning and teaching. Abingdon: Routledge.

Preliminary findings – Lecturer experiences of choosing and using technology in assessment feedback

Part way through my thesis research I have stood back to ask what is all this data saying? To this end I have produced a pause for thought document about the emerging findings. This is not the finished output, but in creating it I managed to consolidate my thoughts, and in sharing it I hope for any comments that may help refine further analysis or additional data collection.

Please feel free to leave any questions or comments in response.

And thank you to those who have assisted me in setting up the next round of interviews after a recent plea for help.

Preliminary Research Findings available here.

 

Marrying mixed methods and critical realism

As  I edit through my thesis I needed to cut out a short section that I had written about how mixed methods can be highly compatible with critical realism. As my work emerged I did not, in the end, use mixed methods.  This section was hard won and so simply deleting it felt like a waste. Therefore, attached to this post is a short piece about the compatibility of mixed methods and critical realism, in hope that it may be useful to someone else.

Download the short article here: Marrying mixed methods and critical realism

Efficiency, technology and feedback

In considering staff experiences of choosing and using feedback technology, one of the emerging themes has been the differing views on feedback technologies and efficiencies. While the jury is still out on the data and the process is incomplete, my observations are that efficiency can be conceived in different ways in the negotiation of technology. For some efficiency is a primary driver in the decision making process. The search for technology and the refinement of its use is motivated and shaped by the quest for efficiencies. For others efficiencies are a welcome benefit of technology – they are almost an unexpected gift – welcome, but not necessary. Efficiencies also appear to be conceived relatively; rarely are efficiencies discussed without a reference to the relative enhancement gains that can be made through a technology. Wherever there is a time saving there is a tendency to ‘re-spend’ the saved time making still more enhancements to the feedback – adding detail and depth for example. In this way efficiencies become difficult to identify as they are theoretically achievable but in reality they are trumped by the possibility for improvement. Efficiency also seems to be a veto concept for some; it is not a particular concern in the run of practice but is triggered only when a particular technology is likely to encroach other activities or provide an intolerable stress.