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.

In Sambrook & Rowley’s (2010) research students reported 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. They also attended because of university expectations. Others, for example Fitzpatrick, Cronin, & Byrne (2011), have looked at reasons for non-attendance  and reported factors such as curriculum overload issues and poor quality of teaching. It is perhaps unsurprising that, according to the balance of 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 in 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, & 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

This research was used to inform institutional guidance on inclusive practice  

1 thought on “Releasing slides before lectures – is it really a good idea?”

  1. Fully agree with the tenet of the article – people still visit cinemas and theatres (and pay extra) even when they have read the book. And students would not even need to pay extra for the lecture.
    I like the idea of a student project (supported/funded by SU/Aspire) on the topic:

    Witn input from Special Needs, International students and ‘Distance’/Word-based learners.

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