Surviving in a PowerPoint Classroom

For the first time in years, I've found myself sitting in a classroom once again. Most of the posts here on Brainslides are directed towards teachers who want to improve their slide design and presentation skills, but today I've decided to focus on the other half of the equation. Despite my best efforts, most students will be taught by someone who hasn't considered the effects of their text-filled slides and continue to merge their visuals and lecture notes into one slideument and use conventional teaching practices that may not be ideal for the student's learning. So here are a few tips for those of us who aren't yet desperate enough to throw tomatoes at the projector screen but still want to make the most of our time in the lecture hall.

Ignore Your Teacher. Or the Slides.

(It would probably be better to do the latter.) The problem with text filled slides and a lecturing professor is in our brains. Research shows that we simply cannot pay attention to two things at once. "But wait!" you say, "I can walk and chew gum and drive while on the phone. Isn't that multitasking?" Well, yes, it's a type of multitasking. We may be able to drive while talking on the phone (though not very safely), but chances are you're not intently focused on how many PSI your foot is placing on the accelerator, what make and model the cars around you are, or how fast to transfer your foot to the brake. The mechanics of driving have become ingrained in your muscle memory. You don't need to focus on every aspect of driving. Listening to a lecture on differential equations, for example, can be very different. Chances are you need to pay close attention to each word that comes from the professor's mouth so as not to get lost in the Greek! The problem is that when detailed slides call for the attention of our visual system while we are attempting to dedicate our auditory system to listening to the lecture, neither task gets full power and we end up absorbing a much smaller amount of information. So try focusing your attention on the professor. Pay attention to phrases she emphasizes, repeats, or takes a long pause after – these are usually important points. If the professor is using the PowerPoint slides as their teleprompter, then they aren't really there for the students anyway.

Play Word Search After Class

Ah, the elementary school game that has made it's way into the university. Students love it because they don't have to take notes. Teachers like them because they can get through their material more quickly than writing it all out on a board. I am, of course, talking about the slide handouts with one or two words missing from each slide that the student is to fill in during the lecture. There are a lot of things to like about this approach. Students really have to pay attention or they'll miss the special word, and they can relax once they have filled in the blank and just listen. However, the results may not be as great as you think. We'll have to spend time in another post to discuss the pros and cons, but for now we're talking about how a student can handle it. My advice – take notes. Use plain old paper and pencil. As Dr. Marian Diamond explains, it will increase retention by – get this – slowing you down. The brain needs time to process information and just hearing it in the lecture or reading it on the slide for 5-10 seconds isn't enough to reliably retain it.

Bonus Tip: You can still take advantage of those "word search slides." Pull them out after class (ideally within 2 hours of the lecture) and, without your notes, see if you can fill in the blanks. It will be a great exercise in retention and you'll have the complete slides to review from later.

An example of the handout students may receive to accompany a professor's "Word Search" slides.

"I can't keep up!"

The biggest challenge you'll have as a student in a bullet-point classroom is the pace. Because all of the information is revealed all at once, everyone (the teacher and students) will tend to glance over it relatively quickly without going into much detail. It is nearly impossible to write down everything on the slides, or everything the teacher says. I can't even type that fast and I test at 100 wpm or more! But don't worry! The point of notes isn't to reproduce a text book. You just need to take note of the most important points – you can look at all the slides later or refer to the textbook to add detail and fill in any gaps. Note taking is a developed skill and there are lots of different techniques. You can check out some suggestions online for Cornell Notes, MindMapping, or just plain outlining. It will take some time to get used to it and feel confident with what information is critical and what information you can let go of in the moment. If you're worried you'll miss something crucial, try recording the lecture. You can use a tape recorder, an iPod, or iPad apps like Soundnote and Mental Note. If you're really geeky like me, get yourself the LiveScribe pen which records audio and lets you digitally transfer your handwritten notes to your computer. And if you really are a nerd and want to do some risk free practice, you can start taking notes while watching lectures on YouTube, iTunes U, or TEDTalks!

Make Friends, Not Enemies

Hopefully, you can be a positive influence on your instructor's lecture style. I don't recommend criticizing their slides (they've worked really hard on them, no matter how bad they are). A "carrot-and-stick" approach may be appropriate: kindly e-mail them a link to BrainSlides or PresentationZen. At the end of the term you could thank them and give them a gift of a book like PresentationZen, Slide:ology, Resonate or Brain Rules. Whatever you do, don't fight bullets with bullets. It sends mixed messages and makes everyone defensive. It won't help you to build barriers between you and your professors, and can make it even more difficult when you need to get some one on one help during their office hours. That's why this post is about what the student can do to deal with bullet-point ridden slides.

In summary, don't split your attention between the slides and lecture, take notes the old fashioned way, and fill in the gaps after class. Spread the word about better slide design by sharing helpful resources, not correcting or criticizing. If you're a teacher, try taking the student's perspective to better understand what increases learning – you may be surprised what you discover!

For some other ideas on making the most of any lecture, check out these awesome blog posts:

How to Pay Attention During Even the Most Boring College Lecture

I prefer my professor’s illegible handwriting to your PowerPoint presentation