I use visual lecture slides in my classes. That is, I have slides with almost no text on them. For many of my students this is alarming. They have been trained to be human Xerox machines who spend class time dutifully writing down what they see on the board. The first semester I did this I thought my students would love it. I was wrong.

They hated the fact that there was nothing written down. My mid-semester evals said, “I have no idea what the important information is by looking at the picture.” I was sympathetic to their situation, but I was unwilling to go back to death by bullet point[1]. The class participation, discussions, and general engagement had all shot through the roof. So I was stuck between two interests. I needed to help them see the structure without assailing them with bullet point slides.

I decided to just give them my lecture notes. I wrote down everything I was going to say, then cleaned it up, and put it in outline form. My students rejoiced, but I felt uneasy. I worried that no one would come to class and that those who did would stop taking notes. As it turns out, only the latter came to fruition.[2]

After the first test I email every student in my class who has less than a 75% in the class and ask them to have a face-to-face with me about how they are studying, what’s going on in their lives, and what they can do to improve their learning. I have 430 students this semester so you might believe me when I say the last two weeks have been wall-to-wall student meetings.

My students all made one thing clear. They had printed off the lecture notes and used them to study. Almost all of them thought that they were well prepared for the exam only to find that they had struggled. I was worried, but the scholar in me was determined to locate the culprit.

Hunting and Gathering in Class

When asked, my students told me that they were bringing the printed out lecture notes and following along as we went through them in class. Students were adamant that they never missed a thing discussed in class. The dozens of student conversations almost all sounded the same. Most said something to the effect of, “I always bring the lecture notes and listen intently. If you add anything that’s not on the print out, I always write it in. I can’t believe I did poorly on the test I had all of the information right in front of me when I studied.”

Most of the struggling students I met with spent their class time as information hunter gatherers doing little more at their desk than filling in the gaps on the lecture notes. When it came time to study for the test they read their “complete” lecture notes and nodded their head. It all made sense and it all seemed to flow logically[3].

This method may work for some students (to be honest, this sounds close to how I studied as an undergraduate). But, almost no one can learn simply by collecting information. All of us have to process and cognitively engage with the information.

I politely pointed out how passive their in class behavior was and almost all of them, to their credit, received it as welcome news. I suggested that instead of having their lecture notes out during class they leave them put away. Then take out a sheet of paper and take notes on what they are learning. This approach would have them listen, think about what they are hearing, and then attempt to rephrase the ideas in their own words. It’s unquestionable that this is a more involved process than simply going down the lecture notes checking that everything said in class is represented.

On Friday one of my students told me how much he liked this new approach, but he suggested that he found it easier to write when he reviewed the lecture notes as he walked to class. Then when he took notes in class on a blank sheet of paper he had some frame or structure to write his notes around.

I’ve yet to see if this turns students grades around, so you should take this advice with caution. Furthermore, this isn’t an empirical study but rather an anecdotal recounting of a trail-and-error approach. So it goes with out saying, your milage may vary. However, all of us who give out our lecture notes should be wary of how they may pacify our students in class experience.

  1. Not everyone who uses PowerPoint is guilty of death by bullet point. In fact some of my favorite teachers use PowerPoint in traditional ways and avoid almost all of the negatives I encapsulate in the term death by bullet point. That said, my PowerPoints before visual based slides were terribly. I had to change.  ↩

  2. This semester I started using the iClickers and my attendance has never been higher. Attendance is up, participation is up, and most importantly grades are up. I’ll talk more about how I use these soon.  ↩

  3. Of course it did, I worked and worked to make sure my lectures flow.  ↩