Wouldn’t it be great if you could have a roster of all your students names and photos. Something you could turn to as your handing back papers; avoiding that awkward moment were you show your students you don’t know their names. Wouldn’t it be great if after a conversation with a student you could look and see what their name is, what their major is, etc. I am sure that many of your institutions have some form of this, but I have never found one that had all of the things I wanted.

Luckily for us we live in the age of Google Docs. Using the “form” functionality in Google Docs you can create online surveys that will collect data and save it to a spreadsheet. I have set up what I call the “student info sheet” to collect pertinent student information at the beginning of each semester. What’s great about this is you can send the survey in an email to your students and then they can fill it out and submit it without ever leaving their email client. Alternatively, you can just email them the link or you can embed it on any webpage, like Blackboard. I’ve embedded an example survey at the end of this post. Feel free to try it out. Also, you can download the text of the survey here.

As nice as it is to have all this information about your students it would sure be a whole lot better if there were some photos attached to it. To handle this I have my students email me a photo of themselves with the subject line reading “Photo of _______ ________”. Then I can just search for their name and find the photo I am looking for. If you are worried about email file sizes, you can have your students send the pics to the gmail account you created when you signed up for google docs. There is gigabytes of space to burn with this email service.

But how do we connect the photos with the spreadsheet? Well you have two options 1) you can download the Google Doc spreadsheet of your survey results into Microsoft Excel and then just paste each photo into the appropriate row or 2) you can use a database program. I use a Mac computer and the best database program I’ve found on this platform is Bento. Bento is a dead simple drag and drop database for people, like me, who hate fiddling around with complicated database programs. It is $49, but it synchs with my iPhone and iPad. What I love about Bento is that I can have my photo databases wherever I am as long as I have my phone handy. While I like Bento, there are many database options that for the PC and Mac that are both cheaper and a lot more expensive. Pick the database that works for you.

Beyond the usefulness of the photos, the database has really helped me understand my students. Somehow knowing a students major, or the way they learn best helps me empathize with them. There is a tendency to assume that the reason someone is acting a certain way in your class is because either they hate you, your class, or the subject. However, there is usually another reason for their behavior and I’ve found students will share this reason with you if you ask.

Who is your powerpoint presentation created for? That is, who benefits most from what you put on the slides? Do you put everything a student would need to know to do well on exams? Probably not. When you know a topic like the back of your hand do you put a whole lot of fine details on your slides? Most people don’t. Then who are bullet point slides designed for? Not our students/audience, but for you the presenter. It’s no wonder then that students eyes glaze over by the second slide.

Cognitive Overload:
Bullet point slides ask your students to listen to you, read what they see, and write it down in their notebook. Listen, read, write simultaneously. But the truth is, no one can really multitask, you can only do 3 things half heartedly. You know what I am talking about; the classroom gets silent when you progress your slides forward. If you want to ask a question you have to wait until everyone gets the slide copied in their notes. Bullet points force your students to ignore you. So then are your presentation slides an aide to your instruction or are you an aide to your PowerPoint’s instruction. You can reclaim your class, if you want to.

The Potential in PowerPoint.
Your lecture slides could captivate your students. They could communicate in a simple, straightforward manner a complex concept by using an image or metaphor. Instead of bullet points telling students about a current event, you could show them what it looked like. You could use your slides to convey the emotion connected to your concepts. Your slides could make your students laugh or want to cry. The potential is so amazing that it is near criminal that so many of us are leaving this opportunity on the table. See & download my examples below:

Current Events:

This slides doesn’t tell your class about the two students who spread cotton in front of the Black Culture Center at the University of Missouri, it takes them there. It shows them the smug look on the perpetrators face when they were arrested.

Presenting Concepts Visually:

Social Stratification as explained through rock stratification.

Racial Injustice


Conveying Emotion:

This photo shows the grieving mother of a Muslim American Solider Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan who was killed in Iraq serving his country. I use this photo when we talk about Islamophobia and what it means to be an American.

Graphically Explain Data

“But, My Students Expect To See My Notes”:
This could be put another way: “But, my students expect me to tell them what’s on the test.” This is a dangerous teaching model. It makes you “the expert” with all the information. It also encourages diametric thinking (i.e. that there is only right information and wrong information.) Students with this mindset will hate group work, because why would they want to talk to non-expert students when there is a sage in the room? Students at this level of thinking cannot understand how answers can be partially right or how complex certain situations can be. If you want to encourage higher level thinking you have to break students out of this model and changing your PowerePoints is a straight forward way of doing just that. If you don’t change them, you should ask yourself, “what type of thinking am I preparing my students for?”

I tell my students all the time, “If you want a different type of class, then you have to be a different type of student. I promise you that I will do everything in my power to be a different kind of teacher and make this a different kind of classroom experience.” Different in, different out. If you want a different experience with your students you have to try different things. I say so what if your students expect bullet point slides. Give them a well thought out, interesting, challenging class and they won’t complain that you didn’t follow some unwritten rules.

How You Can Do It:
I use Google Image search and Flickr’s Creative Commons search to find most of my images. These are free resources that you can use as long as you credit the owner or creator of the images (what’s know as attribution in creative commons lingo). Another option that I use a lot is which is a website that has thousands of professional royalty free images for around $5 each. This is less attractive, but if you buy images that can be reused in many classes it can lesson the pain.

This post and all of my lecture slides were inspired by Garr Reynolds’s Amazing book Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery
. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Lastly, I don’t use PowerPoint because I find that program infuriating. If you have a Mac you should at least try Keynote. It makes it dead simple to produce snazzy lecture slides in less time than it takes to fumble through PowerPoint.