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back to article Handwriting beats PowerPoint's teaching power says MIT boffin

Remember that feeling of struggling to stay awake during university lectures? And not just because of the previous night's imbibing? The same problem affects students in massive online open courses (MOOCs), the free university courses now offered by reputable institutions around the world. Anant Agarwal, a professor of …

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Anonymous Coward

When I was a student, and when I spent a short while teaching electronic engineering at uni, this was my observation:

1) Give the students a bundle of notes as a hand-out (the pre-powerpoint equivalent) and they don't read them until 1-2 weeks before the exam, then they panic and come to you and its too late. FAIL.

2) Use the old-school option of making them take all notes in class and at least at one point they read them, and generally seemed to come to you with questions much earlier when there was still time to explain, revise, etc. PASS

Powerpoint is worse, as the modern style is "3 or so bullet points with bugger all text". Yes, in class you can do the explanation and cover the implications, but almost no one takes notes so you get the same problems.

And by time you have written a neat set of class lectures along with all diagrams and explanations it is a LOT of work. My experience was 2-3 hours to hand-write an hour lecture for my own use, but to do it neatly (with CAD drawings etc) and in full detail to make sense to a student, about 5 times that. At which point you might as well turn it in to a book and sell it...

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Isn't it mostly about how to keep the students involved? Those who presented their long before prepared slides (or hand-outs) were usually the dead boring lecturers anyway.

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Anonymous Coward

Photocopy

Totally disagree students still have the option of photocopying a friends notes.

Students should attend lectures to learn and not become secretaries. Time better spent understanding then strenuous exercise of diction taking.

My lecturer used to provide printed out power point handouts with some information missing.

To engage the students he would ask questions and get us to complete some of the missing information.

What REALLY engaged students on my computing course was that we were taught practical skills that we could be put into use. At the end of a Computing degree many students can write small programs such as an address book. Better students can write big programs such as a simple e-commerce online shop software.

To contrast this what I learned from the electronics department we spent many semesters learning about bridge rectifiers and operational amplifiers. At most at the end of the course a student would be able to wire together a light bulb and battery.

I wised we had learned about micro-controllers. Being able to wire a thermistor to an Analogue to Digital Converter that is wired to the micro controller. Turning on a Fan using a relay. To engage us fully the electronics department failed to provide practical skills. Classic theory taught and in the end producing students that could at most wire together a light bulb and battery. Hardly a nice way to foster tomorrows entrepreneurs.

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Anonymous Coward

The problem is how Powerpoint is used

I've sat through too many turgid corporate presentations where the dense power point slide is near as damn-it the script for the presentation. Putting together a presentation or lecture and effectively presenting ideas is an art I fear we're losing.

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PJI
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Re: Photocopy

Even your courses sound dull. I did not go to university to complete an apprenticeship. I wanted to learn principles, ideas, problem solving so that I could come to grips with future problems, develope ideas, change direction if necessary. Write an ecommerce application? Ugh. My ambitions go a little higher than being a programmer. Now, designing, in detail, with user interfaces, justification, research some hitherto unthought of idea for some really useful task (other than quicker ways to take someone's money), e.g. in cooperation with the biology or foreign languages or architecture or physics or archaeology departments as real "clients". And all you can think about, as a student, is how to write exercises for ecommerce or assembling a circuit board. No wonder the quality of so much computing today is so low.

But then I have a wonderful advantage, by chance: informatics is my fourth career (albeit too long in it now) and had real experience of a life without it. To the amazement of some people, that really is possible, even normal. That experience makes one a far better designer and implementer than the best university apprenticeship-style informatics course where one is taught in isolation from the rest of the world according to the ideas of academics similarly narrow in their experience.

So, the real problem is that students are just bored to tears. It is well known in almost every teaching place and by every tutor that one learns more deeply and faster "through the hand, pen and paper". You can do all the exercises you like learning, say, Spanish grammar, on the computer. But having to write a correct sentence by hand will teach more effectively and more quickly than an hour of ticking multiple choice boxes or selecting from a menu or even typing into the space. Somehow, the hand - brain connection is just more effective.

Of course, Powerpoint is just dull. One sees a thousand, all looking essentially the same and most fairly content-free, apart from pretty effects and lots of circles, squares, arrows and no time to understand what is meant, if anything.

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>...by time you have written a neat set of class lectures along with all diagrams and explanations it is a LOT of work.

These days students pay a lot of money for it.

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Anonymous Coward

PJI - Apprenticeship

At university you learn more than just programming which accounts for just 20-30% of the course when taking various modules and the final year project into account.

You learn Human Computer Interaction: Designing future Human - Computer Interfaces.

Formal Methods: A field of study is trying to develop methods that will eliminate failed software projects.

Having worked in the IT industry nearly 70% of software projects end in failure or severe functionality curbing.

Computer Vision: An area which is trying to make meaning of images captured by cameras. You will put your theories into practice by writing prototypes. Theories put in practice are better than Theories which may or may not be correct.

Being able to program gives you an appreciation for the modules you learn. In essence computing/ electronics is the study of Mass Management of switches. Modules such as Object Oriented Programming teach how you can write programs of greater complexity at the same time maintaining readability. If your a programmer you will appreciate this more.

To say those that actually learnt something of value is an apprenticeship is totally incorrect. If you want to educate the secretaries of the future go ahead.

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Boffin

I agree with the make-them-take-notes: as a student I fairly rapidly discovered that just writing stuff down during the lectures (ie taking notes) made a huge difference, even if there were notes handed out (for a hard-science degree if it matters).

It may be that there are people who can get away without this, but I never met any: my suspicion is that you can get away without writing notes in lectures only in easy subjects.

It turns out that there are al sorts of subtleties with this though. One thing that lecturers tend to do is to make use of the fact that both blackboards and whiteboards are mutable: if you have some big complicated equation and you need a slight variant of it, you can rub out various bits and create the variant. But the people taking notes can't do this, and get completely screwed each time you do it, as they have to write the whole thing out again. Later in my course when there were fewer of us and we knew the lecturers better, we would tell them to stop when they did this so we could catch up.

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Anonymous Coward

PowerPoint Slides or Handwritten Notes still wont alter the skill level of most electronics graduates.

Most will struggle to put together an AM Radio after graduation. A DC power adapter is about as complex a product they can make. That is because they have seen the circuit required for it which is nothing but a step down transformer coil, some diodes and capacitors.

What happens when they are asked to build something they haven't seen before?

Many semesters and modules spent learning circuit analysis techniques such as Nortan and Thenevin's Theorem yet not able to build anything of practical value. Is it any wonder this country does not have much of an electronics industry. The companies we have just put parts together from the Far East.

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That's rather the point.

Hopefully, when you've completed the work, you have a good understanding (or at least memory) of the material.

Interleaving is key. It gives time for the students to catch up and have a bit of a think about what they are looking at.

Education is about learning knowledge, skills and thought processes. Computers are used to remove the need for most of that.

Writing on a bit of paper provides the chance to scribble notes, scrawl arrows, underline and so on. Yes a computer can do all that, but not as quickly and rarely in such a free-form manner. Typing is generally faster, but typing is about presentation, not learning.

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The article reminded me of the text books on electronics written by Forest M Mims III

Link to a picture of one his book pages: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forrest_Mims#Author

An interesting bloke, worth spending five minute reading about. He made an analogue computer in high school, then a navigation aid for his blind grandfather using infra-red LEDs, and developed an interest in amateur rocketry (which caused some panic since he was posted in Vietnam at the time).

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I still have at least one of those Tandy/Radio Shack books he wrote and its excellent .. I still use lab style graph paper notebooks ... It's so much easier to use illustrations in notes then and make them look good. I don't see the point of PowerPoint, I craft my emails like documents with bullet points, appropriate white space, technical terms where appropriate and plain English. I craft up network diagrams in word (which is all its good for) and not Visio as that suffers from 'detailed image'itish for specific models of kit when really just a box saying 'firewall' suffices ... Less is more.

I think technical books still have a tendency to suffer from Victorian font syndrome, I.e. why use one font when five different ones at different sizes will do! I love the early O'reilly books and the Stevens' unix / networking tomes, true classics as to how to present ideas.

I need to understand the network security of a new data centre deployment and so I'm creating a giant overview diagram to illustrate the spreadsheets of vlan and IP address allocations ... Funnily enough the architects want a copy.

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Its amazing how people don't get it.

I have one friend who occasionally send me one long paragraph, a rant about all the different issues and annoyances he is currently suffering with his PC... I keep trying to educate him about bullet-points - or even just line breaks - but it doesn't seem to sink in. I try to get him to look at the way (some) instruction manuals, texts-books or magazines are laid out to clearly present information, but no...

On another note:

One small backward step we have is that many of us use webmail through a browser, depriving us of the line indent traditionally associated with the Tab key.

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Degree of difficulty to decode

The Reg posted a story a few years back highlighting research that found harder to read serif fonts resulted in better memory consolidation than san serif fonts. It concluded that if the brain was having to 'work harder' to decode the text, then it was better able to comprehend and remember the content.

Extrapolating from this research, it's reasonable to consider that students witnessing their old-skool lecturer's handwritten scrawlings gradually appear on the board are going to have to make an effort to read it and quite possibly be using their brain to anticipate what is being written. Both of these activities are likely to improve comprehension and recall.

Anything which gets these lazy powerpoint lecturers actually doing some work once in a while has to be a good thing. Lead by example.

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Re: Degree of difficulty to decode

"harder to read serif fonts resulted in better memory consolidation than sans serif fonts. It concluded that if the brain was having to 'work harder' to decode the text, then it was better able to comprehend and remember the content."

Is it really the 'difficulty to decode', or just that you read more slowly and therefore give your brain that extra time to comprehend? I found that the speed of presentation in a lecture is crucial. There need to be some breaks to allow everybody to digest the information. This can be done independent of the tools (Powerpoint or other) -- but an old-fashioned blackboard lecture has the delays built-in via the writing speed.

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Re: Degree of difficulty to decode

I'd always thought that serif fonts were generally easier to read because they have additional redundant information, which make it easier to recognise glyphs from their distinctive features. That's why the classic book faces such as Caslon and Garamond were developed, which are easy on the eye. At low resolution, however, serif faces can be harder to read than sans because the details are inconsistently rendered and they look scrappy.

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Re: Degree of difficulty to decode

Legibility is actually a complex issue. Different fonts have different advantages depending on the situation. Bell Centennial is the font used in US phone books and was designed to be legible in very small sizes yet be tolerant of high speed printing and low quality paper; that is smuging, feathering, winnowing, etc. In my Atari 800 days I even had a font that allowed 80 columns on a TV screen though it took some practice to be able to read. In the case of education, visual interest is important. A font that is pleasing to the eye can help engage the reader. There are fonts that are legible in extremely small sizes that are frankly ugly and jarring to look at.

Legibility should be an aspect of fonts rather than a goal. A font should be beautiful to look at yet legible enough for its situation.

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PowerPoint is a time-sink.

Not just for the observer ... it's worse for the "manager" or "teacher" trying to build a compelling presentation.

I, for one, have never in my entire life, met a single person who "relied on Power Point" who wasn't completely superfluous to the organization. As a consultant, if a middle-manager is introduced to me as "our Power Point expert", that manager is usually the first to be fired. Power Point has wasted more man-hours, more CPU cycles and more meeting-dollars than any other line of purely corporate bullshit that I can remember in my over a third of a century of trying to get Corporate America to work efficiently with computers.

It's worse in schools. The poor kiddies are taught "this is how it is!" ... and go on to perpetrate it. Methinks Anant might be one of the saner folks at MIT ...

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Go

Powerpoint poisioning

In the dim and distance past I remember several styles of teaching:

1) Stand at the front and speak, no visual aids or hand outs - generally terrible as you can't write as fast as they can speak. Sometimes brilliant but that's rare.

2) Repeating what your slides/overheads said. Again you can't keep up and anyway there is evidence you don't remember well if you have the same visual and audio input.

3) Handouts with some detail on and you have to full out the blanks and scribble round. You then listen to what is said and annotate your hand outs - GOOD, always my favourite as you get the detail and human interaction without having to worry about keeping up.

4) Complete handouts - why bother with the lecturer?

5) Dictated notes, not much difference from 4 except you have to write them yourself.

Creating good presentations and lectures requires skill as it involves multiple skills but I'd say that PowerPoint is probably the least useful of skills in the mix. So the article probably has some truth to it.

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Happy

Other sources

I am a (rather mature) student of the University of the Highlands and Islands, which is described as a collegiate university spread across an area the size of Belgium. (They don't give the area in Waleses.) All lectures are delivered via video conferencing, so there are many years of experience in this teaching delivery here. One of the best lecturers I have had is an archaeologist, who has a three-part routine, some talking where you see him, some powerpoint, and then he stops to take questions. This little pause makes all the difference. While MOOCs may not be as interactive as we enjoy in UHI, there may be ways of replicating this practice.

They're right to think about lecturer technique when delivering via communication technology, though. Some lecturers are awful at it, but some really have a knack, just as in face-to-face lectures.

By the way, from a technology perspective, the "VC Masters," who for UHI are based in Shetland, have been utterly brilliant. In the early days, they even helped me to access their Tandberg systems using Ekiga, as I am not anywhere near a UHI college. I was expecting academic (or BOFH) preciousness when asking for something outside their supported environment, but I got a real willingness to help. I have learnt how important their services are to a good learning experience. When the VC is dodgy, your ability to learn drops markedly, so to students, their services are important. Interestingly, they're rather taken aback after getting a thank you email from me every semester.

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and ...

handwritten stuff requires one to actually concentrate:

1 - stuff appears letter by letter rather than sentence by sentence (or in the worst case scenario of many PP's page by page)

2- the slide (board) is not complete until it's ... well complete

3 - handwriting is much more difficult to interpret than typed text because most of us do not write in Times New Roman or similar

Powerpoints on the other hand are mostly in my opinion and experience a big yawn

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Khan academy

.....uses hand drawn notes for all the maths - seems to be quite effective

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Megaphone

it depends on what you want

If you're educating to create a workforce, regardless of industry, then there is one way to do it. If you're educating for the sake of knowledge and learning then there's another.

If you watch almost any of the lectures given with the late, great genius Richard Feynman you will get a sense of how to do the latter. He knew that making people understand was the key - if you get your point across as a set of first principles and teach people how to apply those and you manage to get your students to "get it" then you've won. Of course this only applies to those subjects that have a genuine basis from which those first principles come, so bollocks to the soft subjects.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: one way to do it, [but] there's another

True, but different students also can have learn different earning styles. A course that follows some kind of unitary"optimal method" might work for many students, but be poorly matched to a significant minority.

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Anonymous Coward

Quality of Teaching

Teaching of classical electronics produces nothing more than students that are able to recognize a set of inputs and produce a set of outputs. Not much real understanding, those with good memory do well in exams.

When tasked with producing a Real World product even having access to reference books totally trips up such students. They have never seen such inputs and are unable to produce the desired output.

Students should be taught real understanding of subjects so that they are in a position of writing the text books of tomorrow that students will learn from.

My teacher in junior school used to teach Pythagoras and geometry using a method of experiment and discovery. We would draw squares on triangles and discover Hypotenuse Squared is equal to Side Squared + Side Squared. She could have just told us the Formula but that would just produce robot students that are incapable of developing anything for themselves.

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Re: Quality of Teaching

I was taught Pythagoras' Theorem exactly the same way, back when I was nine or ten. I can still see it in my mind's eye; it stuck with me because it was such a perfect illustration of the idea. The other one which stands out (from secondary school) is the use of integration to derive the formulae for areas and volumes from first principles instead of just having to memorise the bloody things.

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Re: Quality of Teaching

I'm a bit confused by talk of experiment and discovery in mathematics - don't you just prove it?

A bit of a problem when you cover Goldbach's Conjecture, I admit. There we may be stuck with experiments.

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Re: Quality of Teaching

I take it you're on about a triangle with the three squares attached to its sides? I'm going to fess up and say I've never understood that. It was always presented as profound. But it's just numerology; the fluke of an equation. In fact you can do it with any similar shape (wikipedia has some examples with triangles and pentagons instead of squares). And, equally, you can draw many formulas geometrically. That picture is a symptom and worshipping it obscures the deeper truths.

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Anonymous Coward

At university we were Not told how to produce the programs we had to write.

After given a problem set a students own creativity was required to help complete exercises set.

The basic syntax and semantics of programming language were taught but problem solving was left to the student. The tutors would guide student how to develop a problem solving mindset.

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Boffin

He just discovered the 3 minute attention span.

And now to something completely different.

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Childcatcher

Irrespective of content

Powerpoint is the work of the devil. Check out Charlie Stross for proof.

We won't even mention Edward Tufte: http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=0001yB

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Holmes

Open University 2.0?

Has anybody thought about asking the Open University for some advice? They've been doing this for several decades now, even if they started out with boring old telly broadcasts, not exciting new MOOCs.

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Re: Open University 2.0?

>Has anybody thought about asking the Open University for some advice?

Or even asking (retired) lecturer's what they did before Powerpoint ...

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Handwriting

After many years sitting at a keyboard typing code, my handwriting has deteriorated to the point of illegibility. Most of the vowels are implied, and many of the consonants identical. It's just as well I'm not a lecturer.

What's more, my hand starts to ache after about half a page. I hate those interviews where you have to complete a handwritten test against the clock.

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Re: Handwriting

You're lucky, I get a cramp while simply signing my name.. I've considered creating a new signature card at my bank and changing my signature to ".".

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Boffin

Of course if you are using Powerpoint ...

Then almost by definition you are not teaching a hard science or maths, since your notes presumably have little or no mathematical content.

The same goes for printed notes to a great extent: even with the best tool (some TeX variant) creating anything typeset with significant mathematical content is a *lot* of work.

Hand writing maths, on the other hand is very easy since it was designed to be hand-written.

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Lectures

I only taught a few college classes but one thing I observed is that students have short attention spans. I was most successful when I alternated between lecturing for 10 minutes at the whiteboard and putting the cap on my marker, waking away from the board, and telling an amusing observation or anecdote related to the subject or encouraging questions. I think 10 minutes is about the limit of most college student's attention span so alternating between intense lecture and leisurely discussion worked best.

There are few things worse than professors reading power point presentations or simply reading the lecture notes they handed out to the class.

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Happy

Agile Studying

I bet the odds are fairly high that the people who don't take notes are the same people that don't document their code...

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Re: Agile Studying

I'll take that bet. I have never taken notes in school. But I'm semi-eidetic, and don't need to. I can still re-create entire teacher-generated chalkboards full of math(s) from my O and A level studies, and that was over thirty years ago. (I used to drive my teachers absolutely [mad|nuts]).

But I still document my code, almost to a fault. Why? Because I dislike describing to folks without my affliction what is bloody obvious to me ... Yes, it's an affliction. Imagine not being able to forget anything. Welcome to my hell ...

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I avoided lectures altogether

once I worked out that if I borrowed a friends lecture notes and copied them I learned more - you tend to believe a lecturer but your colleagues work you check! He got checked notes ( so a bit like agile programming) and I found a 50 minute lecture took 30 minutes to do so I saved a good hour or more a day of sitting in seats designed for dwarves and even more from not shuffling around campus.

Power Point seems to suffer from the same problem of most office software - the end result always seems to a way of encrypting information one way into page shaped things that just dont work on computers.

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