My Students are Not Missing the (Power) Point

by Nathan Loewen, Department of Religious Studies

Dr. Loewen's large lecture classroom
A collaborative workshop in REL 100

I met Ollie Dreon at The Teaching Professor Technology Conference last week, thanks to a travel grant from CCS. His recent blog post, “Hating on PowerPoint: My Take,” confirms that I am doing the right thing this term. My 153-student REL 100 course makes no use of that now-ubiquitous program.

I used to be a power-pointy power user. But in 2010 I first started thinking about how students miss the point, when General Stanley McChrystal banned PowerPoint briefings because the platform cannot successfully communicate dynamic complexity. One of my overall teaching objectives is to encourage students to learn how to deal analytically with ambiguity. The data of religious studies is rife with it, and I think that an introductory course needs to provide handles for grappling with the difficulty of re-conceptualizing what is commonly called “religion.”

I did not return to the thought until early this year, when I began my assistant professorship at UA and started reviewing #HASTAC2014, where I read: “Students learn what college is by watching what occurs. Students learn bad PowerPoint by watching profs (sadly) @BJ_Daugherty ‪#‎hastac2014‬” (Jay Clayton, @Cheeryble2). Edward Tufte confirms Daugherty’s observation: “information architectures mimic the hierarchical structure of the bureaucracy producing those architectures” (“The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”). Unless I wish for my students to think like 1980’s corporate programmers, PowerPoint is not for me.

As Paul Ralph notes, there are three major pedagogical problems with the platform:

  1. Slides discourage complex thinking.
  2. Slides risk students thinking of a course as a set of slides.
  3. Slides discourage reasonable expectations.

If my objectives include expecting complex thinking from my students and myself, I decided, the platform has got to go.

So what happens in my class? Do I have a “no laptops” rule, for example? No, there are plenty of laptops. It is now mid-term, and the introductory phase of my course plan is making way for the development of analytical abilities.

My REL 100 students prepared for class by reading a textbook chapter and a blog post. When our class convened on October 8, the students used Blackboard Learn to form self-selected groups of three to five persons (thanks to Erin Warner at CIT!). Each group then accessed a page within Blackboard with instructions for discussion and the production of three tables based on the data in their discussions. My GTA and I then roamed among the three dozen groups to answer questions and check in on their progress. Next class, we will return to the results of that workshop with another layer of analysis.

Earlier in the term, the class sessions typically involved discussions of the whole. I regularly used a series of images to locate our topics and launch our discussions. In the example below, you can see my CrimsonMail Google Drive folder for a class on essentialist theories of religion, which culminated in a close reading of a selected text by Rudolf Otto.

Documents and images in Dr. Loewen's Google Drive
Can you guess the progression of our discussion?

The students are not missing my point about the lack of PowerPoint. Aside from requests for accommodation from ODS, no students have asked me for slides, notes, etc. They realize that paying attention to what happens in class and taking personal notes is their responsibility. What do you think? Am I missing something?

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