Learning from our students

Sometimes we overlook the obvious, so eager are we to begin our taught sessions where time is at a premium, and it takes our students to pull us up short.

We know who we are, we know a university as prestigious as Loughborough would not ask us to teach without checking our credentials for such a key role, and yet sometimes we forget the most basic of essentials.

Students from PHIR and Social Sciences collaboratively exploring with staff ways of engaging students when teaching large groups said respect was essential, and produced one simple tip. “To earn our respect, tell us who you are. Please introduce yourself.” Continue reading

Flipping wonderful, or too good to be true?

Flipping – a way to develop student deeper learning and engagement as well as higher quality work or too good to be true?

Speakers and the Art of Flipping workshop showed flipping can be a useful tool to support the development of deep rather than surface learning. This brief look at the workshop organised under a Teaching Innovation Award by Dr. Mark Jepson (Materials), Dr. Simon Hogg (Materials) and Dr. Nicola Jennings (Chemistry) looks at what flipping is, and how it could work for you and more importantly for your students.

What is flipping?

Flipping is part of a process which moves from didactic knowledge transmission in large lectures to use contact time for the lecturer to bring his/her knowledge to bear on those concepts or specifics that students have identified as problematic. Students pre-engage with the transmission of knowledge before the lecture, either by reading, and/or listening to a podcast or video of material. They take ownership of the content by identifying what they find clear and what they do not.

Some academics may already be taking just this approach. However, for those who want to explore the idea the workshop was a great introduction.

Dr. David Dye, Reader in Metallurgy at Imperial College, records 15-minute single-concept videos in his office with a white board (and all-important board rubber). He posts them online and then asks students to complete a short online quiz/test after viewing. The last question asks what they want further explained. He then addresses those areas in the lecture, getting students to peer instruct each other, explaining their own understanding. As they discuss Dye moves round the room, identifying areas of confusion and explanations given before delivering his summation. In this way each student is directly, actively involved in their learning. Continue reading

Biting the Bullet: ending Death by PowerPoint (II): images to convey meaning, retention and attention


The heart of my challenge to Death by PowerPoint (DBP) is images. Many others use pictures; most frequently it is an image that accompanies text and is descriptive. It normally is a subset to the slide and the text. My use of images inverts this. I use images as the illustrator and conveyor of complex social relationships, and as the means of generating and retaining attention and engagement. My images fill the entire slide and are accompanied by text in moderation. The Golden Rule is no more than 7 words for any one slide.

Writers in academia (Mayer et al) argue that our brains can process images and words simultaneously, and that this helps our learning and recall. Taking it out of academic research and into the ‘real world’, we find that the top end of the business world, they;re a long way ahead of us. They, and academics, are engaged in similar pursuits: to convey social ideas in visual form. Believing in Mayer’s findings, and seeing how much better good images are than a PPT slide filled with text, I adopted business methods. I read key texts like Presentation Zen and adopted key elements, like ‘less is more’, white space, simplicity and clarity.

So to briefly recap, I use images for 3 reasons

  1. To engage attention
  2. To retain attention
  3. To translate the literal to the figurative (images to communicate social meaning)

The images are very large, by which I man that they cover the whole of the slide, and are also high resolution. File sizes can get a lot bigger. I have been told that I don’t need to use such large images, but I have not found that smaller size images are as clear as larger files. I think it’s important to have crystal clear, high quality, high resolution images. I think anything else looks less professional.

When I have defined in my mind the concept I want to communicate, I look for it using Google’s Advanced Image Search facility. Finding the right slide can be hard and is sometimes down to luck as much as deliberation, but it has become easier and faster the more I do it. However, sometimes I can’t find the right image, and I make my own. I am still an amateur at this, but the School of Arts has been helping me get the basics of Photoshop. My first effort is here; it’s a bit corny, perhaps, but I am using to chart the evolution of my practice

UN flag bullet holes

I wanted to convey the idea that UN peacebuilding was in trouble. It was in the light of a variety of disasters, from Haiti and Somalia to allegations of corruption, sex trafficking and so on. There were hundreds of lovely, compelling images of UN vehicles against a nice sky, or wrecked helicopters, but they didn’t connect for me. Instead, I got a grunge version of the UN flag and made that the slide background in PPT, and then cut some bullet holes from a free image using Photoshop, and pasted them onto the PPT slide.

I wanted to convey the sense that critics were contending that peacebuilding wasn’t building peace and that the UN approach was ontologically flawed, perhaps ruinously for some countries. I wanted the image to tell the students about an issue with the UN. In my view, it’s basic. But I made do and I think it works well enough. This was an early attempt. Looking back, it feels fairly primitive, but it set me on a path I have pursued to the point that I am learning to use Photoshop for the creation of my own digital art. I found a hobby in the process.

As I prepared for one particular lecture, on domestic violence, I wanted to see if I could find or create an image that would convey the idea that violence isn’t usually, or even mostly, physical. I used this image in the first blog, but want to use it again because of its value in explaining what I am talking about, and what I am feeling.

The literature on Domestic Violence, or Intimate Partner Violence as it is sometimes called, suggests that controlling men often use words and threats to manipulate, constrain, dominate and oppress their partners. To students with no experience of this, it isn’t always obvious and it isn’t always easy. I found by chance elsewhere an image that really showed this, without being simple and reductionist, and I was hooked on a process I had connected with.

domestic violence1

I wondered what else there was out there that could convey social complexity with such visual simplicity and clarity. I began to use search terms that expressed the concept, rather than the description, of what I was trying to impart. It’s sometimes easier than others and it’s sometimes time-consuming. But you only have to do it once for each lecture, unless you change the concepts you’re teaching. There are examples of such images in the relevant ReView section, entitled ‘images’.

I also particularly like the way that an aerial image of Chicago, taken by a passenger landing at O’Hare, makes Chicago look as if there is only a small centre to the city, made of skyscrapers; the snow has effectively flattened the rest of the city, disguising the depth of buildings lower than 6 stories and leaving what look like foundations. I use this image to convey to people who have always lived in urban areas, what Amazonian deforestation would look like if it applied to the cityscapes they are normally familiar with.

In another, which featured originally as an advert for the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), a digitally created image shows a giant oil drum spilling its contents into a river through a vibrant, modern city; a beautiful representation of industrial pollution. In yet another, a topless Muslim  woman demonstrating on a public street, being kicked by a passing man, ironically reveals the purpose of the anti-patriarchal violence slogan on her breasts.man kicking muslim topless woman

My favourite (probably because of my connection to Viet Nam) is an image of Le Duc Tho, the chief negotiator between the US and Viet Nam in 1973, relaxing, smiling, a humane foil for the millions of inhumane  ‘enemy images’ that reduced ‘the Viet Namese’ to ‘savages’ and ‘gooks’ or ‘dinks’. For students who have only ever been presented with Viet Nam as a war, such images allow recognition of the human in the alien ‘Other’, sometimes creating empathy and connection with those who have been discursively dismissed from the category of humanity. A smiling, gentle face on a savage enemy challenges conventions and forces critical thinking.

Le Duc Tho

There are some other images that display the capacity for translating the literal to the figurative in the ReView item. I realized I wanted abstract images and came upon DeviantArt. I use a variety of images from there, and copyright has been provided by the artist in question, for limited use in lectures, on writing to them.

The technical side is easier. I use Google Advanced Image Search, which allows me to set parameters like copyright, picture orientation, picture size (in terms of resolution and therefore quality), colour vs. black & white, and so on. I always use ‘larger than 800 x 600’. I’ve found it useful to do two things once I’ve found the slide (apart from carefully noting the copyright provision). First, I change the slide layout to ‘blank’, to remove unwanted placeholders (since I’ll be custom crafting text and text animation).  Second, rather than using the ‘insert’ facility to drop in an image, I embed it in the slide. The reason I do this is because I apply text over the top of the image, and I want to avoid clicking on the image and accidentally moving it when I’m trying to work on a text box. So, I change the layout to BLANK, then RIGHT CLICK on the slide, FORMAT BACKGROUND, PICTURE FILL and then upload your image. The image is then fixed solidly in the slide.

I’m lucky to have spare time to do this; I am finding it is releasing a creative side to me I didn’t know existed and I am enjoying myself. Sure, I’m playing; but the student feedback to date has been extremely encouraging, and I have had the highest number of ‘Firsts’ in my Final Year Option in 20 years. My teaching has never been so well remarked upon, and I want to better understand why, and to develop this further. I’m only just starting to learn this myself, and I’m having a lot of fun and getting pedagogic results too.

I better discuss copyright at this point. There’s a very helpful guide here. It can be complex. And sometimes I can’t find the source of an image and its copyright. Some images are plastered all over the web without any indication of their origin. I can’t use them unless I can trace them, and most of the time I can.

But the safest – and least pedagogically effective in my experience – way is to set the filters in Google’s Advanced Image Search to a Creative Commons license or similar. This means you get the freebies. There are some amazing images out there we can use for free. But the best images are rarely gratis. That’s why I don’t use the filter. I find the best image and then I find a way I can legally use it. Sometimes, I buy the license myself. Often, that’s only a few pounds, and license is then taken care of. The University has image banks but again, they are rarely as good as the best stuff out there. On other occasions, I have identified the creator of the image and emailed them to ask if I can use their image for a lecture, once a year, where the image appears for maybe a few minutes, and is restricted to internal circulation (off-web). Each request I have made has been granted; the artists are often curious to know what the purpose is and we wind up learning from each other – them about what I do, and me about how they did it. I’ve been grated copyright by major news outlets, by radical digital artists and by individual painters. But if I can’t get copyright one way or another, I can’t use it. That’s sometimes a great shame; but there’s nearly always something else that will do the job nearly as well. I find it really stimulating, seeking the images out, heading down one alley only to find a dead-end – that leads me to my perfect image.

Biting the Bullet: ending Death by PowerPoint, part 1

This blog is concerned with using PowerPoint (PPT) better in lecturing. By better, I mean in accordance with the latest scholarly research in the use of Multi Media Learning (MML); in conjunction with emerging practice in the world of business; and in rejection of the terminally embarrassing ‘Death by PowerPoint’. The blog can be read in association with ReView material on the LU servers here –  a five part video interview between me and Professor Helen Drake (also in PHIR).

We chose this format because it allows an exploration and ‘flowering’ of the idea and the process I am referring to. It’s not a technical manual; it explores, using the approach I am blogging about, the evolution of the idea and its application in  learning and teaching (L&T).  I should make it clear that this is NOT my idea. I stand as ever on the shoulders of giants, and have adapted the design philosophy used with great success in the commercial world, to my world.

There are three elements to the ensuing blog: use of images, reduction of slide text, and addition of animation. Combined, this can generate attention, retention, engagement and comprehension.

This is an example of digital deployed for teaching purposes

This is an example of digital deployed for teaching purposes

I started using PPT 15 years ago. It was bland: fancy slide backgrounds that clashed with dense, badly-coloured text. Unfortunately, across academia, and across industry and business too, little has changed. Surveying academics’ PPT lectures online, seeing various colleagues’ lectures in past institutions, and attending conferences here and in the US, I came to know and fear ‘Death by PowerPoint’ (DBP). It’s worth an acronym if only because of its omnipresence; and it’s appearing in lecture halls near you.

UK Universities share at least one aspect of pedagogy in common. Almost every department, every school, every teaching team, uses PowerPoint. The most important medium through which we perform our primary task of imparting knowledge and understanding is – and this isn’t going to make me many friends – almost universally bad. Or perhaps I should say, falls short of what it could be.

The image below is of a commemorative creation that shows how the lack of recognition of and justice for Korean ‘comfort women’ has imprisoned them in their societies and themselvescomfort-women-museum

Some of us lag behind the latest pedagogical research on MML, and are far behind emerging standards in the world of business presentations. Dated slide backgrounds that clash with your retinas; students overwhelmed with suffocating text; a near-universal refusal to engage with SmartArt (a tool in PowerPoint that allows for limited improvements in design and attractiveness). It can’t be long before students start asking why we aren’t doing it like they do it on the Slideshare.net channel. Students are paying for ‘excellence’ in teaching and we are famous in The Student Room for ghastly PPT. We can do better, and easily.


The image above can be used as a critique of ‘independence’ and ‘decolonization’ in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is very helpful when discussing the difference between post-colonial and the post-colony, for instance.

Outside academia, organizations like Article 10 have sprung up to show people how it can be done better. In the best corners of the corporate sector, where imagination and flair run riot, presentations are appearing that knock your socks off. They may mesh Zen simplicity with minimal text, or they may use digital art to convey complex social issues by converting the literal to the figurative. They may be simple and use white space and a few words (the key rule is no more than 5-7 words per slide). But what they all do is draw on Cognate Load Theory.

Richard Mayer, at the University of California, notes that, in accordance with decades of existing knowledge, people learn more quickly and better from words and pictures, than from words alone, because humans are dual processors of text and images.[1] His findings claim that learning happens best when images are combined with words. In addition, Ruth Clark and Chopeta Lyons[2] tell us that graphics (images, for example) can:

  • draw attention to important elements in an instructional display [to] minimize divided attention
  • minimize extraneous mental work imposed on working memory during learning
  • help learners construct new memories in long-term memory that support deeper understanding of content
  • promote deeper understanding
  • make material interesting and at the same time do not depress learning

I use the above image to discuss the plurality of views within the US regarding intervention in Viet Nam and non-intervention in Syria. I also use it to refer to the lack of social justice for American servicemen and women returning home from Southeast Asia. It could be applied in any case of US foreign policy that generates divided views on the home front.

More than this, images can be used to express, illustrate and convey complex social relationships, and this can be potent when combined with limited text, and an academic’s expertise. In this blog, I will be discussing the use of attractive, high quality and carefully-chosen (and copyright-correct) images to retain attention, in conjunction with minimized, animated text. It’s animated to exploit our predatory eye reflexes, away from Facebook or iPhones and all the other sources of digital distraction with which we compete in lecture theatres for students’ attention. So it isn’t about using small images in the bottom or top corner of a slide as ‘add-ons’ to slides filled with text; it’s the use of digital imagery and art to convey a social concept through vizualisation: images and art that can convert the literal to the figurative and stimulate attention, retention and understanding. And if we’re lucky, they might even enjoy it too.

democracy NATO

This last image I use to generate critical thinking about Liberal intervention in Europe (it could also be applied elsewhere with minor digital adjustments). This kind of image is useful in visualizing to help overcome hubris and hegemonic propaganda concerning Western European claims to neutrality in international interventions that kill civilians in large numbers. For many of this generation who know of it, NATO is only ever the ‘good guy’; but a more careful reading of the literature suggests there are two sides to this story, one of which is less than palatable and predominantly overlooked or concealed through an uncritical press.

The next blog looks at how images can be chosen and applied to pedagogical aspirations. Thanks for reading 🙂

[1] Mayer, R (2009). Multi-media Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.9

[2] Ruth Clark and Chopeta Lyons (2010). Graphics for Learning: Proven Guidelines for Planning, Designing, and Evaluating Visuals in Training Materials. Oxford: Wiley


Not as easy as it looks…

To the people out there that sSammy's Lectureay delivering a lecture is easy, think again. I can now say this from experience! As the Graduate Intern in the Teaching Centre I’ve been involved in lots of different elements of Learning and Teaching at Loughborough and I have to say I never imagined I’d actually ever give a lecture. However, the time came when I was required to deliver a session to students on the e-portfolio tool I have been trialling called Mahara.

At first I was really quite nervous about it but of course I’m situated in the best place on campus to advise me on this! The Accredited Course team on one side, Quality Enhancement on the other and the great know-how of the E-learning team, I was always going to pull it off.

I planned my session in advance and worked out timings and lesson objectives. I created screencast tutorial videos to put on the Learn page as extra resources for them to refer to throughout the course. I also used ReVIEW and captured the session so it could be watched back for anything the students had missed.

In summary, standing in front of 100 students delivering content and trying not to talk too fast was fairly daunting, but my preparation and advice from colleagues really helped. I think my next step will be to re-watch the session and to see if there is anything I can improve on for next time!

Teaching for the first time

If you’re a first-time teacher, perhaps a PhD student who has been asked to do a few hours, you may well find the prospect pretty daunting. The Teaching at Kent blog, run by Kate Bradley, has a series of posts aimed at first-time teachers in which experienced lecturers answer some of the questions you’re likely to have, such as ‘How do I avoid getting overwhelmed by emails?’ Take a look at http://blogs.kent.ac.uk/teachingatkent/2012/08/27/teaching-for-the-first-time-faq-part-four/ .

In a similar vein, my Teaching Centre colleague Carol Newbold and I have been recording a series of video interviews with experienced lecturers here at Lougborough, offering advice (particularly useful for new lecturers) on teaching large groups. The interviews include this clip in which Howard Denton talks about making effective use of Powerpoint.