Thursday, January 27, 2011

Powerpointless Workshops

Today I put on a workshop for my fellow TA Mentors on Powerpointless Workshops.  While I don't think that using slides is totally evil, it's definitely the case that many people abuse them.  As Matt Might recently said in the context of academic talks:
PowerPoint has kneecapped public speaking.  People no longer "deliver a speech"; they "present slides." 
To me this represents an unfortunate state of affairs.

powerpoint as a comic
powerpoint as a comic by Austin Kleon

To get the workshop started, I asked what the participants usually wanted to get out of workshops they attend.  The consensus (other than the potential for free food) was pretty similar to what I wrote down ahead of time: I want to figure out some new technique or strategy that I can apply in my own work, and I want to somehow experience concretely.  In other words, I don't want to just be told or shown.

Based on this, we discussed some of the interesting activities that we've seen in workshops that help accomplish this.  This point was to ask after brainstorming how many of these things actually needed PowerPoint to be done well.  I was expecting a mix, but to my delight all the examples given fit with my alterior motive.

From there, I talked about some workshops I had done in the past and how they went.  I passed out some of the handouts I has used, including for the workshop I did on Teaching CS Concepts.  Then I moved back into asking for ideas on activities we could do in our own workshops (this felt a little weird since the previous discussion already brought many ideas forward, but we did get more out of the second conversation, so it was worthwhile).

Some of the possibilities that came up:
  • Classics like think-pair-share and group discussions
  • Doing what you are teaching (such as actually grading something in a workshop about grading)
  • Microteaching (see Teaching CS Concepts link above for an example)
  • Starting with a pointed hook (we made up this term to mean that you can have an ice breaker activity or a hook into the talk, but it needs to pack a punch and have a clear point)
  • Write down scenarios or questions on a sheet of paper, cut them up, and give them to groups to discuss; later, present findings to group and discuss
  • Role playing, case studies
  • Games and simulations (especially good for seeing abstract ideas in action)
  • Scavenger hunt (suggested for a mentor who has to present resources available to lab TA's)
  • Creating lists of options, ranking them in terms of amount of effort required, and noting resulting benefit (you can often get good discussion as to why people chose different rankings)
  • Incorporating videos, interactive applets, etc
One of the key points was to find ways to guide the students into learning what you want them to learn, rather than just tell them.

A few general tips that came up:
  • Write an agenda on the board.
  • Use some kind of visual aid, be it a handout, writing on the board, or whatever.
  • Consider the introverts by providing them with opportunities to speak to others in smaller groups (i.e. avoid discussion-only workshops).
  • Determine your key points, then repeat them in your examples and discussions, and even be explicit at some point.
  • Be careful about inserting group activities for the sake of it - always know why you are doing it and why you are doing it at that point in time.
  • There's no need to spell everything out up front, but do try to tie activities back to the main point after they are done.
  • Walk around to groups as they work.  Be friendly so they see you as a peer instead of something checking up on them.
Have any other ideas for things to do during a Powerpointless workshop? Any other tips? I'm sure I missed some!

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