Sunday, February 10, 2019

Animation in Live Presentation

I'm an academic who teaches (and performs research!) at a university. Like me, more often than not, everybody who stayed in academia to be a professor experienced numerous lecture-style classes as an undergraduate student (and beyond…) and:

  • we already excelled at learning by listening and taking notes, or
  • we learned how to excel in this style of learning environment

This isn't the best way to ensure high-quality and engaging experiences for all learners. However, given increases (at least in my department and university) in the number of students enrolling, and given the lack in funding for infrastructure upgrades (read: new rooms with more seats), we face the same issue we teachers always seem to face: larger enrollments in our classes.

Instead of complaining about situations that are usually perceived as sub-optimal (putting it mildly), I always prefer to take an optimistic view. I see rising course enrollments as an opportunity and a challenge to innovate how I teach. I will still make the best of the time I have with my students.

Today, I'm thinking about a topic that I've been thinking (and writing) about quite a bit recently: how to perform engaging lectures. Now, that concept will sound like a contradiction to many of you. Additionally, many of us already think we present the most engaging lectures already. Nevertheless, I hope you'll read a bit more for what I hope will be a new(-to-you) spin on one technique that might help you help students understand concepts in your discipline that involve processes, flowcharts, networks, and the like.

A brief tangent (or not…)

In the past, my posts on the topic of creating an engaging classroom have focused on a few observations I've made:

  1. When students have your "lecture slides" (if you pre-prepare them), then they know what content you expect to cover for the class period, and so they don't ask as many questions because they know you want to finish that content before the end of class
  2. I spend waaaaaay too much time "preening" my lecture slides to make them as awesome (I think) as possible before class - I could be doing other, professionally-useful, things with that time

With these two points in mind, I realize now that making a set of class slides in advance subconsciously limited me. I felt like I had spent so much time perfecting the presentation already, when I got to class, I really resisted deviating from all of the great things I (thought I had) prepared for my students. In retrospect, this limited me from following avenues of exploration and discussion that might have been more pertinent (and engaging) to my class populace. These, which some might call tangents, might be the opportunities we all should seize!

Thus, I've written about "lecture improv" and the ability to use mobile technology to assemble digital content on the fly to create more dynamic and (I think) engaging in-class experiences:

TL/DR: the basic tenet of the above posts is that we educators should definitely prepare for class, but not by preparing lecture slides. Instead, we could spent that prep time assembling and curating digital resources (e.g. pictures, data, diagrams…) that we can draw on during class to support the learning objective(s) of the day. By not presenting them to students, in advance, in a strict order, I've since found that students are more willing to ask questions and to suggest new avenues of discussion.

A great tool for making engaging visual presentations on the fly

I love using the ExplainEverything app to present visual material during class. I've written extensively about this app, most notably:

After I wrote that post (five years ago now), ExplainEverything added a feature that I only began to appreciate in the last few weeks: Stealth Zoom. I learned about this tool when I became an Apple Distinguished Educator and attended a workshop hosted by the creator of ExplainEverything. That was over two years ago, but still I only just last week used it for the first time!

Brief background on this app: ExplainEverything lets you use a mobile device as a digital whiteboard. You can draw on your device and have that projected so that the entire class can see it. You can import existing graphics (e.g. photos, PowerPoint slides, PDF files) and annotate them. Meanwhile, the app can record the audio and video so that you can share a video file of your presentation afterward.

Stealth Zoom

Here's the concept for using ExplainEverything for dynamic in-class presentations: you can pre-load graphics you think students might ask about, or that you think might help you explain a complicated process/diagram/pipeline/analysis. In the app, while projecting your device to the class, you can drag-and-drop these items (and move them around).

A picture is worth 1,000 words, so this video explanation (5 1/2 minutes long) might be worth a million! Here, I show an example of what this type of presentation looks like, and I show a primer of how to accomplish this type of animation:

In short, I like using Stealth Zoom in ExplainEverything because I can explicitly demonstrate decision trees, logic, and processes, so that students can start to understand the types of analyses and techniques that I use in my discipline. Further, I can change the graphics on the slide in a very dynamic fashion in response to student questions and to changes in the direction of conversation. This approach can be employed in any discipline. For example:

  • Linguistics/foreign language: diagramming sentences / sentence structure
  • Engineering: electrical circuit design
  • Computer science: loop logic, syntax
  • History: timelines
When I first learned about Stealth Zoom, I was encouraged to use it to make videos that exhibited the types of simple animations you saw in the video linked above. However, my spin on this technique is that we can present Stealth Zoom-based animations live, during class, to hopefully make a more engaging and dynamic live presentation for our students.

I'd love to hear how you think you could use the Stealth Zoom technique in your discipline - please leave a comment below!

To the doubters: why not try a more dynamic approach to teaching?

Many of my colleagues really don't like to improvise during class because they're more likely to make a mistake, have a technology disaster, or encounter a student question they don't know the answer to. I've also written previously about this issue before:

but, again (TL/DR): let's embrace such experiences as teaching opportunities that show that even faculty don't know all of the answers, and we're not experts in everything. It is great for student growth mindset to have their faculty model how to make a mistake and then correct it! Make it a teachable moment, which humanizes you and makes a huge (positive) impact on students!

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Class meeting 1: taking risks to improve student engagement and mindset


In years past, this was the scene: a graduate journal club course with first-year Masters students. They have read a primary (peer-reviewed, journal-published) research article in biology, and now the students must lead a discussion in the interpretation and critical analysis of the data and its interpretation. They have little experience reading six to ten pages of dense scientific prose with five to eight data-laden figures and tables.

This is daunting even to the best-prepared. When I was a first-year grad student, this type of class gave me hours of pre-class sweats. I read each paper over and over, making detailed notes, so that if I happened to be called on by the professor to present one of the figures from the manuscript, I would be able to give a thorough description of the motivation of the experiment, the methods used to collect the data, how those data were analyzed, and how the authors interpreted the relevance of the outcome to their overall hypothesis. God forbid I would then be asked a more critical question, like to evaluate the choice of method the authors used (what would have been alternative approaches? why did they choose this approach?), whether I thought that all appropriate control experiments had been performed, whether the replication of the experiment was rigorous… and I was being judged, live, in real time, in front of my peers. This was high stakes.


While there may be value in such a "sink or swim" approach, I've lately become familiar with the idea that it can be beneficial to help students, especially those from the latest generations, develop a growth mindset. We do them (and society) a great service by helping them realize that it takes diligence and practice to become proficient at valuable skills, like being a critical thinker.

At the same time, I do spend more time than I probably should preparing class materials. Much has been written over how not to overprepare for class. There are several reasons for this, including:

In other words,
  • effective pedagogy does not necessarily demand a greater time investment
  • it is beneficial to student mindset to see that perfection takes work, and that faculty members do struggle to learn and to prepare to help their students learn
  • "underpreparing" can be an impactful technique

Separately, I've also written about the benefits of less-linear and more spontaneous class preparation, which leads to an implementation I call "lecture improv." Positive outcomes of this approach include:
  • reduced nonattendance from students who already have my lecture slides (because they're created and elaborated upon during class)
  • more flexibility to follow student interests during class (likewise, feeling less rigid about following a pre-prepared class outline, which also leads to…)
  • the ability to entertain student questions skyrockets. Without prepared lecture notes, they don't know where the class period is meant to go (in their vernacular: "what content we're supposed to cover"). In my hands, at least, lecture improv has led to vast increases in student question-asking and thus to student engagement.


While preparing my journal club class for the new semester, a thought struck me. What if I could accomplish these three things on the first day of class?
  • to humanize myself, "The Professor," to my students by demonstrating how I cope with unfamiliar content in my discipline
  • to simultaneously support student growth mindset
  • (incidentally) to reduce the amount of time I spend preparing for class


Here's how I decided to try achieving these aims, and how it all turned out.

I thought it could be an effective practice for me to perform some scientific improv on the first day of class.

What's scientific improv? Aren't those mutually exclusive terms? Yes, until recently…

I asked each student to bring with them, to the first day of class, a PDF file of a manuscript related to their Masters thesis research. After I had introduced myself and performed my duty of talking about the class syllabus, we took a brief bathroom break (this is a three-hour-long class). Just before the break, I asked each student to e-mail me their article; I then asked the class to pick a number (the first respondent chose "1"). So, I told them, while they were having a five-minute break, I was going to load the figures from the 1st manuscript that had arrived in my inbox into my presentation software. When they returned, I would present, to the best of my totally unprepared ability, one of the figures from that manuscript. Scientific improv.

During my five minutes of break time, I imported the PDF of the manuscript into my class presentation. When the students returned, I then spent about 45 minutes demonstrating, in real time, how I read and analyzed this example of primary research literature. This process included my looking up unfamiliar acronyms and techniques using web search engines and seeking out details about experimental replication by referring to the Materials and Methods section of the manuscript.

In other words, I gave a very long and very explicit, totally unprepared, presentation of one figure from the manuscript. To reiterate, my main goal in doing this was to show students a step-by-step example of how an experienced scientist might go about learning new scientific information. I was hoping that this would help improve student growth mindset and also would be an engaging student experience for the first day of class.


At the end of class, I (as usual) anonymously polled the students to solicit feedback. Among other questions, I asked them:
  • to rate, using a Likert scale, the utility of observing "the process of somebody else reading, analyzing and presenting a figure from a manuscript," and then (if responding positively),
  • to "explain why it was useful"

Of 15 students, 12 responded. Of respondents, 8 (66%) indicated strong agreement with the utility of scientific improv, 3 (25%) indicated agreement, and 1 responded "neutral." None responded with "disagree" or "strongly disagree." A skeptic, as scientists should be, might conclude that the 3 students who did not respond might have done so because they strongly disagreed and did not want even an anonymous response recorded as such. Even in such a circumstance, I feel buoyed by the number of students responding positively. The sole "neutral" respondent indicated that the amount of time I spent on this exercise diminished their evaluation of the exercise. As you might be able to tell by now, I do like to talk (and write…)

The students' qualitative responses to the prompt can be categorized into three general explanations for the utility of the "scientific improv" approach. It:
1. exposed students to a different perspective on how to go about evaluating scientific data
2. emphasized the need for skepticism in the critical analysis of data and its interpretation
3. improved student feelings of self-efficacy: the ability for novices to learn new content on their own


In sum, I'm happy about the initial outcomes of this exploration of faculty risk-taking during class by performing on-the-spot interpretation of a manuscript that I had never seen before. Initial student responses suggest that I'm advancing my intended goals, and this is a potentially powerful technique that I'll continue to refine and adapt in future!

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Role of Faculty in the 21st Century

Below is an excerpt from the class manual I've produced for my biology majors course in genetics. The goal of having students read this is to help them understand how their professors can best help them prepare for life beyond academia.

How this class is structured to aid your long-term success in life

You made a tough choice when deciding how to take college-level coursework. It used to be that brick-and-mortar institutions called Universities had a monopoly on advanced knowledge, and if you wanted that information, you had to pay the University to attend their school and learn from those experts (the professors). Back then, professors did just that: they professed (lectured). This was how you obtained factual and practical information: you sat and you wrote (copying from the blackboard, often).
Much of this expert information is freely available online today. Interestingly, it seems that the model of the University doesn’t work as well when so many students want to attend a University to earn college degrees, because we are limited in the number of desks we can place in each classroom on a physical campus. Thus, online coursework is a major trend in higher education.
Surprisingly, it is often (though not exclusively) those of us who are employed by Universities who also put all of that information freely online. Why? It might partly because many of us just love to teach and to help others; we want to spread information as widely as we can. Our Universities also occasionally provide incentives to do so, to help position them to be able to launch their own online courses. Why would Universities do this? Money, usually: because enrollments are often limited by physical infrastructure, and because online courses are relatively inexpensive to teach, this may be the trend of how universities move forward to educate the populace.
I teach in-person classes, and I also make educational materials freely available online. I have never taught a fully-online course. I tell you this in the hopes that you will understand that I approach the online-vs-in-person conflict from a relatively neutral viewpoint.
How, then, do you choose between paying so much money to attend a university in person, as opposed to learning at home while wearing your pajamas and using your computer? Lots of costs and benefits come into play. Here are a few important questions to keep in mind as you continue to assess whether to pursue an in-person or an online education:

If professors are no longer the only source of information, what use are they now?
We professors had to work very diligently to earn doctoral degrees (Ph.D.s) in our disciplines. For example, after I graduated from my undergraduate university, I then spent six years in school at a university to earn my Ph.D. degree, and I also spent another six years performing biological research before I was able to be hired as a junior professor at Fresno State.
A major benefit of you having educational guidance from such a professor is that they can help provide both breadth and depth to your learning. Because of their extensive experience, they can help material become relevant to you, and they can help you understand the details of material. In other words, we are dynamic and can adapt to your needs.
Some online resources cannot do this for you. Some online coursework is extremely static, offering only fixed packages of material. In this regard, the way to make sure you get your money’s worth out of paying for in-person instruction is, not surprisingly, to come to class! More important, though, is to find a professor who will partner with you, as I will, to optimize your in-class time. Gone are the days when in-class time is necessarily for lecture. You can now get all of the nuts-and-bolts, factual information on your own without a professor being present. The best use of class time is for students to obtain feedback and attention from the teacher. Again, for many of us professors, our true expertise is in solving problems. That’s why we are in front of you as leaders: not because we have all the answers (we usually don’t!), but because we have tools we can show you for learning how to develop answers.

Why might I consider not teaching myself only using online resources?
I have seen many students led astray by inaccurate web-based information about various aspects of biology. A huge issue in society today (not just in higher education) is how to distinguish valid information from inaccurate data. This is called “information literacy,” and many of us are trying to learn how to better prepare students to become consumers, interpreters, and curators of information. In sum, one value of the in-person University experience (although this may soon wane) is that the sources of information you use have already been validated by professional educators. If, however, you browse the internet, or even take some online classes, you might not be as sure that you’re receiving the quality and accuracy of the information you expect. Don’t believe everything that you read!

What are other values of the in-person class experience?
Again, assuming that you have a professor who, like me, incorporates active learning in their class meetings, then I have great news! Your investment of time being in class has a great chance of helping you find and/or maintain employment in a good job with your college degree. As I was once a student (and still am, in almost every way), it is not surprising to me that students dislike many types of class activities and prefer sitting and listening to a lecture. However, after I explain the reasoning for why we ask you to do actively participate in the class (e.g. with group work and writing assignments), I hope you will at least appreciate the potential value of these tasks.
  • A recent estimate suggests that students in the last decade tend to have held thirteen jobs by the time they’re 38 years old! We change jobs - a lot.
  • The majority of the top ten types of jobs (in terms of growth in the number of available positions) did not exist as types of jobs a decade ago! Thus, we, the professors, cannot remotely adequately prepare you, in terms of content knowledge, to continue to succeed in even one career (much less multiple careers) as you move through life.
  • There are a core set of skills we hope to help you develop as students in our physical classrooms at a University to help you be able to adapt, to learn, to think critically, to solve problems, and to innovate: to be successful! These skills are ones that the vast majority of employers are looking for now in their employees.

In 2013, the American Association of Colleges and Universities commissioned a study on the desires of employers: what characteristics would they like our graduates to exemplify to make them best suited for our current workforce?
93% of employers believe that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.”
95% say that they “prioritize hiring college graduates with skills that will help them contribute to innovation in the workplace.”
95% think that “it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.”
and 96% assert that “all college students should have experiences that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own.”

The top two skills desired by employers in the category of “intellectual and practical skills” were: oral communication and teamwork [].

In sum, you must be able to adapt, to learn (on your own), and to think critically to be successful!
Adapt: to think critically, apply information in new ways, often in the presence of others: innovate, communicate, work with others
Learn: to know how to find and evaluate knowledge with healthy skepticism: information literacy
Think critically: choose a course of action based on reasoning

When you integrate these skills, you become a problem-solver, and maybe even an innovator, and that is valuable to the vast majority of employers!
This class is specifically designed to integrate practice of these skills. I cannot help you hone any of these abilities by lecturing content to you. If you come to class unprepared, expecting me to talk for the entire class period, sometimes that will work well for you, but some days you won’t get nearly as much from our time together that will help you develop those life skills that employers and humankind really value. If you willingly and actively participate in this class as it has been designed, then you will get much more out of it.