Slideshows are old hat. We know lots of cliché reasons not to use them. After all, we can probably each picture that colleague who misuses slideshows at conferences: too many words crammed onto slides; unforgiveable formatting inconsistencies; a poor sense of pacing. Speaking for myself, I became so tired of designing presentations when I was in the business world that I put a kibosh on pulling up PPT files on my computer for a while.
Lecturers still love slideshows. Since programs such as Google Slides and Microsoft PowerPoint can allow educators to display text as well as images, graphs, charts, and other visual aids, we tend to associate slideshow presentations with instructor-delivered lectures. And while TED Talks might be teaching us that illustrative backdrops are the best use for presentations, lecturers often end up stocking their slides full of bullet points that compete for students’ reading and listening attention.
Recently, I have been re-purposing slides, not for lectures, but for discussions.
This path was initially motivated by a unique physical space. The pandemic kept me going.
Origins & Purpose
Last spring, I was assigned a large, double-height classroom with one long conference table surrounded by a raised U-shaped dias. The configuration spread the students to a distance that felt miles away (probably twenty feet, in reality). In addition, the front of the classroom was covered by a large, pull-down projector screen.
I was inspired to use it.
For slideshow class sessions, I prepared a presentation using Google Slides. Each show typically contained between 4 and 8 individual slides, depending on the content. Most of the time, I used slides to incorporate quotations that I wanted us to be discussing during class.
Where in the past I might have used a printed handout for this purpose, or simply directed students to pages in our copies of the text, there was one unique advantage of the slideshow projections:
Students look at the same place. While this room happened to have a nice 10-foot-tall screen, any presentation offered in a classroom can unite everyone’s attention at the same spot. So when one student is talking, everyone is looking at the same text, the same place in the room, rather than staring down at individual books.
Of course, I do want students to make notes in their books and to attend to the text in front of them. However, there was something nice about having a quote projected that centralized our conversation. And students still took notes.
Most days, I would project single quotations, such as a pull-out quote of just one or two sentences, like this example from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre:
Note: I made sure not to switch to a quote slide until I was ready to read that passage aloud. Otherwise, if the screen were to change but you are still speaking on another topic, students are likely to try to read the slide rather than listen to what you are saying, and thus you lose their attention temporarily because you've unintentionally diverted it elsewhere.
At other times, I accentuated important themes or ideas by calling out language in the text that related to ideas we had been exploring as a group. Bolded fonts worked well for this purpose, such as in this example from Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens”:
Students can easily spot patterns this way, and it allows them to notice things they might not have otherwise.
At other times, a quote was followed with questions to prompt our conversations:
Slides served other purposes, too.
For instance, I used them to offer colorful visuals, including a brief series of slides with images from William Morris’s Victorian, decadent wallpaper designs while we were reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper,”
as well as illustrations from the original 1892 printing of the story in The New England Magazine.
Slides were also used to re-cap key concepts from a previous class. In the slide below, for instance, I opened one class session by going back over key ideas that we had written down on the board during a prior meeting. This list of student-generated terms, on the concepts of visibility and invisibility, had grown organically from a discussion that the class was having on Slack.
Finally, I sometimes used slides to bring in new information, such as definitions or quotes that I wanted to share with the students. Instead of printing out a handout (wasting paper and energy), these slides gave students a different kind of takeaway, since I provided them links to the slides following class. They could easily return to these slides if they wanted to seek out the precise information provided in class or write down the language from a textual reference.
At the end of the semester, students remarked in their evaluations that, aside from Slack, the use of slideshows had been one of the course tools which they benefited from most.
Of course, mid-semester, everything changed, and our course delivery dramatically altered. No more double-height room with 10-foot projections.
When we shifted to remote learning, I continued this use of slides, but in a new way.
Instead of introducing them during class, I sent students a link to Google slideshows during the weekend before our class meeting, when students would be doing their independent reading. I accompanied these with reading questions as well. These particular slideshows contained only 4 quotations for students to consider in depth.
During our once-weekly synchronous session, students gathered in 4 small groups using the Breakout Rooms feature in Zoom in order to talk about the quotes. Each group would analyze one quote together and record notes that they later shared with the entire class.
When we reconvened for our large-group discussion, students were energized with plenty of thoughts to share. And since everyone had studied the selected quotes, we knew what our classmates were talking about, even if it was a quote that someone's group had not been discussing.
No one had to fumble around in their books, or open another window with an electronic version of the text, and thus pull their attention away from the screen and our conversations.
Even if we didn't look at the slides together during a Zoom meeting, they were serving as a nice repurposing of a visual aid that students had already become used to in our in-person classroom, giving students some continuity to ground them—a bit of familiarity in what had become a constantly changing and unknown environment.
One other difference: these passages were lengthier. In the classroom, shorter passages were better, otherwise I could lose students’ attention to reading the projected quote. But once they turned to the slides independently, length became less of a concern. Note how the font remains large, however, and the quote has to be contained within the slide size.
Fast forward to this current semester, where I am taking a slightly different approach.
In my course that meets regularly for synchronous Zoom sessions, I have introduced slides as an accompaniment to our discussion-based conversations. I use the Screen Share feature to “project” or “present” the slides in the background as we talk.
These slides now have several functions, and I will be adding to this list as we go. Slides can be used to:
present quotations pulled from our readings
present quotations from material students have not yet encountered
articulate questions to spark conversation
visually demonstrate how to do a task (doing research, using a program, etc.)
A slide might contain one or two questions to stimulate discussion (if there's two questions, they should be related; I use animation to present just one at a time):
Note: I favored the left side of the screen, instead of expanding the question across the entire slide, with the assumption that students have the gallery or thumbnail images from Zoom displayed on the right-hand side of their screen, which is the default.
I also used quotes to bring in new material, with short quotations from articles that I thought students might be interested in reading after class. We spent time analyzing each of these quotes together. First, I gave students a few minutes to look at the quote on their own and to take notes on phrases that called their attention. Then we discussed each phrase in detail.
One such slide looked like this as presented during class:
But following class, I incorporated my notes from our conversation into the slide so that students could refer to it later:
The practice of adding of notes and highlighting key phrases could also have been done during class, of course. One would simply use the browser window as the screen-share rather than slides' presentation mode. In contrast to exercises where I intentionally spend time editing a live document in response to student contributions, however, I found that work in this instance to be more distracting than worth the effort.
For now, I have chosen to go back over the slides myself after class in order to add bullet points, key phrases from my notes (based on students' comments), and further questions prompted by our live discussion. Then, I send students a link to the shared Google slides as well as a PDF version of the post-class slideshow.
Using slides to complement Zoom-based discussions has several advantages:
Slides help prevents students from getting lost. It can be all too easy while staring at the little boxes in a Zoom window for one’s mind to saunter off temporarily. Or for one’s fingers to click surreptitiously on another task. Speaking for myself, I appreciate when sitting through department meetings when they use slide decks, allowing me to know where we are even if my mind wanders for a moment. My students have noted the same effects for them, and a few have said they feel the slideshows could be a helpful aid this semester.
Slides engage students. I only have a few anecdotal examples to go on so far, but in the class session where we used slides students started to talk actively and readily, even about new material. In contrast, during a session where we had no slides but I was asking open-ended questions, the motivation to press the “un-mute” button seemed very, very hard to come by.
I don’t have to work from offline notes. I am reluctant to print out my lesson plans and personal notes, since I don’t want to have to refer to another piece of paper while conducting our naturally flowing conversation on-screen. I have a hard time keeping my attention in two mediums like that while teaching remotely. I also don’t want to be distracted trying to look at other windows on my laptop besides Zoom. Screen-sharing with slideshows allows me to pay attention to quotes on the screen (my short-hand version of my lesson plan) and to my students at the same time. Just as with the in-person classroom, the slides conveniently focus all of our attention in the same place.
Slides guide compartmentalization. I have written previously on the blog about the need to separate the time during a Zoom session into discrete “time blocks,” which permits our attention to shift between different tasks and different modes of thinking and communicating. Slideshows organically distinguish one piece of the conversation from another. You can even use different slides from a master template to give visual cues when shifting from one task to another.
In our second meeting this fall, when ice-breakers were still called for, I used a slideshow to prompt a silly poll to see what the members of our class had in common. Each student typed their response into the Chat window, then we released our answers at the same time. One question appeared on-screen at a time as I advanced through the animation:
This polling has led me to think that there could be far more intentional ways to use slides as interactive platforms. As I mentioned above, an instructor could take notes in the slides themselves while class discussion is happening.
I also recently learned of tools like Pear Deck, which seems to be taking the remote K-12 world by storm, and maybe higher education will soon follow. I have yet to tinker with this particular tool, though I imagine it might be conducive to my own teaching objectives. There are many new horizons of slide interactivity that have yet to be explored.
What new and exciting ways are you finding to use slideshows? Drop a line below!