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I will soon be teaching my first class as an assistant professor. The class is made up of 130 undergraduate students, most of whom are in their first year. The class in a introductory course, so I will be giving an overview of the field; for each lecture I will going through one different topic, with most of the material being qualitative rather than quantitative.

Last year the class was taught by Colleague A, so I am adapting his material to prepare to teach the class. Colleague A's lecture slides tend to be too sparse, i.e. there are few words on each slide, and it is not easy to follow the train of thought by reading the slides. Another colleague, Colleague B told me that students had mentioned to Colleague B that students were unhappy with the lack of details on Colleague A's slides.

I feel a little stuck because when I prepare slides for an academic presentation, I try to keep my slides more sparse so as to not overload my audience who may be trying to read my slides and listen to me simultaneously. As I prepare the slides now, I feel that I may be erring on the side of putting too many words in my slides, e.g. the entire slide is covered with words.

How do I find the right balance of how much information to put in my lecture slides to keep students happy?

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    As a university student, thank you for asking this, I can assure you that your students will be thankful – Francisco Presencia Sep 28 '15 at 9:45
  • This might depend on what you're teaching, and whether it's an intro or more advanced course. – ShadSterling Sep 28 '15 at 21:35
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    re: "few words on each slide, and it is not easy to follow the train of thought by reading the slides" - in an ideal world, the purpose of slides is not to be read, it is to serve as a visual aid during the lecture. People cannot read much or understand complicated diagrams in real time. So few words and simple illustrations are good. Now, your circumstances may require that your slides also need to be read by students later, in which case it makes more sense to include more text - but ideally, that should be the role of a textbook or separate lecture notes. – David Z Sep 29 '15 at 3:18
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    The best courses that I attended had sparse slides to help the professor present the topics (important formulas, diagrams that showed something, key words, ...) and additional lecture slides or a book. This is of course a lot more work for you and it really depends whether the subject you teach changes a lot over time, there are good online resources ... – Verena Haunschmid Sep 29 '15 at 6:57
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    @BenCrowell I agree. My philosophy is to do continuous improvement through incremental changes. As this is my first class, completely doing away with the lecture is extremely risky. I plan to incorporate more active learning elements as I teach the class repeatedly over the next few years, if the department is willing to trust me with this class. – I Like to Code Oct 1 '15 at 2:52
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Here's a general guideline:

Figure out whether you want the audience to pay attention to you, or to the slide

They can't do both. A large part of the time, you want the audience to pay attention to you and the words you're saying. At those times, the slides should be as sparse as you can make them. Really, the only function they have is as a reminder to people whose attention has momentarily lapsed: this is what I'm talking about, this is where I am in the line of the story. Also make sure, during these moments that you're not looking at the slides. The audience looks where you look, unless you make eye contact with them.

But sometimes, you want the audience to focus on something in particular. Perhaps you're taking them through steps in a proof or derivation, perhaps you're explaining a complicated diagram, you may even be reading out a quote. These are the rare moments when you're asking the audience to really focus, and raise their energy levels for a moment. Here, you're allowed to have dense slides. These are also the slides that you're spending a lot of time on, so make sure to put the effort in. Use all the visual tools at your disposal to make the message as clear as possible. At this point, you're actually allowed to look at your own slide, because you want the audience to do the same thing.

Finally, do not mistake slides for learning aids. If you want to give students something to help when they're studying, create a version with added notes and put that online. Don't clutter up your slides to make them serve two purposes.

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    +1 for the this: Do not mistake slides for learning aids. If you want to give students something to help when they're learning, create a version with added notes and put that online. – Lamar Latrell Sep 28 '15 at 9:55
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    If you are going to depend on added materials, make them available to the students before the lecture. I find writing an extreme distraction from listening, so I try to write as little as possible during lectures. The more material I know I have, the less I have to write. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 28 '15 at 22:16
  • @PatriciaShanahan The promise "this will be online shortly" is not enough? – Raphael Sep 29 '15 at 9:04
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    @PatriciaShanahan: I have the exact opposite impression. Writing down what is going on is the best way for me to memorise it. In fact, the lectures I understand the best (except the ones which were essentially revision for me) were the ones for which I could take notes without even looking at the blackboard (ie by ear). I say blackboard, since I find that it is generally much easier to follow a lecture which uses blackboard (or whiteboard, of course) rather than slides. I think they are ill-suited for an extended lecture (mostly because stuff disappears before I can properly internalise it). – tomasz Sep 29 '15 at 11:16
  • The exception is, of course, when I can barely (or not even) keep up (due to an extremely poor lecture, lack of sleep, the material being way over my head, or a combination of those). In these cases, I can either take notes and not understand anything, or stop taking notes and focus on listening and/or filing the gaps in the lecture. I usually opt for the latter. If I still can't really keep up, I just doze off. – tomasz Sep 29 '15 at 11:16
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Slides have a dual purpose: to help the lecturer through the lecture, and as a study aid for students. Because of this, I use two versions of slides: one for the students with a lot of details, and one for me with very few details. These are both produced from the same source (LaTeX), so there is minimal overhead on my part. I use my slides to guide me to tell a good story. Then the students have the whole story for studying later.

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    Good idea, but slides are not the best format for reviewing the material. – Davidmh Sep 28 '15 at 9:31
  • @Davidmh: What is? – Dave Clarke Sep 28 '15 at 13:00
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    @Davidmh If it is LaTeX, the students' version need not look like slides, even though it uses the same source. Beamer supports an article mode, for example. – cfr Sep 28 '15 at 17:34
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    I think the dual purpose nature of many lecture slides is what makes them bad for both purposes. – Raphael Sep 28 '15 at 17:54
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    @Raphael: We are talking about lecture notes/slides for students, not research articles. – Dave Clarke Oct 9 '15 at 13:32
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I usually adopt a method similar to Dave's. I have my course notes, which is a latex document (not a beamer presentation, to reduce overhead) and the presentation.

The presentation has very little text. You don't put text on presentations (there are arguments against even bullet points). I usually put images, diagrams, equations and etc, the things I want them to see so they can understand the underlying concepts. After, they can see all the little detail in the notes, which are on a "printer-friendly" format, since it is not formatted as a presentation...

  • Bullet points are fine, as long as they match the nature of the presented content. Generalizing, I would argue that any presentation approach is valid and useful, when it naturally matches the essence of the relevant content (and, perhaps, some other factors, such as context, style, audience, etc.). – Aleksandr Blekh Jan 31 '16 at 1:29
  • I didn't place any judgment on bullet points. I merely cited that there are arguments against it, for instance: brightcarbon.com/blog/…. Personally, I try to avoid them. Sometimes I fail :) – Fábio Dias Jan 31 '16 at 2:34
  • I see :). Well, I guess, it's all about the balance and to know what type of presentation to use when... BTW, the blog post you've referred to, seem more like a rant (which the authors actually warns readers) than a solid argument on the topic. The claim "there is never a good case for using bullet points in a presentation" is supported neither by solid arguments, nor research on the topic. Anyway, I don't try to avoid bullet points, but I try to prefer richer visual methods whenever and wherever is feasible and appropriate. – Aleksandr Blekh Jan 31 '16 at 5:57
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I'll outline what the BEST professor I have ever had did (and this applied to everything from 1st to 4th year classes in the fields of business and engineering but could be adapted to other fields easily):

He had enough information on each slide that you knew what it was ABOUT, but nothing else. The remainder was left blank and they were posted online well in advance of the class they were used in. This meant that the students could print/download them and fill them in in class as he did. During class he would pull up the slides on his tablet and then write and fill them in. This included everything from definitions to equations and the solution to examples. This meant that students ATTENDED class to get the notes (other class only 30%-40% of the students ever showed up), and in class they not only heard and saw the material, but wrote it down too which I found helped immensely not only with paying attention, but for recollection as well.

An average slide may look like this:

                                    TITLE
  ---------------
  |             |       Word to define:   (blank)
  |  Picture    |
  |             |                  
  |             |       Word to define:   (blank)
  |             |
  |             |
  |             |       Word to define:   (blank)
  ---------------

and in class he would go through, and explain the image/diagram, and then not just SAY the definitions, but write them in his own slides that were up on the projector. The other thing he was awesome at was actually pausing and waiting for students to catch up with what they were copying down.

Too much information and students in my program (engineering) would simply stop going to class because they could get all the relevant material directly off the slides. Too little information or slides not made available before the class made it REALLY hard to follow along - I find that I end up lagging behind the professor in these cases because taking sufficient notes at the same speed a professor is talking is difficult. Also, posting a complete set of notes online (even if it was after the class) for the students also resulted in class attendance dropping in my program.

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    This style is a disaster for me. I write slowly, and while I'm writing I cannot listen or think. Too much writing during the lecture, and all I get from the lecture is what I wrote - no understanding. I have to then treat the notes as a textbook and try to understand afterwards. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 28 '15 at 22:20
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Here's how I would approach this problem. As you've mentioned, it is a known fact that overloading presentation slides with information is a pretty bad idea. At the same time, the students' feedback indicates that they seek more detailed information on the topic(s). Therefore, the optimal approach to solving this dilemma is IMHO to keep the slides' content sparse enough for best readability, while, at the same time, to have additional, more detailed, information materials hosted separately and linked from within the main presentation or, perhaps, better, from the class' website (or both).

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The right balance: Keyword imprinting. If you find your students rushing to write things down, you're doing something wrong. This is an exceedingly common pedagogical failure. You're purpose isn't to get them to pass tests.

What to do, if students have been habituated to write things down from high school is to not put much on the slides, but put the detail on-line. With only a keyword, they'll HAVE TO listen to you to understand what you're talking about. Key words can be remembered easily and will make an impression when reading the textbook.

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When I see slides during a presentation I want to see more detail than less for the most part. Put what's important in there. I tend to like to read as well as listen.

In some cases I'll read the slide as I'm listening to the presenter and listen as they go through bullet points.

As a presenter you're told not to simply read what's on the slide but use the slide as a summary. So it's not uncommon that they will skip or sum up multiple points. If you skip a bullet point it's ok but if it's something I want to know more of then having it on the slide gives me the opportunity to ask more about it in class. If you leave it off altogether then I don't know what I'm missing.

The downside to putting more info than less is to not make the font too small that it can't be read. If you really care view one of your slides with different font sizes from the back of your class room. Or use more slides.

Also, to answer the others that say make two sets of slides, more often than not I would not read the slides later on. I take notes in class from the slides and presenter but that's just me.

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As I continued to ponder the question of what is the right amount of information to put on my slides, I came across writings by Martin Fowler.

His philosophy to using slides is:

When I use slides, I design them to be a VisualChannel: an accompaniment to my words, not as a stand-alone "Slideument". (See link) The main principle I've tried to follow is to think of them as a visual channel that complements the audio channel which is my spoken words. (See link)

In my opinion, this is very wise advice.

In addition, as mentioned in this answer, I can give a separate set of notes for students to read in order to help them when they are studying.

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