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Monday, November 28, 2005

Taking Stock of the Semester, Part II: Why PowerPoint?

I want to thank Dan both for his welcome and for inviting me to guest blog.  Dan was kind enough earlier in the semester to help me advertise a conference on state tax incentives for economic development that I put together here at the University of Minnesota Law School.  (If you are interested, a webcast of the event and lots of documentation are available here.)  In exchange, I happily agreed to guest blog for two weeks.  I must concede that this is my first attempt at blogging.  From reading the blogs of others, however, it seems to me that blogging, like teaching, is harder than it looks.  So this is an experiment that I can only hope goes well. 

As Dan noted below, I teach tax and administrative law -- both very dense areas of the law that I find fascinating but that bore most students silly.  I am just finishing my fifth semester of teaching, and things generally seem to go just fine, but I am still experimenting with different techniques.  For example, this semester I tried PowerPoint for the first time in my Tax I class.  I have always been a PowerPoint skeptic, but my teaching evaluations reflected strong popular demand, so I thought I would try it.  I am still not sure what I think.  On the one hand, the PowerPoint is easier to read than my handwriting, and it's great for spelling out three-part tests and working through the frequent mathematical computations that crop up in tax courses.  On the other hand, note taking seems to me to be a dying art among students, yet is a very valuable (if not essential) skill for junior attorneys; and using PowerPoint seems to make it easier for students to get by without learning how to take good notes.  Moreover, PowerPoint seemed to me to suck all the life out of my class by removing much of the sponteneity as we adhered to the PowerPoint script.  So I was intrigued by Dan's post last week regarding his "conversion" to being a PowerPoint fan.  Recognizing that professors and students make up much of this blog's audience, I am curious both as to why other professors like using PowerPoint and why students like PowerPoint.

Perhaps not the most exciting post to start off this new experiment with blogging, but at least one that poses a genuine question that has been puzzling me. 

Posted by Kristin Hickman on November 28, 2005 at 01:44 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Kristin -- First off, welcome!! I guess my agreement with Dan's post was spurned by a fairly judicious use of Powerpoint... for each 80-minute class, I tend to have only about four or five slides, one of which is the "outline" for that class (and sometimes I don't make it to each of the slides because class has gone in a different direction). So I guess I never felt too wedded to the Powerpoint, but instead saw it as a fallback -- as my plan for the class (and a means of setting out tests and important statutes and rules) when the class discussion didn't get us there itself...

All of this is to say that I think Powerpoint can cause the very problems of which you speak, but can also be useful, in moderation, for framing the particular class. (That, and it's pretty). :-)

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Nov 28, 2005 4:30:33 PM

I tried to get thru 20-30 slides per 100 minute class (minus a 5 minute break). From what I heard from my students, they enjoyed having something to look at besides me...can't blame them really.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Nov 28, 2005 5:13:54 PM

Kristin--I have used Slides for Basic Tax for a number of years. I have found that three particular features have worked best for me (and for the students, I believe). First, I use either a SMART Board (interaactive white board) or SMART Sympodium, which allows one to easily "write" on the slides with an electronic pen. This allows for far greater spontaneity and my slides tend to be more skeletal. Second, I have the PDF version of the students' code/regs (I use the very abridged Foundation Version), so that the students have the same format as they have in front of them. I can also write on the slide (with the SMART technology (I think PowerPoint does this too, but perhaps not as easily). Finally, I post my slides on TWEN before class and pass out hard copies (in the handout mode--4 slides per page). So I do hope that the students take notes. But I don't see the pedagogical value in redrawing my diagrams.


Posted by: Eric Lustig | Nov 29, 2005 9:12:44 AM

Well-designed slides do not take away the opportunity for note taking nor the need for note taking. They simply impose order on what otherwise can be a chaotic "jump around" class that resembles the "jump around" exam answer.

Note-taking also is a two-edged sword. Consider the student who tries to transcribe the professor's reading of a Code sentence and who asks the professor to "slow down." Consider the student so busy writing every word that he or she fails to see the big picture. I've seen the same thing in practice. Most attorneys (and law professors) are NOT good note takers, because "transcription" has trumped "listen, analyze, digest, and summarize." Something about brain processing speed.

The best slides are those that show "pictures" (charts, photographs, matrices, animations, etc.) of transactions and solutions. Pictures ARE worth a thousand words. But rather than giving the students such devices (other than at the beginning of the semester to illustrate what I want them to do and other than a few dealing with hypercomplex tax issues), I "start" the graphic analysis and leave them to finish it.

As for being restricted by slides, if transcripts of my courses existed, it would be easy to prove what I already know, namely, that even aside from changes in the law, there are more differences than similarities in the details of what I say and what students ask or say as the course progresses.

I am in the process of writing a blog post for my blog (http://www.mauledagain.blogspot.com) about the use of Powerpoint. It's becoming an article in and of itself. I'm trying to address all the advantages and disadvantages that have been put forth.

Posted by: Jim Maule | Nov 29, 2005 9:20:37 AM

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