Hard to Read Lectures?

For years I’ve laboured to make my lecture materials as clear as possible and easy to read.  I tend to use prepared overheads and/or Powerpoints, and not too much blackboard work since my handwriting is a bit messy (and writing a lot on a blackboard or whiteboard gets to be a bit hard on arthritic hands).  However, now I find out I should be making my lecture materials harder to read!  Why is that?

Well, I was reading an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that discussed “cognitive disfluency”.  The main idea is that something that is easy to assimilate tends to be learned in a more shallow manner, and they use the example of lecture slides that present the same material but use different fonts.  In some studies, students who were presented with the slides in an unfamiliar and more difficult to read font actually learned the material to a deeper level.  I guess learning is like physical exercise:  the harder it is on you, the better the results.  So next week I will start converting all my overhead slides to the Old English text font in Microsoft Word (unfortunately I can’t demonstrate it here).  The students will undoubtedly learn a lot more and will appreciate it to no end! 🙂

Or, maybe not.  There is likely a fine line between encouraging deeper learning and just making everyone angry.  So the trick is to find that line without crossing it too often.  My colleagues and I generally think of this as student “engagement”, i.e. encouraging active learning to a deeper level.  When it comes to lectures, there seem to be two extremes:

  1. No notes provided in advance.  The instructor writes everything on the board, and students copy it all down.  Pros:  students are “engaged” (at least to the extent that they are writing stuff down).  Cons:  it’s a very slow and inefficient way to transfer information, in my opinion.
  2. Complete lecture notes provided to students in advance.  Pros:  the instructor can cover a lot of material during the course, since the information transfer speed is not limited by the slowest writer in the class.  Cons:  potentially boring class and lack of “engagement” if there’s nothing for students to do, other than listen.

I tend towards approach #2 for my courses, but not completely.  The lecture notes I make available to students to purchase are similar to what I use in class, but not exactly.  The notes are usually missing simple diagrams, or small annotations, examples and explanations, not because I forgot them but it gives the students something to write and add to their own copy.  I think this is similar to the “hard to read font” idea.  It keeps the mind a bit more engaged when you can annotate your own notes.  It also helps a bit for those students who tend to have more of a kinesthetic learning style (see this link if you have never discovered what your learning style is.  It’s good to know in advance.).

There’s a never-ending debate about how to best use lectures (and whether to have lectures at all), and this cognitive disfluency topic is just one aspect.  Everyone agrees that we want students to master certain topics and skills, but there is less agreement on how to achieve that.  With such a diversity of circumstances and learning styles I’m sure the debate will go on forever, so for now we just carry on as best we can and adapt where necessary.

2 thoughts on “Hard to Read Lectures?

  1. …Bill, back in the day when I would borrow lecture notes your handwriting was always difficult to read as well so nothing really changes. On a positive note your blend of “mostly pre-issued” but getting students to add their notes or extra comments allows for the various learning styles are used. Next semester add two bonus questions to the first midterm. There first should be out of the pre-issued lecture notes and the second question would be something that you added to your lecture that had to be written by your students. The results would be interest.

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