Beamer

A confluence of events has conspired me to switch how I use my in-class time. I have switched

  1. I gave my students a midterm evaluation. They are mostly happy, but thought that I was moving really quickly through the proofs.
  2. I taught with Matthew Leingang, who, for years, has been doing what I am about to describe.
  3. I attended a presentation about MOBIs, which are similar to SMART Boards.
  4. One of my classrooms has poor lighting, making it difficult for some of the students to see the board.

These events led me to switch from primarily using the chalkboard to primarily using Beamer presentations. Beamer is like a \LaTeX version of Power Point, but at least 500% more awesome. The biggest push came from the presentation about the MOBIs. I got really excited about the presentation, but then realized that 90% of the benefits could be gotten by using Beamer presentations. Here are the advantages; this is all speculation so far, since I have taught only one day with Beamer.

  1. Beamer will allow me to be a more efficient teacher. I will spend less time writing, which means that I can spend more time on in-class projects for the students.
  2. Beamer will allow the students to be more efficient students. They print off handouts of the presentations before coming to class, and use these as their notes. They do not need to write, but rather just concentrate on understanding the ideas.
  3. Beamer allows me to write up pristine proofs. It is important to see a lot of good proofs when learning to write, and my Beamer proofs are much better than my blackboard proofs. This is because I take short cuts on the blackboard to reduce the writing time; there is no such problem with Beamer.
  4. Beamer is more visible than the blackboards in one of my rooms.
  5. Beamer will allow me to do more complicated examples. For instance, my students are familiar with S_4, but I rarely do examples of subgroups of S_4 because it takes so long to describe the subgroup. This is a snap with Beamer.
  6. Beamer will ultimately reduce my prep time. The next time I teach this course, I will have an outline that I can modify; I will not need to start planning from scratch.
  7. Beamer will help me plan better lectures. When I teach this class again in a couple of years, I will have a concrete reminder of what I did. I will write notes in my file that tell me how to improve. I do not have this type of “memory” with blackboards.
  8. Students can look over the notes before class to be more prepared for class.
  9. Students who miss a class can more easily see what they missed.

Here are some potential (and already actualized) drawbacks:

  1. The prep time is concentrated up front. Producing slides for 3-4 days of class takes an entire 8 hour workday.
  2. Some students may feel like they do not need to come to class when the class slides are available online.
  3. There is a risk of going too quickly through slides.

There are likely others, and I will be happy to point them out as the experiment continues. The first drawback is very real, but will hopefully be worth the long-term investment (I am thinking about installing a geothermal heat pump in my home, which has similar advantages and disadvantages: a bit up-front price, but you ultimately save over the long run). I do not think that the second drawback will be a problem for my students, who are quite good about attending class. I could see this being a problem at other schools, though. Finally, I have asked the students for help in slowing me down. In particular, I have given them all a red index card. When they want me to slow down, they are supposed to hold it up so that I can see I am going too fast. They were not used today, but they could be helpful later on.

Finally, my students seemed to think that today’s Beamer lecture went well. Also, here is a link to my webpage, where the handouts for the presentations are posted.

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6 Responses to “Beamer”

  1. Midterm Evaluations « Solvable by Radicals Says:

    […] Solvable by Radicals Just another WordPress.com weblog « Beamer […]

  2. Derek Bruff Says:

    From what I’ve seen, the risk of moving too quickly through slides is a big one. I conduct mid-semester student feedback focus groups regularly, and I’ve hear students complain many times about instructors who move through proofs and derivations on slides too quickly. Sometimes it’s a note-taking issue–when the slides aren’t provided ahead of time and students feel the need to copy down everything in the slides. However, sometimes even with the slides provided ahead of time, students recognize that they need more processing time.

    I hope your red card solution works for keeping a good pace. That may work fine in your classrooms. In other classrooms, with other students, I would expect many confused students to be hesitant to flash a red card and thereby admit they’re confused in front of their peers.

    Clicker questions would provide a somewhat less socially difficult way for students to slow you down when they’re confused. When you pose a clicker question and students respond (anonymously) with incorrect answers, you’ll know you’re moving too fast! =)

    There’s also the issue that when you present a worked solution in a slide, the students don’t have the chance to see you work through a problem “live” in front of them. That kind of modeling of problem-solving (and proof construction in upper level courses) is incredibly valuable to students. They need to see the first, messy part of tackling a problem, not just the well-organized solution that follows the messy part.

    That’s not to say you can’t do some of that modeling in the slides. You’ll just have to be intentional about “pulling back the curtain” and showing the first steps in solving a problem.

    Just some thoughts, Bret! Hope they’re helpful. I look forward to hearing how your experiment unfolds.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Derek,

      Thanks for the feedback. I thought about adding a comment about working problems “live” in my original post, but I could not quite put my thoughts into words; you did this well, and it is a good addition to my post.

      I will slowly try to integrate the clickers in. Right now, we have a software problem. I either need to get my request for a laptop approved, or else they need to put the software on the networked computers in the classrooms. Or so I am told—I have not looked into this directly.

      I do have some things to report:

      1. Several students have volunteered very positive feedback about the slides. They find that they can really concentrate on learning the proofs.
      2. I took a poll of the class, and only one person thought that the pace of the slides was too fast (out of 39). This is a huge improvement over the chalkboard (so far—I need to keep on top of this, though).
      3. The red card experiment has been, so far, completely useless. Only one student has flashed the card, and he is a student who just asked questions, anyway. So either no students have used it, or else I have not been seeing them when they have. Either way, it has not been successful. (By the way, I instructed my students to discreetly hold the index cards to their chests—I was hoping that this would be a way of hiding their confusion from their peers while still allowing me to know).

      Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
      Bret

  3. Dropbox « Solvable by Radicals Says:

    […] particular, I have been creating Beamer presentations for my classes. If I find a typo in my first class, I can fix it between classes and have the […]

  4. Matthew Leingang Says:

    Thanks for the ref, Bret. Beamer and PGF (the companion graphics package) are doupleplusawesome.

    As far as #8 and #9 go, you need to strike a balance between creating a slideshow that is good for you to use in class and one that ‘s good to use outside of class. For instance, if your slideshow is completely understandable to someone who didn’t go to class, then chances are good that you spent class simply reading the slides to them.

    Another advantage is that you can keep yourself to a pretty good structure of class. Because I put announcements first, I never forget to do announcements. I’ve also taken to putting student objectives at the beginning and a summary at the end.

    I’ve also started playing with beamer’s templating system to give better visual cues. Students sometimes don’t know why you’re telling them what you’re telling them. Is this a derivation? An extended example? Putting titles on every slide and using callouts like “Example”, “Solution”, “Proof”, etc. (which can be color-coded thanks to beamer) make this a bit clearer.

    For handouts, it helps to have a different layout rather than the 128mmx96mm beamer slide page. Some students can’t figure out how to print that on paper.

    I use a variation on this:

    http://www.guidodiepen.nl/2009/07/creating-latex-beamer-handouts-with-notes/

    Then I exclude the frames with jokes or big announcements that I don’t want to show before class.

    The major drawback is time. It does take a lot of prep work to get it right, and I’ve found one can spend an infinite amount of time fine-tuning. But with your MOBI you can probably write on the screen and save those notes. That means after class you can quickly spot corrections you need to make to the slides, as well as additional slides you’ll want to add for next time.

  5. bretbenesh Says:

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the tips. I was planning on contacting you about the way to include a place to take notes, so I appreciate you giving it to me!
    Bret

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