Going Nonlinear in PowerPoint, Agile Teaching, and CYOA

I received an email last week from Bill Goffe who teaches economics at SUNY-Oswego (and contributed to this great guide to teaching economics with clickers) with a neat tip for practicing agile teaching. He noted that he’s heard Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur talk about bringing to class a folder full of transparencies, each with a different clicker question. Mazur asks his students the clicker question at the top of the stack and, depending on how well the students do, either moves on to the next question or skips a few to move to a question on a different topic. This is a great way to practice agile teaching by basing the selection of a clicker question on the results of a previous one.

Bill wrote that it can be challenging to take a similar approach if one’s clicker questions are embedded in PowerPoint slides. Breaking out of presentation mode, wandering through one’s slides in “Normal” or “Slide Sorter” mode to find one’s next question, then switching back to presentation mode to display the question–that seems like an awkward process, particularly if it’s visible to the students. However, Bill found a better way:

Yesterday I came across [the Inside Higher Ed article] “The Advantages of a 2,500 Slide PowerPoint Deck,” and it had the solution: number your slides and bring a printed version of the slides in outline view. Look at the latter, find the desired slide, type that number, and then PP takes you to that slide, still in display mode. It might seem like a small point, but it would make class much smoother.

I had no idea that you could just type a slide number while in presentation mode in PowerPoint and instantly go to that slide. (Try it, it really works!) That’s a handy trick for going nonlinear in PowerPoint. It might require you to have a printout of your slides handy so you can determine the number of your next slide, but as the comments on that article point out, if you use the same slide deck over and over, you’ll probably start to memorize some of those numbers. (The presenter described in the article uses the same 2,500 slide PowerPoint deck for all of his presentations. He just skips around nonlinearly in response to questions from the audience!)

This trick is probably better than the one that came to mind when I first read Bill’s email, which is to switch from the “slides” view in PowerPoint to the “outline” view. The outline view gives a more compact view of your slide deck, and, depending on how you’ve formatted your clicker questions, can show you your clicker questions particularly well. I think the type-a-slide-number trick is even slicker.

Another way to go nonlinear is to use Prezi. In Prezi, you can organize all your content (text, images, clicker questions, whatever) visually on a great big canvas. This means that finding a particular bit of content is pretty easy, assuming you’ve placed it on the canvas in a sensible location. And while you can set up a “path” in Prezi to follow somewhat linearly, you can always go “off path” and zoom around to other content at will. I’ve used Prezi for the visuals in a few presentations that also included clicker questions, such as this talk at the University of Louisville and this one at Central Michigan University. In both cases, I simply embedded my clicker questions in the Prezi (in a particularly clever way in the Louisville talk) and ran my clicker software on top of Prezi. Worked like a charm.

(See how I turned the entire Prezi into one big clicker question? The letters A, B, C, and D weren’t visible until near the end of the presentation when I zoomed out and posed my final clicker question.)

Of course, in those talks, I was mostly moving linearly through the Prezi. I can see, however, setting up a Prezi where your clicker questions are organized visually in groups and subgroups and using that to go nonlinear during a class session. It’s not quite as slick as typing a number and instantly moving to a different slide, but I would guess that some of us would be faster at navigating visually to a new question than remembering or looking up a question number.

Finally, one of the comments on the Inside Higher Ed article that Bill sent me links to a blog post describing a “Choose Your Own Adventure” session on information literacy designed and facilitated by librarians at the University of Dubuque. PowerPoint hyperlinks (yet another way to move nonlinearly through a slide deck) were used with clicker questions to have the students determine the progression through the slide deck as they grappled with information literacy tasks like finding and evaluating the quality of sources.

I’ve been eager to find more examples of this kind of classroom response system use since I first read about it in the David Banks book on response systems. That edited volume includes a chapter (Hinde & Hunt, 2006) on the use of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style question tree in an economics course. For more on the Dubuque library use of CYOA / question trees, see this follow-up blog post and the PowerPoint deck itself.

Thanks for sharing, Bill!

Image: “Choose Your Own Adventure 1” by Flickr user Jason Permenter, Creative Commons licensed

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