In praise of chalk: the value of teaching without technology

It is almost the end of the academic term, and time to reflect on the past year’s teaching.  Before I move into summer research activities, I like to take a little time to consider what changes to make in my teaching approach for the 2012-2013 campaign.  One thing, however, will stay the same:  I will continue to teach with a piece of chalk.  Perhaps this seems obvious to some, but at the University level, I think most Professors have long abandoned the chalkboard. I encourage all instructors to return to the chalk, and here’s why.

The dependable chalk and eraser.

1. Lights on! Using a chalkboard means the lights in a classroom have to be on, which keeps people more alert and engaged.  It is seldom that students fall asleep when the lights are up, but in a traditional lecture format, when the lights dim, the eyelids drop.

2. Take notes:  Students, when following along with an instructor who uses a chalkboard, take notes.  This means they are actively engaged in the content. This also means the cell phones are away.  When I teach with chalk, there is an alertness and level of engagement that I have not witnessed with other lecture formats.

3. Slow down:  related to the previous point, when teaching with chalk, the pace must be slow because it takes time to write on a blackboard, and it takes time for students to draw / write what is being delivered.  In general, I find that instructors (myself included!) try to cover too much content, and this usually ends badly.  Less is more.  Cover less material, but cover it well, and slowly.

4. Write, erase, write, erase:  the chalkboard allows for quick and efficient “changes” to a sentence, graph, or mathematical equation. You can change on the fly, and quickly adjust what you write, and fix mistakes.

 5. No faking it:  It is very, very difficult to give a lecture on a chalkboard if you don’t know the material.  You cannot depend on the powerpoint slide to guide you, instead you actually have to prepare carefully. No excuses.  Technology can be a crutch and allow an instructor to appear as if they know the content.  Go away, gimmicks.  Give me chalk.

6. Humour & Humility:  A Professor with a piece of chalk can have high entertainment value.  In one of my classes this term, I think some of the students may have a bet each class about whether or not I will drop another piece of chalk (and watch it shatter into a dozen pieces).  They think this is funny (and I appreciate that this is something that other people like about teaching with chalk!).  I also make a lot of mistakes. I forget how to do simple math, and I  make spelling mistakes.  They catch me, correct me, and enjoy this kind of interaction.  This humility makes the instructor seem like a real person.  Someone you might be willing to approach, and talk to.

7. Cost: Universities are under pretty immense budgetary constraints these days – I think data projectors are here to stay, but I don’t see much opportunity for investment in smartboards and/or tablets for everyone.  Chalkboards are in place.  Chalk is cheap.

The end of the lecture. Mistakes included.

This all sounds fine, but does it really work?

 Yes.

When talking about teaching metrics, my teaching scores have improved in classes where I use the chalkboard.  Comments from students are overwhelmingly in favour of this teaching approach.  They tell me that it is more engaging, and they appreciate the interactive nature. I personally find it a very rewarding experience and well worth the effort.

Speaking of effort, in the long-term, I think teaching with chalk reduces the amount of time it takes to prepare lectures.  It forces the instructor to drill down to the KEY FACTS and work to know them well without wasting time on Powerpoint slides.

You all know what I mean about Powerpoint: fiddle, fiddle, tweak, change font, re-size, re-align, insert picture, lighten, darken, group, un-group, new format, change the background, alter the bullets, etc etc etc.  Powerpoint is a TIME SUCK.  Stay away.

You might say, here: “come on, Buddle, you are out of touch and getting old” and  “Technology is our friend…. the chalk board – seriously???”  Let me clarify -  If I had the choice between a data projector and a chalkboard, I will pick the latter.  In my teaching environment, these are the only two real options.  If I had a ‘smart board‘  I would probably try it out and perhaps use it.  My children have smartboards in most of their elementary school classrooms and smartboards are impressive.  A smart board allows for a nice interplay between static and dynamic delivery of content.  There are also tablets and apps (e.g., see this post  and this one) that can really act like a smart-board, and although I have not yet used them, I have heard good things.  I would argue, however, that even these tools are not the same as the spontaneity and engagement that is possible with the good old chalkboard.  It’s not surprising that classrooms across the nation still install chalkboards: economical, efficient, engaging.

Caveats:  This approach may not work with all courses, and all types of content.  I use this approach mostly in a medium-sized Population and Community Ecology class, where the content is graphical, mathematical, conceptual and includes relatively few word definitions.  It is multi-layered content that does not depend on or need static visuals.  That being said, I do throw in the odd Powerpoint lecture, to mix things up a bit (this is especially true when images/photographs are important).

What do YOU think?   I’d love to hear your opinions (especially from students).

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25 thoughts on “In praise of chalk: the value of teaching without technology

  1. I do agree with what you say.

    A) It is literally impossible to take notes on a computer, especially with all the graphs and equations, which means no internet. Which means focus in class.

    B) The interactive part is definitely a big part of what made me like this class this semester, since we’re able to joke here and there throughout the course it relieves a big part of the “burden” of going to class… you know these days you really don’t feel like going to class.

    C) The fact that we have to write notes during the class means you’re writing it a first time. For me it’s always been the first step to understanding a concept or a formula.

    BUT.

    Seriously, if all my classes were like this I’d never get through university. It’s hard to miss a class because then all you have is the book. Pop com was fine because you did follow the book pretty closely, and it is well written/easy to grasp.

    I would say its a great way to teach math or “graphical” science, basically anything you can draw on a board. When memorization comes into play though, it makes it much harder, because you seriously can’t miss anything the teacher says. And it makes it a lot of work to catch back after missing a class.

    The only other thing, is a teacher with a crappy writing. When you can’t read half of what’s on the board, it really puts another obstacle. (I’m not pointing this at you, but in general)

    Other than this, I think chalkboard-thought classes end up being pretty cool, because only confident/passionnate teachers still do it, and that’s needed if a teacher wants his students to stay focused on the subject for a whole hour.

  2. Good point Chris. While I couldn’t see this being possible day-to-day for an insect diversity course (for example), I can see it being a useful strategy for certain topics (an introduction to phylogenetics/taxonomy for example). I’ll stash the idea away for the future!

  3. I agree that writing on the board does keep students engaged and forces us to be really focused during class which is great. I do agree with the fact that students tend to sleep during powerpoint lectures because I do it too. It’s really nice to have a teacher that is so animated and outgoing during lectures it makes the time pass really quickly. I think as students we all want teachers we can relate to and teachers that can make us laugh during a lecture and give us silly examples to remember! By the way have you showed this blog to Prof Wheeler? He has the exact same view point as you do! He spent an entire 10 minutes before a lecture once talking about how much he loves chalk and he thinks it’s the greatest thing ever and if they ever take get rid of it he will protest:P

  4. For a math class, or a math-heavy biology class, I absolutely appreciate board-written notes (I prefer a white board to a chalk board, but only because it’s so much easier to see), but there are a lot of classes, especially in entomology, that benefit from slide lectures.

    For example, right now I’m taking introductory biochemistry, and I’m grateful the professor writes the notes and works through problems on a chalkboard (though in an audience of over 200 it can be almost impossible to see). I’m also taking forensic entomology and biology of parasitism, and for these courses slides seem much more appropriate; there’s a lot of ground to cover, a great deal to memorize, and images are tremendously helpful.

  5. Good comments, everyone – thanks! I agree – there is certainly a need for this teaching approach to be ‘context’ specific. Perhaps a compromise is the best approach and that is what should be encouraged – i.e., some lectures may be necessary with slides, whereas as others are more suitable for the chalkboard. Another important point raised is that not all instructors are comfortable without slides.

  6. I don’t think there are any more chalk boards here at UConn, they are all white boards, but the same ideas apply – when I am teaching intro bio labs I prefer to draw on the board than use the projector screen. As soon as the lights dim, I can practically feel all the students’ brains turning off.

    I have so many fond memories of classes with you and everyone else at Mac! And yes with chalkboard lectures you reeeeaaally have to pay attention and it’s a greater incentive for not missing class. However it is tough when the material really lends itself to needing lots of pictures, like for entomology. That’s when, like you say, a mixture of techniques is warrented. I’ve found that lectures that include pictures (or drawings) and story telling are the most memorable.

    I’m starting to plan my teaching strategy for field entomology this summer, so I’ll definitely keep your tips in mind!

  7. I definitely agree that writing on the board can be a much better method in some classes. I’m always much more alert and productive while writing notes and having the lights on. When teachers use powerpoints they tend to rush through a lot of material with the lights off and I either fall asleep or leave class feeling overwhelmed by all the material that was covered. When a professor writes out the notes and explains at the same it, it shows that they know the material whereas some profs will read the slides and the majority of the class loses interest very quickly. It really depends on the class and what material is being taught; if there a lot of graphs and drawings then handwritten notes will be far better than anything typed up, but in a class where visuals are especially important, powerpoints can be vital to understanding the material.

  8. I now really appreciate having grown up and gone through my schooling in the chalk era; teacher-student interactions are much closer and more spontaneous than when lectures are taught with powerpoint slides. I feel that I get to know my teachers who use chalkboards much more closely and this is something I really value. In a world where person-to-person interaction is going down the drain, I feel that chalkboard classes provide an environment where people actually interact again.

    I’ll admit that I missed a few classes of Professor Buddles; it’s been a rough semester for me personally. But Population and Community Ecology was by far my favourite course this semester, not only because the material is interesting to me, but because it was taught by a very talented (and interestingly quirky!) professor.

    I agree that too much material is a SERIOUS issue (see ECON 208). Having to cram too much information means that I can never focus too deeply on any one thing. Chalkboards slow things down to a human pace. I can think of many classes that would be MUCH better off using this method. Doctor Dunphy, teacher of Insect Biology, also used this method, and interjected hilariously sarcastic humour to keep us engaged in those tedious three-hour insect physiology lectures.

    Dreary, never-ending, jam-packed powerpoint lectures are quite painful. Supplementing chalkboard lectures with some online material (as Professor Buddle does) is a much better method in my opinion.

    LONG LIVE CHALK!

  9. Absolutely agree! Chalk is the best medium for lectures. It’s less wasteful than whiteboards, more entertaining and interesting than PowerPoint, the teacher is interacting more directly with the class rather than hiding behind a podium under dim lighting, and, as you said, as a student you know whether they really do (or don’t) know their subject! PowerPoint has its place: for short, dense talks at conferences. Not lecturing.

  10. I must say, I take my best notes and am generally more engaged in classes with chalk. I spend more time recording information and a hard time recording information I don’t understand. When I right a point down that doesn’t make sense to me, it jumps out and I question it. Chalk is a great tool and has worked for many years but I don’t believe it can work for every situation. As stated before, it becomes more tedious in courses that require a lot of information to be recorded. Powerpoints have the advantage of giving us students a digital copy for us to review during exam time. It also provides us pictures and colours which can be very helpful with biology class. One of my favourite courses (along side with Pop Com) is Microbial Ecology which is Powerpoint based. It strives that it shows lots of pictures of microbes and when you can visually see microbes, they become so much more awesome. It would be quite painful to reproduce all the images brought up in my notes. I say this even though my notes are filled with various organisms fighting each other, sometimes trying to simply walk into Mordor.
    There can also be middle ground between powerpoints vs chalk and various modifications.
    Dr. Knutt and Dr. Cherestes gave us the powerpoint slides before the lectures. This was fantastic as a lot of the information was readily there so I didn’t have to record what was on the slides but I can also add what she was saying to directly to the related slide. It is very confusing when I’m reading my notes from a powerpoint based lecture and I have no clue what I am referencing. I find this approach would be very helpful for classes with a lot of information and/or pictures.
    My high school chemistry teacher (Mr. Finkle) and Dr. Begg used a mixed method. They both supplied the powerpoints before lecture and had classboard lectures when they felt a powerpoint was not the best way to teach a concept.
    My high school AP Stats and AP Calc teacher, Mr. te-Bokkel, used a whiteboard with sensors. It allowed him to digitally record his lectures for students who were sick while not limiting the interactiveness of the lesson. Not sure if attendance would drop for other professors (I doubt people would voluntarily not go to your class) since in high school, it is technically illegal to skip school. Note, with being math courses, a whiteboard/blackboard would be an ideal choice.
    Final point, we have two Smart boards on campus. They are in the library study rooms. They are quite fun to play with but I think my study group gets annoyed since all I do is play with them. At least up until they removed the ability for me to plug my laptop into it.

  11. Thanks everyone – yes, I agree that chalkboards are particularly well suited for mathematics and I think for a lot of content that is more conceptual / graphical in nature. But yes, the best is probably a combined approach. The key, I think, is to find a way to keep the engagement factor high i.e., whether it is with blackboard/whiteboard/whiteboard app etc, the key ingredient is having an instructor willing to interact directly with the content, and interact with the students. Charles is also quite correct that for scientific conferences, etc, powerpoint can be very effective.

  12. As a high-school mathematics/chemistry teacher, I prefer the whiteboard/blackboard. One, I can prepare lessons more quickly. Also, it allows me to take the method I use for 1-on-1 tutoring and transfer it to the classroom.

    With tutoring, I work through problems line by line with a student. A struggling student typically makes, say, 5 mistakes in a 7 line problem. When we repeat the problem, this is reduced to, say, 3 mistakes. Then 1 mistake. Till, finally, no mistakes.

    With a class, I quiz them on the next step in a problem as we work through it. And we can repeat the process, making fewer mistakes. Sometimes the repeat process is just to list the different numerical answers that students have calculated. This spurs them to find the right answer.

    Best of all was a recent experience I had as substitute teacher. It was with a class of students who were all sitting around 10-20% from previous Maths tests. To determine their skill level and to provide model answers for the rest of the class, I selected students at random to work through the calculus problems on the whiteboard with me. Their skill level was surprisingly good. In fact, very good. Outstanding even.

    What was it about that experience that allowed them to come out of their “failure cocoons”? Of course, there must have been a myriad of factors. But I know it would not have happened without the whiteboard.

  13. One problem with chalkboards that no one seems to have highlighted is that you have to face away from the class to write on the board. I can still remember one physics professor who delivered most of his lecture directly to the chalkboard, writing furiously and unintelligibly with his right hand while erasing just as furiously with his left. Other than when he paused to catch his breath, I never actually saw what he was writing. Perhaps it was his method of dealing with agoraphobia, but I certainly didn’t learn much physics.

    I agree with Chris that it is engaging the students that is most important, but I think the major problems with PowerPoint are similar to those with any teaching medium: (1) cramming too much on a slide in tiny font; (2) racing through the slides too quickly; (3) talking to the screen instead of the class; and (4) getting the students to understand that the slides are only an illustrated outline of the lecture material. When keeping those points in mind, I think that PowerPoint can be used effectively. For example, one can present a formula or concept as a sequence of slides – work through it on the slides just as you would on a board – and then back-up to a slide for a question or repeat a slide for emphasis (once you erase something on a board, it isn’t so easy). Also, a picture can be more useful than many words, and the one great strength of PowerPoint is the ability to integrate pictures and words.

    I use PowerPoint supplemented with a whiteboard – to expand on points or add information in response to student questions – and handouts (or rather downloads) that summarize the lecture material and provide suggested readings. Unless I’m giving a picture-driven overview, I dim the lights only over the podium and screen. The lighting over the class tends to wash out the pictures, but a dark room is too conducive to sleep. I invariably misspell or make other mistakes in my PowerPoints – and correcting them in class is just as interactive as from a board. Actually, I sometimes add deliberate mistakes to see if the class is paying attention, or at least that is what I claim. If PowerPoint is replaced by a newer technology, I don’t think I’ll miss it, but I think it has been a useful tool when used to integrate pictures with an outline of the lecture material.

  14. I think for a math-based course like Pop. &Com. Ecology, chalkboards are the way to go. It’s much more interactive and engaging for us students, and I think that if a student doesn’t understand a concept, they are more likely to ask a question if the the problem/equation/graph is being written out in front of them. If the whole completed problem pops up on a slide I don’t think that is the case as often. I also agree that chalkboard learning forces us to pay attention. I make more of an effort to take clear, understandable notes in your class than any other because I don’t have online notes to fall back on, just the textbook. As a result, though, I actually absorb a lot more of the info right there in class.

    SmartBoards would be a really great alternative to chalkboards, I’ve had great classes with smartboards (Just make sure you figure out how to use it before the term starts–A SmartBoard was installed in one of my highschool classrooms part-way through the term, and the teacher wasted so much time each class just trying to figure out how to use it properly)

  15. Great points – I agree that the back to the class is a disadvantage of a chalkboard – this is where perhaps a white-board app on a tablet/ipad could be useful. But, as Erin points out, with a smartboard comes a need for some technical expertise. Again, the comments reflect nicely the argument that a mixed-approach is probably the way to go, whenever possible & that paying close attention to how the powerpoint slides are put together is important. I also very much like Peter’s point about how getting out of the ‘failure cocoon’ was facilitated by an interactive teaching approach.

  16. The worst part of trying to learn from powerpoint is the post-lecture studying and synthesis of information. It is incredibly difficult for me to process information and concepts without writing them down on a piece of paper, and I know many other students operate in the same manner. If I’m in a class with powerpoint, I take notes in a notebook, print the powerpoints, and then have to re-write the powerpoints in order to understand them! There’s also the textbook to consider. What I’ve found in most of the powerpoint-based classes is that the information I need becomes too dispersed and I end up with the same information written in different ways. This creates an even larger study headache than necessary! It becomes way too difficult to bring information together and synthesize it in a larger context.

    With pop&comm ecology, there was a notebook, and a small textbook. That was it. And it was awesome. You could make inferences and synthesize the information into answering more theoretical questions because the basics were very clear and accessible. And yes, it is some nice comic relief to watch profs do the awkward scramble around the front of the room for the last half-piece of chalk.

  17. This is my last semester as an undergrad and I find it regrettable that in most classes powerpoint was the primary mode of lecturing. I feel powerpoints tend to over-emphasize synthetic thinking -making lists, thinking in broad categories- at the expense of analytic thinking -delving into specific examples, understanding the steps of a process, etc. And it’s so much more engaging to be listening to someone directly rather than having to split one’s attention between what the speaker says and what the slide shows. Anyway that’s my impression

  18. hey Chris, Yao Hua here, from your Insect Ecology class of…2004, 2005? Also did a ant biodiversity project in your lab right before I left for UC Davis. I’m now back in Malaysia, teaching and doing insect behavioural ecology research in a local university. I’ve always wanted to send you an email, especially when I had my first publication! Although I have NEVER seen you at conferences in the States, I have met Terry and some of your students at almost every Ecology or Entomology conference during 2006-2011 =).

    Anyway, I really dislike Powerpoints. I think it’s good only for showing complex figures, or for facilitating a class discussion based on figures and I don’t want to kill trees by printing tens of papers.
    I really like the whiteboard, and the chalkboard for that matter. It allows me to really draw and highlight key points on the go, as well as to incorporate students’ feedback easily into the contents. My Ph.D. supervisor, Jay Rosenheim, is such an incredible teacher and he teaches most, if not all of his lectures with the chalkboard.
    However, given my lack of height, the top 1/3 of the board is usually out of my league. Sad.

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  20. Well, somehow I learned much of what I know via professors wielding chalk.

    That said, just like with any technology, used well, PPT can be a good thing. For instance, when I teach histology and developmental biology sections of a cell physiology course, some form of image display is required. The embryology course that I took during my undergrad zoology years at U of Calgary relied on detailed images… there’s just no getting around it with a course like that. That type of content has always relied on imagery, and always will. The method of presenting the imagery has changed over time, however.

    I think that it depends on what you use the PPT technology for. If it’s just list after list and words and more words… then just write it on a board and be done with it. But if it’s complex graphs and/or detailed anatomical (etc.) images, then PPT is just fine.

    Maybe part of it is that I treat PPTs like a bit of a slideshow. Because, when it comes down to it, PPTs are really just… slides. Prior to PPT projectors we would make a PPT presentation and then print it out onto bonafide slides. After that, no more fiddling was possible. The most you could do once they were printed out was change the order in the carrousel.

    Perhaps it depends on how you are using PPT technology. Treat it like a slideshow and it’s fine. Treat it like this:

    http://www.nbr.co.nz/article/us-army-creates-world-s-worst-powerpoint-slide-122255

    …and you’re asking for trouble.

  21. Hi Dezene – thanks for the comment – yes, PPT can be effective – it’s all in who prepares the slides, how and with what content! My course is particularly well suited to chalk, but some courses just wouldn’t work well without PPT. For example, I ran into a Prof. in Dietetics today and talked to her about this – she said that it would be nearly impossible to deliver her courses without PPT – she uses case studies a lot, and the information is so rich and deep that PPT is req’d.

    Yeah, I’ve seen that US army PPT before. Yikes, indeed.

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