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.
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.
This all sounds fine, but does it really work?
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).