Monday, 24 April 2017

Practicals before PowerPoints

When I was first teaching Windows programming PowerPoint hadn’t been released, so one of my first projects was to write a program to create and present course slides.  It was written in C (which was all there was for Windows in those days), and it seemed quite elegant to be able to present a course using a (huge) video projector.  When PowerPoint came out I switched to using that, largely because of things like clipart.  Since then using PowerPoint or its equivalents to present courses has become pretty much universal, so much so that it’s often taken for granted.

In the last few years though, I’ve found myself presenting for a week or so as part of long training programmes.  Often students will have had many weeks of sitting watching PowerPoint slides, so I started giving my sections without using PowerPoint past the introduction.  And it has worked really well!  Not only does it give them a break from staring at a projector screen, but it has allowed them to learn better as well.

More recently I read an article in a scientific magazine saying how people often learn more if the traditional approach of talking about something and then doing practical exercises is reversed, and I’ve found this to be true.  The practical-first approach is particularly effective when teaching things like Python to relative beginners, many of whom have never really programmed before.  Python is particularly good for this, as students can write a program which ‘does something’ with almost no background theory at all.

It's harder to do this with subjects like MVC and web applications where some content is really needed before fingers can hit the keyboards, but even then I find I’m preferring to draw things on a nice big whiteboard rather than resorting to PowerPoint.  Better still, every course is a little bit different rather than being the same old sequence of slides, so I enjoy teaching even more.