The False Choices of Pedagogy Critics

Framing the instructional situation as a set of either-or choices, such as abandoning textbooks in favor of primary sources or substituting student inquiry projects for teachers’ lectures, ignores the perennial challenges that history students and, consequently, history teachers face in trying to learn history and develop historical understanding. History is a vast and constantly expanding storehouse of information about people and events in the past. For students, learning history leads to encounters with thousands of unfamiliar and distant names, dates, people, places, events, and stories. Working with such content is a complex enterprise not easily reduced to choices between learning facts and mastering historical thinking processes. Indeed, attention to one is necessary to foster the other.

—Robert B. Bain, “‘They Thought the World Was Flat?’,” in M. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Bransford, eds., How Students Learn: History in the Classroom (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2005), 180

What’s a Good Small-Group Activity to Illustrate the Concept of a False Dichotomy?

America's most movie-friendly classroom

An interesting new study conducted at Harvard University and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that undergraduates in introductory physics courses learn more in classrooms that employ active-learning instruction methods (specifically, problem-solving in small groups) than students taking notes on “passive” lectures—but think they learn less. The researchers propose that this discrepancy between actual and perceived learning happens because active learning requires more effort on students’ part; it feels frustrating or inefficient. They also warns that this means that relying on student evaluations of teaching could lead instructors to use “inferior (passive) pedagogical methods” in their quest to achieve the popularity of “superstar lecturers.”

The study (full version in PDF format here) seems excellent in design and careful in its conclusions. Unfortunately, Harvard has publicized it with a news article that draws a tiresome false dichotomy between lectures and active learning, going so far as to quote the peer-instruction proponent Eric Mazur—who helped with the study—this way:

‘This work unambiguously debunks the illusion of learning from lectures,’ he said. ‘It also explains why instructors and students cling to the belief that listening to lectures constitutes learning.’

Of course, the study does no such thing as Mazur’s first claim.

Continue reading “What’s a Good Small-Group Activity to Illustrate the Concept of a False Dichotomy?”

PowerPoint Basics for Historians: Part 1


Part 1: Design Fundamentals

This is the first installment of a series designed to help historians use Microsoft PowerPoint effectively in the classroom. (You may want to read the series introduction first.)

Today, I’m writing about the big picture of PowerPoint design. This post is about how to set up a slideshow to communicate in the classroom (or conference hall) clearly and effectively. It’s not really about the technology, per se—at this stage, we’re just talking about how to build a visual communication element into a history talk.

As you design your presentation, you should keep three core principles in mind:

  1. Minimalism
  2. Argument
  3. Flow

Continue reading “PowerPoint Basics for Historians: Part 1”

PowerPoint Basics for Historians: Introduction


Let’s face it: If you teach or make other kinds of history presentations, you probably use PowerPoint.

Microsoft’s presentation slideshow software is more than thirty years old. It’s a standard piece of classroom technology. Students expect it. Instructors rely on it.

Yet many of us are sheepish about it. We complain about presenters who simply read their slides aloud. Some teachers warn that relying on PowerPoint is dangerous; a good professor, they say, can walk into any classroom and teach no matter what technology is available that day. Many claim the premise of PowerPoint is flawed because the lecture itself is an outdated teaching method. Also, a lot of presentations are really ugly.

There is some merit to all of these complaints. And there are other slideshow software programs on the market. But the chances are good that if you’re teaching history, you’re using PowerPoint anyway.

There are good reasons for that. PowerPoint is an excellent tool.

I learned some of PowerPoint’s virtues the hard way in my first training-wheels-off teaching job. Hired at the very last minute for a U.S. history survey, I hit the lectern before I even had a university email account or network login—and without the opportunity to assign books ahead of time. My students were lost for the first few days, my printed handouts notwithstanding. PowerPoint, when I could finally access the classroom computer, probably saved the course.

Lately, on course evaluations, students leave me a surprising number of comments like these:


I’m certainly not claiming that PowerPoint is the only way to present history. But it can be a powerful way. Contrary to some critics’ expectations, using it effectively means more than simply projecting text on a screen. To use PowerPoint well is to design a more immersive narrative for your course. And your PowerPoint slides don’t have to be ugly, either.

In this series of posts, I plan to explain some of the things I’ve learned about using PowerPoint in history classes. Some of what I have to say is very practical–it’s about avoiding basic technical hiccups. Some is about graphic design. Some is specifically about using PowerPoint to craft a story and exhibit historical evidence.

Tomorrow, in my first post, I’ll begin with a few fundamental principles.