Historiographical Blogging: Re-Integrating Unassessed Writing into the Undergraduate Curriculum

When I was in high school, my United States history teacher started the year by playing a short clip from A River Runs Through It, in an attempt, I assume, to inspire us to greatness. Needless to say, a large number of my fellow classmates were greatly disappointed when, after a mere 1:30, he halted the movie and began, believe it or not, to lecture. Yet, some fifteen years later, watching this clip is one of the handful of very distinct and detailed memories I have of that year. He did not, if I remember correctly, elaborate on the point of this cinematic preamble, but its purpose became abundantly clear when he marked our first piece of coursework.

The scene, for those unable or unwilling to follow the link above, is as follows:


Voice Over: I attended the school of the Reverend Maclean. He taught nothing but reading and writing. And being a Scot, believed that the art of writing lay in thrift.

Reverend: [After marking the boy’s essay] Half as long.

[Boy returns to desk to rewrite his essay]

Voice Over: So while my friends spent their days at Missoula Elementary, I stayed home and learned to write the American language.

Reverend: [After remarking the boy’s essay] Again, halt as long.

[Boy returns to desk to rewrite his essay]

Reverend: [After remarking the boy’s essay]: Good. Now throw it away.


Although I attempted to follow his advice, it was not until two years later, in my second year of university, that I understood the cause of my rambling prose. Somehow, the details having now somewhat faded from my recollection, I ended up taking two graduate seminars in my third semester of my undergraduate course. Both, as you would expect, required me to read roughly 200 pages of text a week, primary and secondary, and come prepared to discuss the nuance of the language and argument with the other students. The first day of the seminar, my professor turned to me and asked, quite directly, what I felt was the core message behind Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, which we had been asked to read, in its entirety, the previous week. I believe I gave a rather uninspired summary of utilitarianism, which I have now seemingly repressed, and, after several rather embarrassing hmmms and ummms, concluded with ‘I know it, but I can’t explain it.’

After a moment he responded ‘If you can’t explain it, you do not understand it.’ I probably turned scarlet as he, rather compassionately, moved onto one of the graduate students and gave me, I believe, a full five minutes to recover my composure before again enquiring my opinion about the finer points of Bentham’s writing.

I was a keen student and had actually read the text cover to cover, taking what I thought were very appropriate notes, but he had been absolutely right. I didn’t really understand utilitarianism and certainly could not appreciate the nuance of the philosophy evident in Bentham’s writing. It was not that I could not write well (we had also been required to compose a one-page seminar paper); the problem was that I could not read well. Like almost every student I have taught, I was reading for content, not for argument, and had not yet developed an eye for critical analysis.

The Student Becomes the Teacher

Some twelve years on, my eye for argument and my attempts at brevity have certainly improved, but these skills have become largely implicit and therefore not directly relatable to my students. My first instinct, therefore, was to teach them the way I had been taught, unrelenting practice. As an undergraduate, I had taken four modules per semester, two semesters per year, for four years. Each of these required roughly thirty pages (10000 words of writing) in short and long essays, a mid-term and a final examination.

When I began to teach in the UK, I realized that repeating my own experience was simply not an option. My current second-year, semester-long module requires only a single 2000-word essay and a single 2-hour exam, and this level of assessment is roughly similar to what I have set elsewhere in the UK. Why the sharp dichotomy? As you are likely aware, there is an ever-growing pedagogic belief (evidently foreign to my old-school undergraduate instructors) that students are terribly over-assessed.

The difficulty in saying students are over-assessed is not that it is untrue, but that students and pedagogic researchers interpret the statement very differently. The latter are concerned that students are becoming overly strategic in their learning, attempting to beat into submission an ever-increasing number of formulaic if not wholly quantitative assessments of their recall knowledge. The former, who clearly pay attention to education reporting, but seemingly miss the nuance of the complaint, respond to demands that they read two journal articles per week with an indignant clearing of their throat and a forceful reminder that they ‘have other classes, too’.

Pedagogically, the answer is simple: keep summative assessment to a minimum and instead rely on a wide variety of formative exercises to develop analytical skills, encourage deep learning, and prepare them to demonstrate their mastery of key learning outcomes. The difficulty with formative work, so abstractly approved of, is that neither student nor lecturer feels they have the time to undertake work that ‘doesn’t count.’ In order to re-integrate formative assessment into the undergraduate curriculum, it has to be meaningful, not merely on an abstract, humanistic level, but on a practical one as well; it must, in short, save rather than expend time. A student must feel that formative work will make reading faster (by which I mean more efficient), essay writing faster and exam revision faster, all while improving or at least maintaining an expected mark. A lecturer must feel that marking additional writing will reduce rather than increase the amount of time they spend marking summative work.

Learning From Failure

In every university in which I have taught, I have found the same three areas particular difficult for my students: critical reading, thoughtful analysis and basic presentation skills.

  • Failure to Read Critically — Wherein the student fails to realise that although an author may be correct, restating their conclusions does not demonstrate critical thinking
  • Lack of Thoughtful Analysis — Wherein the student undermines their own argument by couching it in indefinite language or contradictory assertions
  • Muddled Presentation Style — Wherein, despite using a powerful word processor, the colour, font and spacing of the essay are all amiss

These three errors are the most troubling because they are the most time consuming. By reading uncritically, or without purpose, students spend far more time reading an article or a chapter than they need to because, rather than understand how argument and evidence support each other, they are, erroneously, attempting to memorise or copy down every detail of content. The problem is compounded when they write, as they have stacks of notes to transform into prose and must spend a significant amount of time removing articles and prepositions in an attempt to stay within the word-count. The result, from our perspective, is an uncritical soup of evidence without analysis, opinion without evidence, and sentences that have become so mangled that they retain no meaning whatsoever. Correcting grammar, syntax and spelling is both tedious and time consuming, as is trying to think of something constructive to feed-forward when the student clearly has no idea that New England is a region rather than a state, or, indeed, a city.

So, over the past seven years, I have developed a series of formative exercises to teach my students how to read and write efficiently, and, in the process, save myself from crying over a stack of unintelligible accounts of the First World War.

My first effort was pretty basic. Following the example of my predecessors, I assigned my students a series of pre-seminar questions, asking them to write short responses and email them to me prior to the seminar; I could give these brief notes and return them during the seminar. Although many of my students dutifully completed these, I saw no improvement in either their week-to-week submissions or their final essays. Hypothesizing that peer-to-peer collaboration might encourage deeper analysis, and a permanent online record might result in long-term progress, I activated my VLE’s discussion board functionality, with lackluster results. In the end, I decided that my students needed a more structured approach — a greater indication of which parts of the reading were the ‘important bits’ and what types of writing I expected within their essays.

Over the past four years, I have put forth several variants of what eventually became the Historiography Blog. The first was a hard-copy worksheet, requiring students to detail an article’s evidence and argument. Students had to complete one each week and hand it to me as they entered the seminar room. No worksheet, no entry (except on compassionate grounds). Encouraged by the relative success of the historiographical worksheet, in student feedback if not in improved marks, and the relative success of my own online endeavours, I decided to digitize the worksheet by transforming it into a blog. This would allow me to read my students’ entries in advance of the seminar, without overwhelming my inbox, and post immediate, permanent feedback that students could review whenever they wished.

How to Create a Historiography Blog

My current university uses Blackboard as its Virtual Learning Environment, which contains an integrated, if somewhat fiddly, blogging interface. If you do not use Blackboard, or your VLE does not containing blogging functionality, there are an ever-growing number of free, third-party blogging platforms out there. Despite some rather atrocious cut-and-paste errors, which sometimes demolish a student’s careful formatting, I chose to use the Blackboard system because it was private and because it did not require students to have or obtain a third-party account; the ‘I couldn’t figure out how to log in’ excuse was one that I did not want to face.

During the first seminar, I explained, in detail, the requirements of the blog:

  • They must write an entry on one piece of reading, each week, for all twelve weeks
  • Entries would be private during the first six weeks, and shared anonymously with the class during the final six weeks
  • Entries must include all three citations formats (bibliography, long-form footnote and short footnote) for the work
  • Entries must list a selection of key details (evidence) used by the author
  • Entries must provide a summary of the author’s argument
  • Entries must provide a short critical analysis of one aspect of the author’s argument (a sample essay paragraph)
  • Finally, entries must be submitted 48 hours before the start of the seminar to allow me sufficient time to read them and provide feedback

I then showed them a sample blog entry, which they could use as a model.

The Results

The results were, of course, mixed, but overall I was very pleased with the diligence of my students.

  • How Well?Most submissions contained all four sections, to varying degrees of accuracy and depth, and most students learned from their initial mistakes, improving as the weeks went on. Referencing, in particular, became far more consistent in both formative and summative work. There was a similar improvement in their ability to concisely summarise the main argument of an article or chapter. Their critical analyses were far more variable, but, if nothing else, a differentiation between “summary” and “analysis” became increasingly clear for some students.
  • How Long?Some entries were a mere 200-300 words, including their notes under ‘key details’. Others were 2000-word discursive nightmares. The majority were in between. As the weeks went on, most settled into the 500-750 word range. To mark the 50-odd entries took approximately 3 hours a week, though this decreased as the year progressed.
  • How Often?The first year I assigned the blogs, I spent very little time explaining how completing these (voluntary) assignments would impact their final mark, though I gave some indication that it would help them understand what I was looking for in their writing. I also kept them private throughout the duration of the module. I had a completion rate of approximately 75% for the first six weeks, but after the submission of their essays, the completion rate dropped off to a mere 5% or 10%. In the second year, I made the possible impact of the blogs far more explicit and the completion rate jumped to 85%-90% for the first six weeks. During the second half of the semester, I printed the (anonymised) blogs, and provided packets to all students who had completed their entry on time. By highlighting the usefulness of peer collaboration to exam revision, and with a surprising amount of peer pressure from their fellow students, the completion rate remained about 60% for the remainder of the year.
  • How Useful?Despite vocal complaints from students during and at the conclusion of the semester about being overworked, feedback forms overwhelmingly suggested that the historiography blogs be continued in future years. Essay marks did not universally improve but, interestingly, the division between mediocre and excellent papers became noticeably sharper. There were far fewer mid-2:2, most students separating easily into 2:1s and 3:1s. This suggests that it significantly helped some students but did little for others. Understanding why will require further study. Exam marks, conversely, did improve universally, with a far greater number of students including accurate historiographical information in their answers.

Onwards and Upwards

In the end, I must deem the historiography blogs a qualified success. For all the complaints and extra marking they engendered, they did seem to help a significant number of students develop their critical reading skills. I will, no doubt, continue to tinker with the formula in future years, but I cannot help but be proud of my students. They undertook a significant amount of ‘extra’ formative work during the semester; even if there were complaints, the overwhelming majority completed the voluntary blog and attended non-compulsory seminars week after week — indeed, my overall attendance rate almost doubled from previous years!

If any of you are reading this: well done.

**Image courtesy of atphoto.bg

Conquering the Undergraduate Dissertation: The Annotated Plan

As you reach the end of your undergraduate experience, you will be asked to undertake larger written works. No longer will you be confined to a mere 1500, 2000 or 3000 words. Instead, a paper of 7000 to 20000 words will be required to complete your degree.

Crafting a longer essay, usually referred to as a dissertation, can seem like a daunting task. Yet, in reality, the process of translating a good idea into an excellent dissertation is simply a series of small but straightforward steps—none of which need to frighten you.

First, you need to choose a topic, an aspect of history that you find interesting and would like to explore. You then need to develop a number of research questions to explore that topic in greater detail. Third, you need to undertake research to answer those questions. Finally, you need to write up your research in a way that explains your answers (or lack thereof) to an external audience.

Although most guidebooks focus on the final step, it is often the third that lands a student in difficulty. Moving from a good idea to a research programme can feel like stumbling into the dark. You may have a general idea of which keywords you should enter into the library catalogue or a search engine, but this often means falling back onto your overall topic, abandoning your research questions, perhaps forever. On the other hand, you may wish to simply read a long list of books, hoping something will jump out at you or that you will accumulate a sufficiently large stack of notes, out of which you can craft an acceptable paper. Only rarely do these systems result in a paper worthy of your original idea.

One solution to this perennial problem is to create an annotated dissertation plan at the start of your project. More than a mere outline of possible chapter topics, an annotated dissertation plan acts a road map for your research programme. It should include:

  • The current title of your dissertation
  • The overall aim or thesis of your dissertation
  • The current title of each of your sections or chapters
  • The specialised aim of each section or chapter, preferably in question form
  • A list of secondary sources relevant to each chapter aim
  • A (list of) question(s) that each chapter will ask of the primary material
  • A list of primary sources relevant to each chapter question

Once completed, each chapter should resemble this—derived retroactively from my own undergraduate dissertation, many years ago:

TITLE:
Scottish Cultural Identity in Colonial New England as Demonstrated by the Scotch-American Company of Farmers

AIM:
To explain the extent to which Scottish immigrants in New England continued to define themselves as Scottish during a period of nation-forming (1770-1820)

ANNOTATED CHAPTER STRUCTURE:
Social and Economic Conditions of Scotland in the Years Preceding the Company’s Formation

CHAPTER AIM:
Explain why the Ryegate immigrants traveled to New England when they did and what sort of cultural baggage they brought with them.

Bibliography:

  • Devine, T. M. Scotland’s Empire and the Shaping of the Americas, 1600-1815. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2004.
  • Devine, T. M. The Scottish Nation: A History, 1700-2000. New York: Viking, 1999.
  • Dobson, David. Scottish Emigration to Colonial America, 1607-1785. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
  • Gray, Malcolm. “The Social Impact of Agrarian Change in the Rural Lowlands.” In People and Society in Scotland: A Social History of Modern Scotland in Three Volumes, edited by T. M. Devine and Rosalind Mitchison, 53-69. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1988.
  • Stephenson, R. Scott. “‘Were My Object to Make Money, I Would Never Leave America’: Highland Soldiers and Scottish Emigration to North America, 1756-1775.” Harvard University Working Paper No. 96-11.
  • Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. New York: Viking, 2001.
  • Whatley, Christopher A. Scottish Society, 1707-1830: Beyond Jacobitism, Towards Industrialisation. Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Primary question: 

What were the specific social and economic conditions of the sending community immediately prior to their departure?

  • Sinclair, John. The Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-1799. Vol. 7, Wakefield: E. P. Publishing, 1973.

Not only will crafting this sort of plan force you to better define your research questions, it will help you visualise the relative sizes of your chapters and spot any potential weaknesses, such as a heavy reliance upon a single source. Although I felt my research had been relatively robust at the time, I found in retrospect that some of my chapters had relied entirely upon one or two secondary works and that certain secondary sources had been the bedrock of every single chapter. While not fatal—I did, after all, succeed in passing my dissertation—I know now that my project could have been for more evenly researched.

This sort of plan also serves as a solid starting point for discussions with your dissertation supervisor. Presented with only a general topic, most supervisors will struggle to offer you more than a list of possible reading materials until the first drafts begin to appear. Starting with annotated plan, he or she can see your prospective sources, and how you intend to use them, and can advise you on how to better focus your research questions or which additional sources might help fill in noticeable gaps.

Finally, by separating your source materials into discrete chapter- or question-focused piles, you can more easily divide your work over the next few months. Rather than read everything in the autumn and write everything in the spring, you can work section by section, alleviating the tedium of a single, unending task and receiving crucial feedback on your research and writing style well before your final submission date.

In the end, an annotated plan created in September or October may bear little resemblance to what you submit in May. It will, however, get you off to the right start.

**Image courtesy of DailyPic

Electronic Annotation of Student Essays (without Grademark)

Last year, I wrote about electronic marking with Grademark. The system had many advantages, including full integration with TurnItIn’s Originality Check software package. Students submitted their work online and it was stored in an online repository that I could access anywhere with an internet connection. I could create custom rubrics and pre-programmed annotations, such as ‘citation needed’ or ‘run-on sentence’, both of which made my marking more efficient. When I had completed my work, students could retrieve their electronic essays online using the same interface with which they had submitted them.

It was not a perfect system, but it did provide a straight-forward workflow.

When I began my new position, I found that my new department had a TurnItIn subscription, which could be used for electronic submission and plagiarism detection, but that it had not subscribed to the GradeMark package. My options were to forgo electronic submission, print out the submitted essays myself, or find a new annotation system. A friend to trees and a foe to falling down stairs—I am now on the eleventh floor—I opted for number three.

When students submit their essays electronically, they usually do so in one of two formats, a .doc (Microsoft) or a .pdf (Adobe). The former is the simplest to create and therefore the most popular choice. Although I do not rely upon TurnItIn’s originality check system, I do continue to use it as a submission platform; it provides me with a time-stamped repository and my students with immediate piece of mind that their essay has been received.

When I log on to the system, I can download each essay individually or I have the option of downloading a single archive (.zip) of all the essays in either format.

Which do I choose? In the end, it is a matter of personal preference, but here are my thoughts on a few, basic annotation options.

Review Tools within Microsoft Word

The first instinct of many experimenting with electronic marking is to use the review tools within Microsoft Word. These are often used in scholarly review and copy-editing and therefore many markers already have a solid understanding of their functionality. After clicking track changes, any revision you type will be inserted into the text—red and underlined—and any text your remove will be scored out. You can also highlight passages and add comment bubbles for more detailed annotations or comments throughout the text.

Pros: If you tend to make only minor annotations, or rely primarily on comment bubbles to convey your thoughts, Microsoft Word review tools may be the best choice for you. The file retains its original format and is therefore easily opened by you and your students. Assuming both of you are using Word (rather than another compatible word processor) the bubbles and annotations will automatically appear on your student’s screen exactly as they have on yours.

Cons: If you tend to make significant corrections, especially to grammar and syntax, you risk completely transforming the document to an unrecognisable mess of red ink. Although helpful during a copy-editing process, these annotations can be difficult to decipher without accepting the changes, which removes the student’s text or formatting, making it more difficult to see the difference between to the two versions.

When printing out the annotated essay, as most if not all your student will do, Word helpfully reduces the size of the text in order to add a column of ‘revision bubbles’ in the right-hand margin. For students with poor visual acuity, this can make reviewing the essay in hard-copy very difficult. Moreover, the more annotations you add directly to the text, the more the final format of the paper is altered. If a student has created page breaks by multiple taps of the enter key (rather than cntl+enter) or manually entered footnotes (rather than using cntl+alt+f) you end up with a terribly formatted paper, which can be very distracting to you and your student. Finally, if you enjoy making circles, squiggly lines or other free-hand annotations, these are possible in Word—using the insert shape or drawing tools—but are far from intuitive.

Mark-up Tools with Adobe Acrobat Reader or Foxit Reader

If you want an essay to maintain its original layout, allowing you to replicate the hard-copy annotation experience, it is better to use the .pdf format. Once opened in Adobe Acrobat Reader or an alternative—I use Foxit—you can make a wide variety of annotations to the text such as highlighting, underlining, inserting or striking-out text, as well as adding comment bubbles for more complicated notes.

Pros: The essay maintains its original layout, allowing you to easily comment upon the student’s margins, spacing and pagination. It also more closely replicates the hard-copy experience for students. Finally, annotations can be removed quickly if you make a mistake or change your mind.

Cons: If you do not use TurnItIn, you will need to convert your students’ essays to pdf yourself, or have your students do so before submission. This is not complicated, but does take time and energy. Making hand-drawn annotations, such as arrows or circles, is slightly more straight-forward but still requires a steady hand and can be slightly fiddly.

For students, the file should open effortlessly, but it is possible that some students will not have a .pdf reader on their computer, or will use a different programme from yourself. This could make the annotations appear in a slightly different way from what you intended. For example, in many readers, the student will have to hover over the comment bubble to see its contents, rather than have it displayed automatically. Likewise, unless the student selects the correct printing options, the bubbles will not appear in a printed version, leaving them with only your direct annotations, such as underlining. You can prevent this by creating a ‘comment summary’ (an option within Adobe and Foxit Readers) to send along with the marked essay, but this is an extra step you must factor in.

Mark-up Tools with Annotate for the iPad

If you are lucky enough to possess a tablet computer, you can take advantage of the hybrid annotation process offered by iAnnotate—available on both Android and iOS. This platform allows you to import either format—though .docs will be automatically converted to .pdfs— and annotate them with both your stylus (or your finger) and your keyboard. This allows you to highlight, underline, and strike-out text as you would with Adobe or Foxit, but also allow you to create free-hand circles, arrows or other copy-edit marks. You can also add comment bubbles to type long comments within the margins of the text.

Pros: The tablet programme fully replicates the hard-copy annotation experience, but allows you to improve it when and where you see fit. Illegible handwriting can be avoided by typing long comments, but short notes, such as ‘good’, can be scribbled using the signature function—which zooms into the text, allowing you to write legibly with your finger or stylus. It also provides a significant degree of portability, no matter how many individual scripts you have. Finally, the programme can be set to automatically sync with your DropBox or other cloud provider, allowing you to manipulate them further or send them from your desktop or laptop computer.

Cons: The programme is not free on iOS—though the introductory version on Android is—and you obviously have to own a tablet to make use of the software.

Both: You have to take a bit more care in returning the essays to your student than with the desktop pdf readers. If you upload them to your desktop before sending them, they will have some of the same comment bubble limitations as Adobe or Foxit annotated files; the comments may or may not appear on your student’s screen or printed version. However, if you send them directly from the app—to the student or yourself— you can choose to flatten the annotations. This will make them permanent, and uneditable, but will also essentially burn them into the pdf, making sure they do print and appear on the student’s screen regardless of which pdf reader they use.

Thus, the flattened comments will appear as numbered icons on within the text

and a list of comments will be automatically appended to the end of the file.

So, which programme should you use for electronic marking? It is entirely up to you. Word review tools provides the most straightforward workflow, especially if you do not use TurnItIn as a submission platform, but is also the most disruption to the visual appearance of the text. iAnnotate, on the other hand, best replicates the hard-copy experience students expect, but requires the greatest outlay of time (in returning the essays) and money to utilize. Desktop .pdf readers provide a solid, free middle ground and will likely be the best choice for most markers.

Image courtesy of rosefirerising, by CC-BY-NC-ND

‘Because I did well on it at school’: Progression and Novelty in HE History

Each semester, I ask my first-year students why they chose to study history at university. With some very minor variation in vocabulary, the most prominent responses are ‘because I think it’s interesting’ or ‘because I did well on it at school’.

In their second year, I ask them why they chose to take my module on US history. A sizeable minority continue to state ‘interest’ but the majority, by far, state that ‘I did some Civil Rights (or Civil War) history at school, and I did well at that, so I thought I would do it again.’

As they prepare for their final year, and their honour dissertations, I ask them what they would like to do. Their first response is generally along the lines of ‘I did some (insert module title / A-level subject here), and I did all right at that—or occasionally, I found that interesting—so I guess I’ll do that for my dissertation.’

Let me preface that there is absolutely nothing wrong about any of these responses. Interest and ability are completely rational reasons for choosing a degree programme, a module or a dissertation project. If a student did not find a topic at all interesting, or felt certain they would fail, no sensible person would recommend it. Moreover, it is a testament to the hard work of secondary school educators that history, including American history, was so engagingly taught.

Nonetheless, it worries me slightly that these responses change very little over the course of their university education. Many students are hesitant, if not outright hostile, to the idea of exploring a wholly new topic for their coursework, let alone their dissertations. I was extremely pleased that so many of my second-year students wanted to pursue a US history topic for the dissertations—it means that I did not completely terrify them during the introductory module—but the prevalence of the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War, very broadly defined, left me somewhat concerned.

These are excellent topics, but they are well covered in secondary school units and second-year modules; thus, in initial dialogues, students stick very closely to the themes, and sources, with which they are already familiar. Some students, it seems, are not necessarily progressing into more detailed, nuanced examinations of these topics of their own accord; they usually need gentle prodding from their supervisors.

But is this all a matter of preference? I had an extremely eclectic undergraduate experience, an experience my liberal arts university encouraged. Take, for example, my first year

  • First Semester: Western Civilisation, Spanish, The Freudian Interpretation of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, The Creative Actor
  • Second Semester: Actor as Thinker, Spanish, Comparative Genocide, Introduction to Logic

and my final year

  • First Semester: Intimacy and Dictatorship, Latin, Modern Drama, Comparative Colonialism, Dissertation
  • Second Semester: Renaissance and Reformation, Dissertation, Latin

Although my degree specialism was pre-1800 Europe, I took as many modules in literature, theatre arts and foreign languages as I did in history. It was, after all, a liberal arts institution. In the end, I do think that this nearly random assortment of modules—my personal tutor had to reign me in slightly my final year—made my choice of dissertation topic equally random, but that was the fun of it.

My students are no less clever than I was. Many are probably cleverer, or at least more knowledgeable on certain historical topics than I was at their age. But many are less adventurous, and I often wonder why.

On the one hand, perhaps it is the much earlier specialisation of British history students. My experience of history at secondary school was two, non-consecutive years of US history, a year of European history, and a year of world history. They were roughly chronological romps and assessed, in the main, by short coursework essays and rote-learning exams. My students, on the other hand, have already spent months, even years, on very narrow themes and topics, developing a great deal of intimate knowledge about them. There is absolutely a momentum to education—it was why so few historians suddenly become biologists after completing their PhD—and perhaps their experiences have focused their interest at a much earlier age.

This early specialisation is magnified by their relatively short university experience, a mere three years, at most eighteen to twenty semester-long modules, compared with my thirty-four. I had much more space to explore (and be bored with) a huge variety of periods and topics. With some British programmes consisting of just 9 year-long modules, there is little encouragement for eclecticism.

Finally, it could just be plain and simple common sense. There is a huge financial and social pressure upon students to immediately enter a ‘good’ programme at a ‘good’ university and leave with a ‘good’ degree. Experimentation may not seem worth the risk.

What I do find heartening, however, is that some students do rise to the challenge. Over the past semester I worked with forty-or-so second-year students to develop proposals for their dissertations. Many began with very broad topics, heavily influenced by the current coursework. But with a little prodding from me and my colleagues, many began to ponder the wider possibilities a bit more seriously. Random comments during lectures and seminars began to trigger ideas. Suddenly they were coming up with very precise, very unusual, but completely feasible projects.

This was I find most particularly gratifying about supervision. I am a curious person and I like nothing better than learning something new from my students.

So I ask you, gentle readers, and especially any of my students who have wandered here today, what has your experience of progression been? Have you been eclectic or focused? Safe or reckless? Contented or left wanting?

**Image courtesy of The University of Iowa Libraries, provided CC-BY-NC

Virtual Field Trips; or Teaching the American Civil War from Across the Pond

This spring, American Crises, a second-year module that explored US history from 1775 to 1968, ran for the first time. Structuring the course proved extremely difficult. Although I had been warned by friends, colleagues and my own common sense that I could not possibly cover 193 years of social, political, military, economic, and cultural history in twelve lectures and twelve seminars, I darn sure tried.

My experience has led me to revise several aspects of module, but one that will remain is the inclusion of unassessed group presentations.

Presentations are a strange pedagogical creature.  On the one hand, they are often touted as a critical component of a well-round education experience. Most jobs require some degree of public speaking, if only at the interview stage, and in-class presentations provide a semi-safe environment for building  self confidence and refining one’s tone and manner to convey the intended message, rather than ‘I am so nervous, please stop looking at me!” Group presentations can also promote student-centred learning and collaboration skills by allowing students to explore those aspects they find most interesting and presenting them in the way that makes most sense to them.

However, they also pose several practical difficulties. Presentations must be viewed, and when to view them is a recurrent problem. Say, for example, you have a small seminar group of eight to twelve students.  If each gives a three-to-five-minute presentation, that is an hour. If we included another three-to-five minutes per student to account for set-up and inevitable technical difficulties, that is two hours. Spread over twelve weeks, this may seem acceptable, but students quickly begin to baulk; my own student feedback has (in previous years) heavily criticised the use of weekly or even occasional presentations as a waste of precious contact hours. This is partly owing to the perception that their peers aren’t particular prepared (or confident) and the presentations add little to their educational experience.  The value is in the doing rather than the watching. Moreover, if you have a large group, say fifteen or twenty students, presentations suddenly become a nightmare to schedule.

These problems are both alleviated and aggregated by the use of group presentations. On the one hand, twelve students can be easily divided into a mere three or four presentations. On the other, group work is almost universally despised by students. No matter how friendly three students may be at the start of a project, no matter how evenly distributed work may be in theory, the perception that some students are not pulling their weight will almost always emerge. Sometimes in a snide, under-breath comment, often in an explanatory email to the tutor, and at least once in my experience during a spectacular breakdown during the presentation itself. This unfair division of labour is sometimes quite amicable, of course, but having a single speaker with a row of life-like student statues is not pedagogically sound.

At this stage we must turn to the elephant in the room, assessment. Depending on the module, department, and university structure, presentation assessment can very widely.  In my own experience, assessment at levels five and six (second and final year) must be structured in a way that allows second marking by another member of staff, and, should need arise, an external examiner as well.  Convincing a fellow over-worked colleague to sit in on student presentation is possible, but to allow external examination requires video recording, something very few students would be comfortable with (and perhaps rightly so!)

So, if they are a nightmare to schedule, create and assess, why do I advocate them? Because, for all their faults, they can be an excellent tool.

Three of the crises I discuss in my module are wars—The American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. Each of these have complex political, economic, cultural, and military issues to discuss. I attempted to sample these in my Revolutionary War lecture, with moderate success, but decided to experiment a bit with the Civil War.

My one hour lecture covered the immediate causes of the war, highlighted the general trajectory of the military action, and focused on key political and cultural shifts during those four fateful Aprils. The seminar, however, was left entirely to the students.  They were placed into self-selected groups of two and asked to visit the Civil War Trust website.  They were then to email me the name of a Civil War battle that they would like to present to the class, first come, first serve.

In the week between the lecture and the seminar, the pairs had to examine topographical maps of their battle, kindly provided by the trust, and create a two-to-four-minute presentation that explained to their classmates the chronology of battle and any man-made or natural features that affected the outcome. They were aided in this quest by journal articles, which they had to identify independently, and a selection of walking tour videos from the Civil War Trust website.

The aims of the exercise were

  • to encourage independent research
  • to expose students to historical maps and historical geography
  • to re-integrate military history into an otherwise sociocultural narrative
  • to practice presentational skills

Because I wanted them to focus very closely on the details of the battlefield, they did not have to prepare a PowerPoint; I would simply project their chosen map on the wall behind them. although it was important that theybe thorough in their research, I could not, for the reasons noted above, make the presentations assessed. I had to rely entirely upon student initiative to explain Mananas , Shiloh and Appomattox Courthouse to their peers, and, indeed, to simply attend the seminar at all.

I really wish I had recorded them.  They were truly brilliant.

Not only did I have some of the best attendance of the semester, every group successfully presented their battle to a wholly unexpected level of detail. Although most of the material was derived from the Civil War Trust, students were able to digest and present the material in a clear, concise and engaging way.  They shared the best anecdotes (and absurdities) and were generally well prepared to answer questions about their map. Perhaps most importantly, at the end of the seminar, I asked if the experience had been worthwhile, and there was not a single negative reply.

I cannot say that my experiment negates all of the very real practical difficulties with student presentations, but it absolutely demonstrated that they could achieve specific aims in specific situations.

What I think is key is that student presentations must offer something genuinely useful to the listeners as well as the presenters.  Many of my student relied on that information to direct their essay research; many others will use their notes as they revise for their upcoming exam.

As for the title of this post? It reflects a deep-seated annoyance at my own childhood education. Having been raised in southern California, far from Gettysburg and Manassas, I always greatly envied my east coast contemporaries who took school trips to these historic sites.  Although I have yet to convince my university to fund a ‘class-trip’ to Pennsylvania, the videos at www.civilwar.org did much to transform these names and dates into real places, where real men and women lived and died, to bring our Sheffield seminar room that much closer to America’s past.

*Image courtesy of 49er Girl, provided CC-BY-NC

Evidence-based Scripts; or, How to survive a ‘Beals Exam’

I am a very demanding lecturer. I typically write very long, very blunt feedback to my students in the hope that it will shock them into a more rigorous research and writing regime. This methodology served me quite well when I began teaching, as I primarily worked with first-year undergraduates. These fresh-faced, wholly impressionable students were usually very accepting of this well-meant criticism, evidenced by their marked improvement in subsequent assessments.

When I began to teach second- and third-year students, however, my honest appraisals were less well received. Those I had taught in previous years had learned my preferences (and expectations) and generally continued to improve their style and skill. New students, however, stormed angrily into my office, demanding I reconsider their marks, asserting that they had never received such a low mark before–I was obviously being overly harsh. I explained what their papers had failed to achieve, as well as which aspects they should maintain–no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater–and that I had no intention of altering their mark unless they could demonstrate my points were unfounded. I have only ever changed one mark in eight years of teaching–by two points–and that was a hard-fought battle.

Yet, every spring I grow fatigued of this battle. I wonder if I am not setting unrealistic expectations of my students. Would I have received a first on one of my own exams? I cannot be sure, but I hope that I would have risen to the challenge. Why? Because so many of my own students do.

One student in particular stands out in my memory. I had not taught him in his first or second year, and thus his writing style was well established by the time he submitted his first formative essay to me. It was pretty horrific. A pass, but with cringe-worthy passages. Sure enough, he came to see me and explained that he had always received firsts and could not understand his poor (2:2) mark. Over the next six months, he came to my office to ask for advice on sources, on structure, and on style–and not just for my module. He brought outlines for his other modules, too. His style improved very quickly and he was soon earning high 2:1s and firsts. After submitting his undergraduate dissertation, supervised and assessed by another member of staff, he stopped by office.

I had to decide if I wanted to write an essay I knew [my supervisor] would be okay with, or a ‘Melodee paper’. I decided to write a ‘Melodee paper’ and [my supervisor] said it was really great.

I do not claim to be a particularly eloquent writer or a flawless copyeditor–far from it–but it does not take a great writer to spot a poor one. As my students progress through university and into the job market, it will be a simple mistake–a lack of proof-reading or a formal fallacy–that will most likely be their downfall. If I can steer them away from an obvious mistakes, perhaps their own authorial voice will finally be able to shine.

In the end, I have very high expectations for my students because I know they can achieve them–and I know what will await them if they do not. But I am not a monster. I do not expect my students to read my mind or fail their first assessment with me. Each year, I present to my students a Rough Guide to Obtaining a First in Dr Beals’s Exam during the seminar programme. I present it to you in the hopes that you will critique and criticise it, and let me know what you expect from an undergraduate exam script. The more explicit we are about our expectations, the more likely we are to have them met (if not exceeded).

For a One-Hour, One-Question Exam Answer

  1. Introduction: May be extremely short, even reduced to a single thesis statement in which you clearly and directly answer the question or prompt. There is no need to provide significant background material, though you may wish to include any definitions or theoretical concepts you intend to use to prove your point. Be specific and avoid phrases such as ‘there are many arguments on both sides’ or ‘this paper will answer the question’ followed by the question.
  2. Body paragraphs: A one-hour script will generally have between 2 and 5 body paragraphs, depending on your level of detail in each. All body paragraphs within your script should be focused on proving your thesis statement or argument. There is no need to have a ‘balanced’ argument, with an equal number of paragraphs on ‘both sides’ of the argument; indeed, this will usually result in a lower mark as you will appear indecisive or unsure. You should include counter-evidence within paragraphs where it is relevant or obvious, but make sure you explain either a) its limited applicability or b) its inaccuracy.Each body paragraph should (roughly) follow this outline:
      • Topic Sentence: Which point will this whole paragraph prove? This is usually a smaller or more specific point that must be true if your main thesis or argument is true. It is not simply the ‘topic it will talk about’.
      • Assertion: What is something that you are claiming to be true? This is usually a sub-point of the topic sentence.
      • Evidence (1-3 pieces): Give details from the historical period, such as statistics, events, or specific trends, that prove your assertion is correct, or very likely. You should include historiographical arguments (arguments made by historians) where appropriate, but these are not (by themselves) proof that your point is true, just that someone agrees with you (or you with them).
      • One to three more assertion-evidence sets. The number will vary depending on the complexity of the point your paragraph is trying to make.
      • Concluding thought: Now that you have proven your topic sentence, explain to your reader how your paragraph helps prove your overall answer to the question.

    Example:

    • Overall Thesis: Strawberry is the best flavour of ice cream
    • Topic Sentence: Strawberry ice cream is healthful
    • Assertion: Fruit-based desserts do not need artificial ingredients
    • Evidence: Fruit already contains natural sugars
    • Evidence: Fruit already provides natural colourings
    • Assertion: Fruit-based desserts have health-benefits
    • Evidence: Anti-oxidents, present in fruit, promote longevity
    • Evidence: Fructose, the natural sugar in fruit, is easily digestible
    • Concluding thoughts: Because strawberry ice cream provides health benefits, and limits the negative health impacts of other ice creams, it is the best flavour.
    • Conclusion: A very short synthesis. Do not repeat any evidence that you have given previously or repeat all your topic sentences or concluding thoughts. Instead, briefly explain how your 2-5 paragraphs fit together to prove your overall thesis. Two or three relevant syntheses are better than 13 repetitive sentences.

You will be marked on:

  • How directly you answer the question
  • How logical and organised your answer to the question is
  • How accurate the evidence you use is
  • How reasonable your interpretation of that evidence is
  • The legibility of your handwriting and the fluency of your prose. If I cannot understand you, you cannot persuade me.

That is it. I am not expecting the ‘right’ answer, only a reasonable, evidence-based one. I may completely disagree with you, but if you have supported your argument, and have not unreasonably omitted important counter-evidence, you will succeed. It does not matter if your script is two pages or ten pages long. It only matters that your prove your point.

Image courtesy of JuditK

Mapping Implicit Processes; or, Is This Source Okay?

Students love the Google Convenience Store. Most people do. Even those who question Google’s dubious privacy policies and monopolistic tendencies often turn to it (even if they do not always admit to it).

Of course, there is nothing inherently un-scholarly about digital scholarship. Indeed, digitisation of primary material and scholarly comment is expanding and deepening our understanding of the world though the free dissemination of human knowledge.

But while this low barrier to entry makes universal education tantalisingly plausible, it also greatly concerns educators. Although dubious publications have long been available through vanity, ideological and poorly managed printing establishments, its higher barrier to entry, especially into academic presses, tended to weed out impostors, providing a basically straightforward set of rules for that eternal question: Is this source okay?

As the barriers for both print and digital publication continue to fall, and mechanisms for identifying sources become increasingly curated by unknown influences, the prevalence of poor source selection is on the rise.

In an effort to assist students in developing the ‘vetting’ skills most academics take for granted, skills developed through years of disciplinary acculturation and a broad familiarity with analogue peer review, I have created the following flow chart. It is certainly imperfect, but it will hopefully force students to think more critically about their research choices.



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.Also available (in higher definition) at http://www.gliffy.com/go/publish/4505398/. If you make a variant, please share below.

I Will Judge You by Your Spelling, Punctuation and Capitalization

As I complete another round of marking, I cannot help but wonder to myself:

When did it become acceptable not to care about the font, colour, size and overall appearance of your writing?

As any regular visitor to the Socratic Dilemma will know, I am no stranger to the occasional typographical faux pas, but I each year I grow increasingly concerned about the lack of care, or perhaps interest, my students have in the presentation of their written work. I have already written at length about a lack of consistency in student citations, but what I refer to now is something far more fundamental, and worrying. Take, for example, the follow extract:

The american Civil war was fought almost completely primarily to free the slaves as Framer has correctly argued that; ‘the Civil War was first and foremost a struggle to end slavery” this quote proves that the Government wanted the abolishment of slavery and that is way they fought in the Civil War4.

Although I have, for reasons of data protection, somewhat altered the precise language used, the formatting errors are identical to those appearing within essays I have marked over the past few years at a variety of institutions. The preponderance of errors within this sentence is, I admit, somewhat unusual, but by no means unique.

These errors include, but are not limited to:

  1. The lack of capitalisation for proper nouns.
  2. The use of synonyms in direct sequence.
  3. The misspelling of an author’s name.
  4. The use of the adverb ‘correctly’ without evidence or argument to support such an assertion.
  5. The improper use of a semi-colon to introduce a quotation.
  6. The unnecessary italicisation of quoted text.
  7. The use of a historiographical assertion directly following or preceding a paraphrased summary of that assertion.
  8. The use of a historiographical assertion as proof that the assertion is correct.
  9. The inconsistent use of single and double quotation marks.
  10. The lack of punctuation at the end of a sentence that ends with a quotation mark.
  11. The use of the word quote rather than quotation, when used as a noun.
  12. The incorrect use of capitalisation for common nouns.
  13. The use of the word abolishment when referring to slavery.
  14. The lack of superscript formatting for the citation numeral.
  15. The placement of the citation numeral before the full stop (period).

Even if I accept that numbers eleven and thirteen verge on pedantry, which I do not, thirteen grammatical and presentational errors in the space of a single sentence is abhorrent. How did such a state of affairs come to pass?

A few weeks ago, in a moment of mid-marking despair, I literally slammed my head against my desk while expelling a monumental sigh of defeat. My colleague kindly inquired as to my particular distress. I pointed to a horrifically formatted sentence, similar to the one above, and the nonsensical, partially purple, citation attached to it.

“How,” I asked, “could a student submit a paper in such a state? Even if they do not know the grammatical rules surrounding certain punctuation marks, even if they cannot remember the precise information we require in our citations, surely this must look messy to them?”

“Perhaps it does not,” was his accommodating reply.

After a moment’s discussion, he conveyed to me his burgeoning belief that a reliance upon digital media, where strict rules of formatting, punctuation, and grammatical convention are just as likely to be absent as rigidly applied, where reputable writers, such as news agencies, regularly bend (or brutalize) the rules of grammar in order to construct pithy headlines, had created a generation of scholars for whom that little voice that says “this does not look quite right” is simply absent.

At this stage he joked, with no small hint of melancholy, that perhaps we were moving into a post-typographical age. After all, eighteenth-century writers were able to communicate well enough with wild variants in spelling, syntax and grammar. Perhaps the old rules no longer applied. Perhaps I was, in my own words, an old fogie at 31.

Yet, I refuse to submit to such a notion. However feral digital text becomes–and let me stress that there are many digital writers with impeccable grammar and spelling, far beyond the ability of your humble correspondent here–yes, however feral writing becomes online or in casual communication, I know that there will continue to be a cohort of young writers who maintain these old rules and they will continue to excel in their chosen professions, trampling avant garde wordsmiths underfoot in their search for graduate employment. They are not necessairly cleverer or better suited for leadership than the author of the above, but they know the rules and this will work to their advantage. I know this because not too long ago I worked as an assistant to a Human Resources Manager who, when faced with a chest-high stack of applications, routinely binned them at the first typographical error.

Thus, however many red pens I exhaust, however many welts I inflict upon my poor forehead, I will not give up on my students. On the contrary, I will do whatever it takes to impress upon them the ludicrous state into which their papers have fallen.

When I return to teaching next week, I will institute the Trial of the Sorrowful Wolf*, whereby I will produce a list of ten of the worst sentences I came across** in this round of marking, properly anonymised, and I will make students work through them, one by one, and explain to me precisely where each and every one has gone wrong.

And before you think me cruel, know that my own English composition tutor engaged in this shame-inducing practice my first year of university. In a class of only ten students, we quickly realised which student had written which grammatical catastrophe, and the utter shame (mixed with a fair bit of camaraderie) meant we never made those same mistakes ever again.

*No, I did not attend that school, nor one remotely similar, but that chapter of that book made me laugh, and thus has earned a special place in my affection.

**Excluding, of course, papers by students with learning difficulties that disproportionately affect compositional skills.

***Image courtesy of quinn.anya

Keep Your Arms and Legs Inside the Lecture at All Times

Approximately 72 hours before my first lecture of my new American Crises module, I decided to abandon the twelve PowerPoint presentations I had already created in favour of an experiment with Prezi, a flash-based presentation platform. After composing and delivering eight lectures, I am ready to offer my initial thoughts.

What’s the Difference?

Unlike PowerPoint, which is composed of a series of rectangular slides, a Prezi is, in essence, one large slide that the presenter can move around, zooming in and out, panning left and right, as necessary. Because of this, Prezis have a much greater degree of flexibility in terms of sequence and movement. Although experienced PowerPoint creators can embed links to non-consecutive slides (or insert duplicates of previous slides) to break up linear sequences, most PowerPoint lectures continue to be linear in presentation (if not in content).

Moreover, because Prezi is flash-based, it allows the presenter to move within the ‘slide’ during the presentation, zooming or panning in response to audience questions (or a sudden remembrance) without upsetting the preset ‘sequence’ of movements. Clicking a presenter remote or the arrow key ‘snaps’ the presentation back to its pre-designed rails. Thus, Prezis are, for better or worse, much more digression-friendly than PowerPoint presentations.

In terms of creation there are also several important differences. Unlike PowerPoint, Prezi is, for all intents and purposes, a cloud and subscription-based application. You create and store all presentations on Prezi’s servers, though you can download fixed (non-editable) versions to your PC or portable media. This means that making a quick edit to your presentation is only possible if you have reliable internet access, something that is rarely guaranteed. Likewise, the subscription-based model means your presentations (at least the editable versions) are held by Prezi and could be lost forever if Prezi (or your desire to pay) evaporates.

That being said, the subscription costs are fairly reasonable. Members of the public can obtain a free basic licence, which allows you to create and distribute publicly visible Prezis and maintain 100MB of online storage. In my experience, this represents about twenty graphic-heavy, hour-long lectures. If you have an email address from an educational institution, you can obtain a free upgrade to 500MB and the ability to create private, non-branded Prezis. 2GB of storage and the ability to work offline will set you back $13.25 (USD) per month or $4.95 (USD) for teachers and students, though they do offer a free 1-month trial of the Pro service.

Although the ubiquitous nature of PowerPoint software makes these fees unappealing, Microsoft’s increasingly onerous encouragement to switch to their new cloud-based, subscription-based model makes Prezi’s pricing structure appear relatively competitive.

Even so, is there really any good reason to abandon PowerPoint for Prezi? Perhaps, perhaps not.

The Wow Factor

The first time I demonstrated Prezi to a colleague, their reaction was not ‘wow’; it was ‘ugh’. I had, in their opinion, been seduced by the latest cheap trick making rounds in academia. The first time I showed it to students, there were (very) subdued murmurs of interest, but these quickly subsided as they began to hurriedly note down that content of the lecture. After viewing a number of sample Prezis, provided by the developer, I had been quite impressed by the possible ‘wow factor’ of such presentations. That my own efforts failed to illicit such a response may merely indicate that I have not yet learned all the tricks of the trade. In the right hands, I am sure a Prezi could, indeed, wow. But, like PowerPoint before it, I have no doubt that the Prezi revolution has a rapidly approaching use-by-date.

Mindmaps and Pathways

One of the most useful aspects of Prezi has been the ability to organise my slides as mindmaps or timelines. In previous years, I have had ‘intermission’ slides, to alert my students that we were moving onto a new topic. While these were generally effective (and positively commented upon in feedback) the ability to create a visual mind-map of slides, with subsidiary topics being encircled by or springing forth from a central topic marker, has been incredible helpful. I have also encouraged my students to review the lectures afterwards, moving between topics and subtopics in the order that makes most sense to them. Although my new timeline-based presentations are no less linear than their PowerPoint forbearers, I am better able to visually indicate concurrent events or trends. I have also experimented with map-based presentations, zooming from one location to another, allowing students to understand geographic breath as well as chronological and thematic content.

Yet, while I have found this very helpful in constructing my lectures, I have no firm pedagogical evidence that the students are finding the information easier to assimilate or recall. Some students have indicated that they are better able to understand the ‘path’ of lectures, and none of have complained about non-nonsensical structures, which I suppose is all I could really ask for.

Zoom and Context

Probably the most touted feature of Prezi is its ability to zoom in and out in order to highlight detail and context. Rather than move between slides, images and text of the same size, this function allows you to nest your slides, one inside of the other, zooming in to highlight the relevant portion of an image or to give students a visual cue that you are going into the fine details or moving out to see the big picture. There is a limit to the extent to which you can zoom in or out, though with a bit of planning this should not pose any problems for most presentations. More difficult is the inevitable result of zooming into an typical web-based image; if it is not high resolution, you will simply zoom into a pixellated mess. There is some functionality for replacing the backdrop at different zoom levels, but the simplest solution is to start with a very high resolution image if you wish to zoom in to any extent.

The real issue with zooming about the Prezi is simply that, zooming. Users have no way to alter the precise paths taken or the speed with which the transition occurs. This is all done automatically once a start and end point are selected. The further away your two points are the faster the Prezi will appear to move between them. For this reason, many of my colleagues have complained about the nauseating effect the software has on them and their students. Thoughtful planning can reduce the tilt-o-whirl effect, but it is something that requires constant vigilance.

Accessibility

The beauty of PowerPoint’s ubiquity on university campuses is that a lecturer can upload their presentation to the university VLE or website and students can download it for printing or on-screen notation. Moreover, the slides are easily printable individually or in sets. Prezi also allows for printing via the ‘Create PDF’ option. This creates a file in which each view or stop in your presentation becomes its own page. Sadly, if you are frequently returning to a big picture or context image, this will result in a very large file with numerous duplicate slides.  Similarly, there is no sure-fire way of allowing students to print off multiple slides per page. Although most PDF readers do allow this, not all students are aware of this functionality. I avoid these difficulties by using PDFill PDF Tools, a free programme that allows me to quickly delete unwanted pages and reformat the file to display several slides per page. I can then upload the one-slide-per-page version for on screen reference and the four-slides-per-page for easy printing.

A particular word of warning: the ‘Create PDF’ option is very time consuming. Go and get a cup of tea time consuming. It also saves the images exactly as they currently appear. So if one of your text boxes happens to be selected, it will be appear with a blue border around it in the PDF.

In terms of accessibility, the Prezi’s themselves allow for a wide range of background and text colours, as well as some Serif and Sans Serif fonts. However, the selection is very limited and there is no way to import new fonts, even in the subscription version.  Nor is there any way to bold, italicise or underline words and phrases within a text block. One cumbersome solution is to create the text blocks in a word processor and import them as an image, but this requires a level of planning and time management that is not always practical. The same is true for images, which you can crop but cannot otherwise alter in the same manner you can in PowerPoint.

Time and Energy

Here is where Prezi really falls down, I am afraid.

Having already written my lectures and composed PowerPoint presentations, I thought it would br a simple matter to import the slides (via the in-built functionality) and reorganise them into a more aesthetically pleasing arrangement. Although the import function did technically import my text and images, the formatting and arrangement was mostly lost in the translation and required a great deal more time to ‘fix’ than I had originally anticipated. Moreover, any shadows or cropping I had implemented was now permanent and did not always suit the new context.

After the first week, I decided I was better off starting from scratch. Yet, even working from a plain document file was often troublesome. Cutting-and-pasting from Word resulting in numerous formatting issues (especially with bullet points) and often resized the text box against my will. Moreover, both the online and offline version tend to slow down exponentially the longer you work on a presentation. This seems to be the result of sloppy coding and usually requires me to reboot every few hours. One lecture ended up taking nearly seven hours to complete owing to the slow processing of images or panning from one section of the canvas to another. Indeed, after several hours work, zooming out simply became an impossibility. Prezi’s customer service department tends to blame this on the user (programmes running in the background, inadequate computer processing power), a ‘not-our-problem’ approach I find troubling.

Thus, while I do like the look of  my new Prezis more than that of my old PowerPoints, I have spent days creating them, time that almost certainly could have been better spent.

Student Reactions

Student reactions thus far have been positive, if not statistically significant. When asked on Twitter or at the conclusion of a seminars, students seem happy with the change, noting they are ‘more interesting’ than ‘the same old PowerPoints’. Novelty, however, is surely short lived. On the other hand, those students with iPads have begun to download the Prezi App, allowing them to follow along with the lecture podcast, or review the slides in context more easily than from static print-outs.

Conclusion

In the end, would I recommend Prezi to my colleagues? Yes and no.

If you are

  • creating new or significantly revised lectures, and
  • those lectures would benefit from a non-linear layout or dynamic movement (zooming in, out, and around), and
  • you have enough time to devote to learning and adapting to the new interface (and its seemingly inevitable slow downs),

then this may be an option worth exploring.  If you have 72 hours before the module starts, you may want to think again.

As for myself, I will continue to use Prezi. The benefits I have derived in structuring my lectures has, thus far, outweighed my annoyance at its processing bugs.