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Presenting for Geeks: How to find out how well the audience is understanding the material?

 
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Howdy Dirk!

I just gave a live presentation to a user group that had many flaws but I was pleased that the audience was interested in the material and asked questions about things they were confused by.

Next week I will be teaching a programming class that is part of a master's degree program at a university. The syllabus is already established and I will mostly be using slide-based lecture and assignments (mostly programming and some writing) that have been in use for years. The format is a combination of in-class (about 5) and on-line (about 15) which is run on Adobe Connect. There are a lot of things I dislike about teaching programming this way and I have some ideas about how it might be done better, but this is my first time teaching and so I don't think this is the right situation for me to experiment.

My question is to find out how well/if the students are understanding what I'm talking about, whether I should go faster/slower, talk in more or less detail, give more or fewer illustrative anecdotes. My observation of university students over the last four years (having dropped out without meaning to over thirty years ago, I returned to the classroom to pursue my passion) is that they rarely ask questions or express confusion of any kind. Having most of the class on-line means they are out of my vision so I can't read facial expressions or body language that would clue me in to slow down, repeat/expand, or pause to invite a question.

I find presenters who frequently pause and ask "Is that clear?" or somesuch to be very annoying. If it resulted in questions then I would be happy to adopt it in some form but it seems to me to be more of a deterrent than and inducement (an implication being that whatever was just said should be clear and an admission of confusion at that point is a failure by the student). One professor (also director of the program) encourages/compels participation on the discussion forums (not used during the lecture of course) by tying part of the grade to that. I could do that for asking questions during the lecture.

Any suggestions welcome!

Jim
 
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Jim, welcome to my world I, too, found that's it's really hard to get any feedback, let alone the usable variety. And apparently we're not alone (Scott Berkun has a few choice words on how "the feedback loop for speakers is broken" in his book, for example).

The direct approach, i.e. simply asking people, often doesn't work, as you found. They are too polite to tell you that you sucked - or they don't want to admit that they couldn't follow you. It seems the most usable feedback comes out of anonymous feedback forms where people don't have to worry about such things. So in your case, I think the forum could work.

Do I understand it correctly that you're teaching a class over several days? That's also something that can work in your favour since you can build up trust over time. There will always be a few people who are not afraid to ask questions and if the others see you interact with those, they will be more encouraged to ask themselves. That, however, takes time which you usually don't have in a normal presentation or a one-off workshop.

I remember a presentation I attended some years ago. It was by Andrei Alexandrescu, about some peculiarities of C++. Stuff that would have went over most of the audience's heads. But it soon became clear that it was more important to Andrei that people understood than that he was getting through his prepared content. He asked the audience questions and when he was met with silence, he went back and explained it again in a different way and then asked the question again. Soon, people were not afraid to shout out answers, even if they turned out to be wrong. He would patiently go back and explain things again. I've never seen something like this in a "regular" presentation (before or since) - it was really impressive.

Of course, that was with an audience that went there on their own free will. Not quite the same situation you're in with your students. Still, I think you could try and establish such an open atmosphere, at least for the in-class sessions.

Doing that online is even harder, of course. Will the classes be live or will the students work through them on their own pace?

Just throwing out ideas here, but I think the forum would again be a good starting point. Or maybe try some social media interaction? A Facebook page, for example, or Twitter. I followed Jennifer Widom's 2011 Stanford DB Class online for a while (didn't finish it due to time constraints), and they did a few things on Twitter. She also did what she called "screenside chats" where she answered student questions in a video podcast.

Hope this gives you some ideas.
 
Jim (James Paul) White
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Thanks for the thoughtful reply Dirk.

The class is 8 weeks/15 meetings. The on-line students are not required to watch live but many of them do. The discussion forums don't have an anonymous option but students who are too shy can email questions (they are generally strongly urged to use the forums so they can engage with/benefit from the other students). There is a polling/questionnaire tool which I think allows for anonymous responses.

Anonymity does indeed loosen a few tongues. I was a TA earlier this year and apparently of the three students who came to my office hours during the entire quarter at least two of them were unhappy with the way I tried to answer their questions - but they gave absolutely no indication of that until the quarter was over and they filled out the anonymous review forms.

Some classrooms have a clicker system for in-class immediate responses, but that won't work in this set up. I may try use the polling system (although it will have to be between classes I think) as a sort of no-penalty/credit pop quiz sort thing as well as freeform feedback opportunity. Hmmm, maybe I could run one for like 5 minutes at a break and use it to inform the review portion at the end of the lecture.

Thanks again,

Jim
 
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