Monthly Archives: May 2010

Thinking about presentation software

Did you notice that a software alternative to MS PowerPoint and Apple Keynote emerged from this year’s student presentations? It’s called Prezi ( If you haven’t seen it, the idea is this: instead of thinking in terms of slides, imagine arranging all your presentation information on a large canvas as you might on a white board. Then instruct the software how to zoom in and out of various regions of that canvas in a way that complements the story you want to tell.

An illustrative example is on the Prezi website; another is James Geary’s 2009 T.E.D. presentation, though so far the best I’ve seen so far comes from our students. Prezi is web-based and free if your file size is 500MB or smaller (due to a special offer for students and teachers) and was recently reviewed in the NY Times and an blog.

What does Edward Tufte say about the cognitive style of Prezi? Is it indeed more intuitive? Is it a fad? How does one create a traditional slide deck for clients? I don’t know.


Speaking of presentation software, did you see that there are now apps to control PowerPoint and Keynote remotely from your iPhone? Even though I already use a USB remote control, I am experimenting with the iPhone Keynote Remote right now. All one needs is an iPhone and computer on the same wireless network. Hold the iPhone horizontally (in landscape orientation) and you’ll see the current and next slides side by side, though most text is too small to read. Hold the iPhone vertically and you’ll see the current slide and notes.  Swipe your finger to advance slides. My hope is that this $0.99 app will buy more eye contact with students and less looking over my shoulder.

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Much has been said about diversity at Baruch: From that we are the most diverse college in the United States . . . to that we don’t make maximal use of our diversity.

This semester, several students in my classes made poignant comments about integration. The first student (as part of a class presentation) recounted her freshman experience. Prior to the first day of classes, she had been very much looking forward to meeting many new people at Baruch and making friends. But the minute she set foot on campus, she said, she knew that it was not going to happen.

Another students wrote as part of a reflective essay on intercultural friendship: “As a student of Baruch College for the past two years, I have not made many friends. And for the few friends I have made, none of them are outside my own culture, which is a white American. This is not because I do not want friends outside my own culture; actually having friends from other cultures would be exciting for me. I feel that lack of communication and building of friendships between cultural groups at Baruch is absurd. This is a matter that has actually always bothered me since I started attending Baruch College. It seems to be that there is a tendency for students at Baruch to stay within their own cultural boundaries. . . . I would really like to see some change at Baruch regarding this matter. I feel it is of high importance and would make the school itself more appealing to the general public and surrounding communities.”

Finally, a third student commented about being gay at Baruch: “The whole topic of being gay for a young person in these classes is difficult because they have to matriculate through their four years with their fellow students, and if it’s only a small part of their identity, it would be a shame for them to be seen first as gay. . . I would not be comfortable having people gossiping about me for four years. It is odd to me that I even feel this way considering how normal gay is to me in my ‘real’ life and how omnipresent it is the pop culture. . . . I believe that many gay people who are asking for equal rights feel they are on a similar track of where black people were in the 60s.”

He later asked me whether we, as educators at Baruch, are trained at this topic. Maybe we should start thinking about such training? Or a discussion or workshop series of how to assist students in their integration efforts? Any thoughts?

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[Your Subject] Knowledge for Teaching

Many of us who teach have had this experience: We work hard to explain to our students something that we understand well. We try to use intuition, analogies, examples, multiple methods, asking and answering questions, group exercises—the stuff of pedagogical knowledge. We are rewarded with students who feel that they understand. But when our students try to solve problems themselves, many make mistakes which reveal that they, in fact, didn’t understand. We correct their mistakes, explaining the right logic. But some students make the same mistakes again and again.

Through years of work and after much frustration, we teachers learn students’ common errors and the logic of those errors. We learn to stave the errors off—or use them as teaching moments. With our students, w go through each stage in their logic to find and explain the flaws.

This knowledge of the thinking behind their errors is not the content of our subject. Nor is it classic pedagogy. Most of us learn how our students misunderstand unsystematically and almost by accident. Some of us may systematically take stock of and analyze students’ mistakes to understand them. But in my experience few professors think of this as systematic knowledge and fewer yet have a name for it. I certainly did not.

Then a few weeks ago I read a New York Times magazine article, “Building a Better Teacher.” Researchers in elementary school math pedagogy, particularly Deborah Ball of the University of Michigan, have coined the term “Mathematics Knowledge for Teaching”. Here is how the article describes it:

“It’s one thing to know that 307 minus 168 equals 139; it is another thing to be able to understand why a third grader might think that 261 is the right answer. Mathematicians need to understand a problem only for themselves; math teachers need both to know the math and to know how 30 different minds might understand (or misunderstand) it… This was neither pure content knowledge nor what educators call pedagogical knowledge.”

The concept of mathematics knowledge for teaching is much broader than simply understanding misunderstandings. But I think that this sub-component is particularly valuable and something that we in higher education should embrace.

I’m sure some of you are already thinking that there is already a literature in subject-specific teaching in higher education. I have certainly seen and found valuable materials on the teaching of microeconomics and of statistics, two of the subjects that I teach. But in my experience, such materials combine content and pedagogy; they generally do not focus on understanding students’ misunderstandings.

The most efficient way to work on this is for instructors that teach the same subjects to collaborate, compare notes and so on. One semester, my colleague Gregg Van Ryzin and I both taught research methods with the same materials. Each week, we met to discuss what worked and what didn’t. We focused on the what, why and how of our students’ confusion. Our teaching and teaching materials improved substantially.

Unfortunately, I am still taking baby steps with such efforts. The real professionals know how to do this well. I learned recently about the work of Steve Hinds and others working on in developmental math in CUNY. Their work in general is described in “More Than Rules: College Transition Math Teaching for GED Graduates at the City University of New York”. What struck me most is how they work: all instructors collaborate on developing the materials but whatever the differences of opinion, everyone teaches with the same detailed materials, including in-class exercises, approaches for introducing topics and so on. Then all instructors describe their experiences: what worked, what didn’t, why and how. Collectively, they then work to improve student learning. This method, like the faculty inquiry groups Mary Taylor Huber has described, are very different from most of our experiences teaching in higher education.

What subject-specific student misunderstandings have you learned about? How has such knowledge helped your teaching? Do you and other professors who teach the same course regularly debrief?

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