While I am not always directly involved in teaching, I do interact with students a lot. This interaction comes in the form of emails, discussion forums, telephone calls and meetings. At times my colleagues may also ask me for a second opinion on an assignment that they have graded etc. Over time I have noticed some small but common issues that pop up again and again. This post aims to identify those issues. Even though some of them are trivial, I’d like to provide some guidance to overcome these and also assist (albeit in a very minor way) students to thrive at University.
1. Know how to use Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
This might seem obvious but I am amazed when I see that some people don’t know how to use these tools. Unfortunately, to be literate these days doesn’t just mean knowing how to read and write. I think it involves being digitally literate and that means knowing how to make use of these tools which, after all, can make your life so much easier. So, how do I know that many people can’t use these tools properly? It’s pretty easy to tell when I see the following:
- No table of contents
- Headings that are just bolded as opposed to actual headings
- Images and tables with no labels or captions
- No page numbers
- Poorly formatted images
- Inconsistent use of fonts
Is this a big deal? I think it is. I’m not sure if that means the responsibility for teaching these skills belongs to the University or not but certainly I think employers can reasonably expect graduates to be well able to use these tools proficiently.
One thing that always bothers me is seeing reports where it is obvious that the student has spent a considerable amount of time manually creating a table of contents. This is a waste of time. All you need to do is use the correct text formatting in your document and then you just need to click a button, and Word will create the table of contents for you. Knowing simple things like this will allow you to go to bed earlier when you’re working on those late night assignments! Similarly for tables and graphs, just write click and insert caption. Again, with a couple of clicks Word will create a list of graphs for you. Again, this will make it much easier for the reader of the assignment to navigate their way around and will allow you to reference different sections.
2. Beware when using PowerPoint
I can actually break this one down into a number of sub points.
- Don’t use PowerPoint templates. Why? Well, most of them look terrible and sometimes students spend so much time trying to make their slides look great, they forget about the important stuff – the content!
- Text colours:
- Don’t add too much text with a small font. Remember, slides are to support your presentation. You can’t expect your audience to read detailed slides and listen to you at the same time. So the recommendation here is simply to use slides to emphasize your point. This may be as simple as just using an image and not using text at all.
- Preparing slides with slide animation can be a real time vampire and isn’t necessarily going to impress your audience. Remember the KISS principle – Keep it simple stupid!
- Always have a back up of your presentation and make sure you bring a printed version for your audience.
- Be prepared to do the presentation without PowerPoint. On the day your laptop might not work, your USB might not work, the projector in the room might not be working. There are too many variables to rely upon.
- Speak to your audience, not the slides. That means looking at your audience and not looking at the screen. And also, don’t just read what’s on the slide. If you are nervous the only way of getting over this is to practice, practice, practice. I remember my first presentation when I did my Masters. I must have delivered the presentation aloud about 6 or 7 times before I did it in class. By the time I did it, I knew the content so well I knew what was coming up on each slide and was able to keep the transition between slides and the points I was making fairly seamless.
- Know your time and avoid slide rush! If you have a 10 minute presentation you can present 10 slides. I can’t emphasize this enough. I’ve seen so many students let themselves down by coming into a 10 minute presentation with 60 slides and not give themselves the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and get their points across.
- If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about, check out these PowerPoint train wrecks. Don’t make the same mistakes.
3. Don’t bother with Prezi – honestly!
Yes it looks great but you know what? It takes ages to prepare your slides and secondly, they are a pain to print. I’ve seen so many students waste hours and hours preparing their slides in Prezi when they could have been practicing their presentation or doing something more fun like spending time with their family – seriously, at Masters level it’s important to focus on these little things! Also, I can tell you from experience, a lecturer isn’t going to give you a better mark just because you have some sexy slides!