Thursday, July 25, 2013

Well Spoken- visual aids

I was introduced to Erik Palmer in an online video highlighting his PVLEGS program for teaching students to present speeches. The video inspired me to get the book, Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students, and having read the book, I am forced to reflect on the oral interpretation class I took in college. My oral interpretation class was horrible. I gave four or five speeches, one was quite good, one quite bad and the rest mediocre, but you would not have known that from the feedback I received. The best one was not because I had learned impressive speaking skills, but more out of luck. Unfortunately, this is how many of our students create presentations. This book has been a delight to read, short chapters, engaging writing and practical suggestions abound.

The author's chapter on visual aids makes me cringe when I think about the many poster and presentation projects I have helped students with over the years. Teachers have requested explicit power points that kill presentation because they are too word dense, colors and animations that distract and confuse, and images that obstruct meaning. I have watched Prezis whose movements make me nauseous to watch. Posters have needed to look like research projects with text in many colors and fonts that are difficult to read.  I think teachers do this because they want to add variety that will engage students or posters to hang on the walls for open house, but what they really want is an essay or test or worksheet of some sort.

To create meaningful visual aids, students need to know that they enhance a presentation or deliver a single, simple message. If we do not keep this as the critical focus, we teach them bad habits that are likely to harm students later on. No one in a debate wants someone to appear with a paper mustache that was created for the express purpose of having a visual aid per requirement for the activity. (Yes, I saw a student do this.) The guidelines that the author sets forth are as valid for advertisement, commercial poster creation, and debate candidate visuals as for classroom activities. The four guidelines that are put forth for visual aids are:
  1. relevance- relate to the topic at hand
  2. importance- not repeat what the speaker will say and indicate or highlight something critical
  3. accessibility- at the level of the audience AND big enough, clear enough and visually appealing
  4. simple- KISS; not too many words, colors, fonts, arrows or animations; not distracting
If we were to teach students that these are critical components for any visual aid, then the products we get would be more likely to enhance presentations. Simpler, more meaningful visuals will also make presentations more about content than about catchy imagery. We need to change how we design visual aid assignments and presentations that might include a visual. If we need an essay in addition to the aid require that, do not require the aid to be the essay. Students need to be taught these elements of effective visual design and then given opportunities to practice them. We will be teaching them something that will be valuable as a life skill, not just a classroom activity. Students, might however, be cautioned that they need to clearly understand the requirements of a project for other classes in case a teacher confuses what makes a good visual aid with what allows a teacher to know as much as possible about a student's knowledge.

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