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Two countries, two class sizes, one teaching method

Richard G. Kunkel, J. D.[1]
University of St Thomas, USA

Educators are using more multimedia teaching techniques in the classroom as lower prices and technological advances have made multimedia more affordable. As more teachers begin to use these techniques in class, it is important to study whether multimedia based teaching techniques can improve upon traditional teaching techniques. Further, it will be important to understand the changes in the teaching and learning environment that occur when multimedia is used.

A simple classroom multimedia approach is using presentation software, such as Aldus Persuasion or Microsoft PowerPoint to present visual aids in classroom lectures. The author has taught using presentation software since 1992. At the University of St Thomas in St Paul, Minnesota, the author teaches small classes that never exceed 30 students. In 1993, however, while on academic exchange at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia, the author lectured to nearly 400 students in a 600-seat lecture theatre. While the class size was the most significant contrasting feature in these two teaching experiences, projection methods, class handouts and the educational culture of the American and Australian universities also differed and affected the learning environment.

Students at both universities were surveyed to explore whether the contrasting features of the two classroom settings affected student perceptions about the effectiveness of presentation software and its impact upon classroom learning. The experiences in two countries, with two class sizes, observing the similar methods has made it possible to draw some interesting comparisons between the learning experiences of the Australian and American students. This paper will discuss the similarities and differences in student reactions and suggest techniques for teaching most effectively with presentation software.

Description of teaching activities and survey methodology

The University of St Thomas is a private, Catholic liberal arts university in St Paul, Minnesota. Approximately one-third of its 5000 undergraduate students major in business administration. All business majors are required to take a course in business law. Students must be in their third year of university to enrol in the course. The St Thomas educational approach emphasises small classes and a high degree of interaction between teachers and students. Nearly all classrooms on campus are designed for 30 students or less. These classrooms enable interactive case discussions and spontaneous question and answer sessions between teachers and students. Classes meet for four contact hours per week and all classes meet with the same instructor.

In spring semester 1995, the author taught "Business Law," a course covering the law of torts, contracts and sale of goods to two classes of 20 and 30 students, respectively. Virtually all lecture materials in the course were prepared using Aldus Persuasion presentation software and were presented using an Apple Macintosh personal computer. The classroom presentations were displayed on a 30-inch television monitor and a 27-inch monitor mounted in the classroom.

Curtin University of Technology is a public university in Perth, Western Australia with approximately 20,000 students enrolled. About 5,000 undergraduates major in commerce in the Curtin Business School. At Curtin, commerce students usually take the contract law unit in their second semester at university. The contract law units are taught in large lecture theatres for two contact hours per week, and for one contact hour per week the units meet in tutorials not exceeding twenty students. The large groups make interaction between teachers and students difficult in lecture, but there is a high degree of interaction in the tutorials. The tutorials are often taught by persons other than the large group lecturer.

In second semester of 1993, the author co-lectured in a business law unit on the law of contract with Mr Bill Willesee. 397 students were enrolled in the unit, which was taught in a 600 seat lecture theatre. The author gave one lecture on Tuesdays and Mr Willesee gave the other lecture on Thursdays. The students were exposed to two different lecture styles and two different ways of employing presentation software in the classroom. Virtually all visual aids used by both lecturers were prepared using Microsoft PowerPoint software and presented an Apple Macintosh computer and were displayed by a ceiling mounted Barco video projector. The image displayed measured ten feet by fifteen feet. Presentation software was not used in the tutorials.

The St Thomas courses were taught with one additional difference in teaching method. Students were given handouts to accompany the visual aids used in class. The handouts were a copy of the presentation outline (ie. text only, not miniature replicas of the screens). Blanks were inserted in the outline to replace key words so that students would have to do some note taking on their own. In the Curtin classes, the students were given no handouts and were required to handle their own note taking.

Both the Curtin and St Thomas students were given identical surveys. The surveys contained nine questions about various aspects of their learning and instructor performance, three questions comparing presentation software to other lecture methods and five questions about how the method was used to teach business law concepts. Students rated their response on a scale of 1 to 5 (See Table 1). Three open ended questions asked students for written comments about the greatest strengths, greatest weaknesses, and the most effective and ineffective uses of presentation software in class (See Table 2).

Admittedly, there were many differences between the Curtin and St Thomas classes such as the subjects taught, the class size, the lecturers involved and other factors. Thus it was impossible to isolate the use of presentation software as the sole cause for the student responses in the surveys. These surveys cannot be used as quantitative proof for a hypothesis that students learn more or learn better. Nevertheless, similarities and differences in the student responses can provide qualitative insight into the impact of using presentation software in class.

Results of student surveys

First, the surveys asked students to express how presentation software affected various aspects of their learning (See Table 1). Both Curtin and St Thomas students perceived a strong positive impact upon their interest level and attention level in the class. The response was particularly strong from the Curtin students (interest level: 4.7 vs. 4.2; attention level: 4.44 vs. 4. 15). In their written comments, the Curtin students said the ability to make lectures more interesting and to generate and maintain student interest were the two greatest strengths of presentation software. This result is not surprising, since researchers who have studied the learning impact of multimedia have discovered that their students find course material more interesting (Fifield and Piefer, 1994). Pearson, et al (1994) found that students across four learning styles found that multimedia made the class entertaining.

The Curtin students commented that the ability to effectively use both colour and pictures and graphics also were important strengths of presentation software. This response is supported by educational research showing that colour is an effective method for gaining and sustaining attention (Dwyer, 1978; Berry 1991). Coloured learning materials are perceived as being better, more interesting and more active than those materials presented in black and white (Katzman and Nyenhuis, 1972). Further, learners prefer to receive and interact with presentations in colour rather than black and white (Dwyer, 1978).

In their written comments, the St Thomas students also said the ability of presentation software to generate interest and attention were the key strengths, but for different reasons. The St Thomas students' comments did not mention the use of colour or graphics as a factor in assessing the presentation software visual aids. This difference from their Australian counterparts is probably attributable to the highly visual presentation style developed by my co-lecturer at Curtin, Bill Willesee. Mr Willesee's lecture materials incorporated a large amount of clip art, animation, and dramatic use of colour, which clearly made an impact on the Curtin students. The author's lecture materials both at Curtin and St Thomas were primarily text based with few graphics and "standard" backgrounds that did not provoke a strong reaction. Further, the St Thomas students, who had the benefit of handouts, also frequently commented that the handouts allowed them to take time to pay attention and listen better to the lecture without focusing so much on note taking. Another main comment related to interest was that the instructor was able to move through the material more efficiently with less wasted time.

One curious result is that the Curtin students reported a stronger perception that their participation level in the class had increased. (3.62 vs. 3.39). This is a mystery because the size of the lecture hall permitted very little participative discourse between the lecturer and the students. Further, the author noticed very little difference in the level of participation between the subject class and a first semester contract law unit taught by Mr Willesee using overhead transparencies. This perception by the Curtin students is difficult to explain.

Three questions dealt with presentation software's impact upon various aspects of the students' learning. The Curtin and St Thomas students reported virtually the same results. Both groups thought the presentation software had a moderate positive impact on their ability to recall course material or concepts, and a moderate positive impact upon the amount they learned in class. The St Thomas students reported a stronger impact on the ability to recall course material, but the Curtin students reported a slightly higher impact on how much they learned in class. Both groups of students reported that the teaching method had only a slight impact in easing the level of difficulty in understanding the course material (3.32 and 3.3).

Second, students were asked about the impact of the presentation software on their perceptions of the instructors' performance. Curtin and St Thomas students both reported a strong positive affect on their perception of the instructor's preparedness for lecture, and a strong, but lesser impact upon their perceptions of the instructor's knowledge of the material. In this area, the St Thomas students found a slightly stronger impact (preparation: 4.65 vs. 4.52; knowledge: 4.09 vs. 3.94). However, in assessing their perceptions of the instructor's overall performance, the St Thomas and Curtin students were virtually equal in reporting a fairly strong positive impact. (4.33 v. 4.35).

Third, in the next part of the survey, students compared use of presentation software with other commonly used lecture methods. Both groups agreed that the presentation software had a strong positive impact upon the class compared to lecture without visual aids (Curtin 4.44, UST 4.59). However, when comparing lectures using presentation software with lectures supported by use of a white board/blackboard or overhead transparencies, the Curtin students perceived a substantial advantage not observed by their American counterparts. Undoubtedly, this response is attributable to the great difference in classroom sizes. The Curtin lecture theatre held nearly 20 times more students than the St Thomas classroom. Yet, instructors often fail to adjust their handwriting size or legibility to correspond to the great distances from which students view the board. Likewise, instructors using overhead projectors in large theatres often use the same visual aids as in smaller classes, or fail to adjust the font size of the transparencies to provide greater readability.

The Curtin students' written comments reflect that this is a significant advantage of using presentation software in large lecture theatres. The improved clarity and visibility of the visual aids was identified as one of the greatest benefits of using presentation software. (50 responses). Other frequent comments were that the presentation software visual aids were easy to read, easy to understand, and made note taking easier ( 38 27 and 11 responses, respectively). Also noteworthy is that 17 Curtin students made the specific comment that presentation software visual aids were an improvement compared to overhead transparencies and 10 specifically commented that they were an improvement over handwritten visual aids

The last section of the survey asked students to rate presentation software's effectiveness for certain teaching tasks in business law. The author believes differences between Curtin and St Thomas students reflect how the presentation software was used in class rather than the features of the technique itself. For example, Curtin students found the presentation software extremely effective for discussing cases when compared to their St Thomas counterparts (4.1 vs. 2.8) However, the contract law unit at Curtin used a textbook and a teaching approach which was much more case oriented than the business law course taught at St Thomas. As a result, both the author and Mr. Willesee discussed cases in great detail at Curtin. In contrast, in the author's St Thomas course the cases were discussed interactively with students in class rather than using a pre-prepared "presentation" of the case. The cases were given little emphasis in the presentation software materials, which may explain the St Thomas students' low rating.


The student surveys reveal that both the Curtin and St Thomas students perceived a greatly improved educational environment resulting from the use of presentation software. More than 70 percent of all students both at Curtin and St Thomas reported that presentation software had a positive effect of on classroom learning in all categories surveyed except their level of participation and the effect upon the difficulty of the course material. When comparing the presentation software with other commonly used lecture and visual aids formats, more than 65 percent at both universities reported a positive effect on their learning experience. More than 50 percent of students reported a positive experience for all uses of the method to teach specific aspects of business law, except for teaching cases at St Thomas. In virtually all categories, most students not reporting positive impacts reported a neutral, not negative, effect.

Overall very few students reported a negative impact in any category. In only two instances did more than 10 percent of students report a negative impact. (The St Thomas students reported a negative effect for teaching legal relationships and discussing cases, 13.1 percent and 45.6 percent, respectively). It's noteworthy that when asked to identify weaknesses of the visual aids, the most common response of St Thomas students was "none" or leaving the comment blank (3 none six blank responses) and the second most common response of Curtin students (23 "none", 33 blank responses).

Undoubtedly the impact of this teaching method upon students' level of interest and attention in the course was an important factor in this positive assessment. More than 90% of all of the Curtin students and more than 84 % of the St Thomas students reported a positive effect on their interest and attention in class resulting from the teaching method.

The surveys also strongly suggested that students prefer use of presentation software over other lecture styles. In particular, the differences between the Curtin and St Thomas students made clear the weaknesses of using overhead transparencies in large lecture theatres. It is a well known principle that using bad visual aids are even worse than no visual aids at all. However, use of ineffective overhead transparencies persists in large lecture classes. Although the lecturer could design overhead transparencies using large font sizes and limiting the amount of information presented on each transparency, this would require the lecturer to continually interrupt the lecture to handle, and mishandle, the overheads.

One advantage of presentation software visual aids over transparencies is the efficiency and ease of handling the visual aids in class. Presentation software visuals can be advanced simply by clicking the mouse and can be immediately accessed with a couple of key strokes without interrupting the lecture. This allows the lecturer to use colour, font size, graphics and other affects to emphasise the desired message for each screen. There is no drawback to having only a few ideas on a screen, large font sizes and a large number of screens because they are so easily accessed in class. The large number of Curtin student comments about visibility and readability demonstrate the importance of this benefit of presentation software.

Presentation software's ability to utilise colour can be one of its great strengths or its great weakness depending on usage. In their comments, the Curtin students identified poor colour combinations that made visual aids difficult to read as the greatest weakness of the teaching method (91 responses) and also the most ineffective usage of presentation software (25 responses). These responses are largely attributable to some experimentation with colour conducted by my co-lecturer, Bill Willesee. As a first time presentation software user Mr Willesee tried a number of different text and background colour combinations, some of which succeeded and some which did not. Conversely, Mr Willesee's efforts to incorporate a highly visual style also drew praise from the Curtin students who said the visual aids effectively used colour (24 responses) and pictures and graphics (24 responses). When the Curtin students commented on usage of the presentation software which was especially effective the top two responses were the use of pictures and graphics (32 responses) and colour (11 responses).

In contrast the St Thomas student comments made no mention of the use of colour or pictures and graphics whatsoever. The author's visual aids used for the St Thomas course were almost entirely text based, and used basic, "tried and true" text and background combinations. The author avoided some of the problems that can result from poor colour choices, but unfortunately the author probably did not capitalise fully on the ability of presentation to create interest and attention through using colour.

The students' satisfaction with this improved learning environment also translates into positive perceptions of instructor performance. Over 70 percent of Curtin and St Thomas students reported a positive effect on their perception of the instructor's knowledge of the subject. More than 90 percent of students at both institutions noticed a positive effect on their perception of the instructor's preparedness for class. A positive impact on perceptions of the instructor's overall effectiveness was observed by 82.6 percent of St Thomas students and 92.9 percent of Curtin students. These findings = supported by an earlier study by the author at St Thomas. That study compared the results of standard course evaluations for business law classes both before and after incorporating presentation software. After presentation software was used, the study found statistically significant improvements in 12 of 18 categories measured by the evaluation (Kunkel 1995*).

The St Thomas students' comments indicate that using handout copies of the presentation outline is a helpful learning tool to use in conjunction with presentation software. They said the handouts gave them more time to listen and reflect on the professors comments instead of focusing on note taking. They also said that the class could move along more quickly and efficiently with less wasted time. This efficiency is a considerable benefit of presentation software as opposed to continually handling overhead transparencies or turning one's back on the class to take time to write on the board.

However, this benefit cannot be realised if the lecturer has to wait for students to copy down the content of the visual aids. The Curtin students reported that one of the weaknesses or ineffective uses of presentation software was that the lecturer could move too quickly through the material, not allowing them adequate time to take notes. The use of the handouts can reduce this problem. In a 1992 study by the author, the lecture handouts were identified as the single greatest strength of the teaching method by students in another business law class (Kunkel 1993). However, even with handouts, the St Thomas students' most commonly cited weakness was that the instructor lectured too fast.

The use of handouts is not without related problems, however. Some students commented that the handouts caused them to pay more attention to filling in the blanks rather than paying attention to the instructor. Others commented that they learned better by taking their own notes. Finally, in small classes such as those at St Thomas, an over reliance on the use of presentation software can detract from other teaching methods that students prefer. St Thomas students commented that one weakness of the method was that they focused on watching the screen rather than paying attention to the instructor. This over reliance can negate any advantage of increased interest and attention that presentation software can achieve. In the author's 1992 study, in which presentation software was used extensively in a small class, over half of the students felt the method reduced their attention in class. Students felt that the presentation interfered with the customary personal interaction between the student and instructor in small classes that is expected at St Thomas (Kunkel 1993). In small classes where a number of effective teaching techniques are possible, presentation software should be used only for the teaching tasks for which it is most effective, and other effective methods should be continued.

It is tempting when reviewing the positive assessment of presentation software use in class to conclude that because the students had a positive learning experience that they also learned more, but research show little connection between attitudes toward instructional media and instructional value (Dwyer, 1978). This study was not designed to attempted to measure the effect of presentation software on students learning. However, research by other educators who have used multimedia presentations in class have found no improvement in student performance (Karpoff, 1993 Casanova and Casanova, 1991; and Janda 1992). These studies have suggested that using presentation software in class conveys a different set of priorities in studying the course materials that may or may not be reflected by traditional methods of evaluation (Casanova and Casanova, 1991; Karpoff et al, 1993). Janda notes that new strategies are required to measure whether multimedia techniques produce other forms of learning not reflected in traditional assessment (Janda 1992).


The author acknowledges with gratitude the assistance of his student assistants, Rachel Boyum and Ellie Boldenow in preparing this paper.


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Karpoff, A. J. & Rude-Parkins, C. (1993). Using multimedia with large lecture sections: Does it work? Promises and challenges. Proceedings of the Annual Conference on Multimedia in Education and Industry (2nd, Savannah, Georgia, July 29-3 1) 119-122.

Kunkel, R. (1993). The personal computer as a business law teaching tool. Australian Educational Computing, 139-148.

Kunkel, R. (1995*). Using presentation software to teach business law. Journal of Legal Studies Education. (article conditionally accepted for publication).

Pearson, M., Folske, J., Paulson, D. & Burggraf, C. (1994). The relationship between student perceptions of the multimedia classroom and student learning styles. Presented at the Eastern Communication Association Conference. Washington, DC.

Table 1: Summary of responses to student surveys

Question: What effect of teaching method upon: 1 - Major Negative Effect2 - Minor Negative Effect 3 - No Effect4 - Minor Positive Effect 5 - Major Positive EffectAVERAGE
St Thom. %Curtin % St Thom. %Curtin % St Thom. %Curtin % St Thom. %Curtin % St Thom. %Curtin % St Thom. %Curtin %
Level of interest 0.00.5 2.21.0 13.02.4 47.837.6 37.058.6 4.204.70
Level of attention 2.20.5 2.21.4 10.94.3 47.841.2 37.052.6 4.154.44
Level of participation 0.00.0 2.20.5 67.447.6 19.641.0 10.911.0 3.393.62
Recall and retain 0.00.5 2.21.0 23.926.2 54.357.6 19.614.8 3.913.85
Instructor knowledge 0.00.5 2.21.9 17.424.6 50.049.3 30.423.7 4.093.94
Instructor prepared 0.00.5 2.21.4 2.27.1 23.927.5 71.763.5 4.654.52
Overall effectiveness 2.20.5 0.00.0 15.26.6 28.349.8 54.343.1 4.334.35
Amount learned 0.00.5 2.20.9 21.720.9 58.757.8 17.419.9 3.913.96
Difficulty of material 2.24.8 0.04.8 71.749.5 17.435.2 8.75.7 3.303.32
Teaching method compared to: 1 - Much less effective2 3 - About the same4 5 - Much more effectiveAVERAGE
St Thom. %Curtin % St Thom. %Curtin % St Thom. %Curtin % St Thom. %Curtin % St Thom. %Curtin % St Thom. %Curtin %
Lecture alone 0.03.9 2.21.0 4.310.2 26.117.0 67.468.0 4.594.44
Lecture and white board 2.21.9 4.31.5 15.27.3 54.319.4 23.969.9 3.934.54
Lecture and overheads 0.01.0 4.31.9 30.48.7 32.639.3 32.649.0 3.934.33
Teaching method used to teach: 1 - Much less effective2 3 - About the same4 5 - Much more effectiveAVERAGE
St Thom. %Curtin % St Thom. %Curtin % St Thom. %Curtin % St Thom. %Curtin % St Thom. %Curtin % St Thom. %Curtin %
Terms 0.00.0 6.52.9 13.035.9 45.747.4 34.813.9 4.093.72
Rules 0.00.5 8.73.3 30.434.8 43.547.6 17.413.8 3.703.71
Relationships 2.20.0 10.93.8 32.630.3 41.351.0 13.014.9 3.523.77
Liability 0.00.0 8.74.8 23.938.0 50.048.6 17.48.7 3.763.61
Cases 6.50.5 39.15.3 30.416.8 15.238.5 8.738.9 2.804.10

Table 2: Summary of responses to student surveys
Open-ended Questions: Summary of student comments - Most frequent responses

Question: "What do you think are the greatest strengths or benefits of using these visual aids?"
Curtin student commentsNo. of
St Thomas student commentsNo. of

Made Lectures More Interesting, Generated More Student Interest64 Made Lectures More Interesting, Generated More Student Interest8
Generated and Maintained Student Attention50 More Time to Listen and Reflect Instead of Taking Notes8
Improved Clarity of Visuals; Visible Clearly in Theatre50 Generated and Maintained Student Attention5
Easy to Read38 Quick, Efficient, No Wasted Time5
Understandable /Easy to Understand27 Were Easy to Read5
Effectively Used Colour24 Improved Clarity of Visuals; Visible Clearly in Classroom4
Effectively Used Pictures/Graphics24 Understandable /Easy to Understand3
Improvement vs. Overhead Transparencies15 Improvement over Handwritten Notes on Whiteboard or Transparencies3
Made Note Taking Easier11 Made Note Taking Easier2
Helped to Retain/Recall Material10
Improvement over Handwritten Notes on Whiteboard /Transparencies10
Question: "What do you think are the greatest weaknesses or drawbacks of using these visual aids?"
Curtin student commentsNo. of
St Thomas student commentsNo. of

Poor Colour Combinations Made Visual Aids Difficult to Read91 None/No Weaknesses9
None/No Weaknesses26 Instructor Lectured Too Fast6
Computer/Operator Failure Causes Long Delays21 I Focused More on the Screens than on the Instructor6
Instructor Lectured Too Fast18 Focused too Much on Finding Words to Fill in Blanks on Handout4
Text Size Was Too Small to be Readable13 Retain Better When I Write My Own Notes2
Difficult to Read12 Inflexibility - Instructor Cannot Change Presentation to Further Explain Material
Used Too Many Graphics6
Information Not Detailed Enough5
Made Lectures in Other Classes Seem More Boring2
Made it More Difficult for Instructor to Give Examples2

Table 3: Summary of responses to student surveys
Open ended questions: Summary of student comments - Most frequent responses

Question: "Please comment on any aspects of the instructors use of these visual aids which was especially effective or ineffective:"
Curtin student comments
EffectiveNo. of
IneffectiveNo. of

Pictures/Graphics32 Poor Colour Combinations25
Colour11 Instructor Lectured too Fast14
Improved Readability5 Font Sizes Too Small7
Helped Retain/Recall Material4 Too Much Content2
Case Presentation4 Computer Failures1
Use of Large Font Sizes3 Too Many Screens1
Easy to Review Prior Screen3 Visuals Were Too Distracting1
Enjoy Learning More2 Focus on Rationale of Cases1
Use to Emphasise Main Point2 Less flexibility for Lecturer with
pre-prepared presentation
Better than Overhead Projector2

St Thomas student comments
EffectiveNo. of
IneffectiveNo. of

Handouts12 Lectured too Fast1
Enjoy Learning More4 Visual aids too distracting1
Pictures and Graphics3 Visual Aids Confusing1
Saves time2

Author: Assistant Professor Richard G. Kunkel
Department of Entrepreneurship and Business Law
University of St Thomas
Mail No: MCN 6015
2115 Summit Avenue, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55105 USA
Telephone (612) 962 5132 Fax (612) 962 5093
Email: rgkunkel@stthomas.edu

Please cite as: Kunkel, R. G. (1996). Two countries, two class sizes, one teaching method. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 213-220. Perth, Western Australia, 21-25 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/ek/kunkel.html

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