Thursday, December 09, 2010

Purposeless Pacing

From a teaching evaluation (not mine, but it could have been):

"The professor paced without purpose while teaching."

Discuss.

Questions for the purposes of data acquisition and discussion:

- Do you pace while teaching?
- Does your pacing have a purpose?
- If it has a purpose, is it a good purpose, a psychotic purpose, a pedagogical purpose, or what?
- Does anyone care? (i.e., Has a student ever mentioned it in your teaching evaluations?)
- Or, if you are a student: Do you care/not care if your professors pace, with or without purpose?

I confess: I pace while teaching. To the extent that my pacing has a purpose, it is so I can be a physical presence in various parts of the room at different times during the class, make eye contact with more students, listen to their questions better, try to see what they are seeing when I project something/write something at the front of a large classroom, or just because I get kind of hyped up when I teach and I feel like moving. I don't know if those are good purposes or bad purposes, but I think they add up to purposes, even if students don't know what they are.

As a pacer, I am therefore a fan of (my own) pacing. It didn't occur to me that it might also be distracting to students. I talk while I move around the room, so it's not as if I am walking back and forth silently, staring at the floor and thinking mysterious professorial thoughts during class. I can understand how that might be a bit disconcerting.

The questions above are intended to stimulate discussion of the important topic of professorial pacing. My discovery of this unexplored (by me) topic has demonstrated to me yet again that there is always something strange and new to think about, just when my energy and spirit have been nearly shattered, or at least flattened into a nanofilm, by committee work.

39 comments:

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm definitely a pacer while I lecture, and I don't even realize I'm doing it. But I find that when I'm writing I pace, too. Sound strange? I'll be sitting at the computer, writing, and then there's that beautiful moment when the idea comes, and I type a bit, spring up, pace around the room, working out the idea in my head for a minute, then sit down, type a few more words, jump up again... it's all very weird. But moving seems to go hand in hand with thinking for me.

Brad Holden said...

Pacing can be distracting, it takes the audiences attention away from the board, screen, or what-have-you and makes you focus on the speaker.

This can be really useful, if you want the audience to pay attention to you. If you want the audience to pay attention to the screen, board or whatever, stop pacing, stand still, and gesture.

So, yea, pacing without a purpose can be annoying.

Anonymous said...

I like blackboard teaching better than powerpoint/beamer/whatever teaching in part for this reason. It's inherently more dynamic and interactive, and the pacing is built in!

AnonProf said...

At risk of being a killjoy, I suspect you're parsing the student question too fun (though I admit it's fun to do). I suspect the student is just saying that your pacing was distracting. I sympathize. I pace too: when I watch myself on a video, it really stands out, but if I hadn't seen myself on video, I never would have realized.

spfspart said...

As a student, I prefer it when my prof paces, moves, otherwise does something besides stand behind the lectern staring straight ahead and droning on like he or she would teach the exact same way if the classroom was empty. It usually means there is some sort of emotion attached to what she or he is doing, and I feel a little (lot) more engaged in the class.

Really, "pacing without purpose while teaching" is a problem? Well, if they didn't have anything else to complain about, I guess that's good. Hmm.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if there's any research to back this up, but I was taught that it's good to pace around a bit while teaching in order to help keep the students focused.

Apparently the idea is that it's all too easy to zone out (accidentally, I'm sure) when staring at a prof who stands in one place all the time, so you should harness the hardwired movement-tracking instinct humans have to help keep them paying attention.

I've also heard that (at least for some) it makes the person giving the lecture speak with more energy, thus making us (hopefully) more intrinsically engaging for students.

My limited experience is that pacing does seem to help, though it can look and feel pretty awkward when you're first developing the habit. Perhaps the reason the student noticed it was just because it was a new professor who hadn't yet developed a natural pacing style?

Anonymous said...

When pacing, make sure you are facing the audience if you speak. Pacing can be coordinated with your voice to diminish or enhance emphasis. If they see me stop, they know I'm about to say something very important. Don't move while someone is asking a question. Moving helps the students realize that they're interacting with a real person, and the lecture doesn't feel like a screen. That's my two cents.

Anonymous said...

Hahahaha... I actually never thought about or noticed it before. I'm a student, and it doesn't bother me when teachers pace (I guess because, like I said, I don't even notice it)... it seems to me a reasonable thing to do, for all the reasons you stated.

Emma Garst said...

I do have a professor who gallops around the room, occasionally leaping over things, and (occasionally) tripping.
THAT is distracting. But I guess there is an extreme to everything. If there isn't any dynamic motion at the front of the room, I'm much more likely to fall asleep.

Canadian_Brain said...

I don't pace, and instead try to anchor myself to the podium. However, I have gotten comments about "excessive hand gesturing"...

Anonymous said...

I suppose it could be distracting to students with ADD... but cmon. Unless the student has a learning disability they can deal.

Anonymous said...

As a student, I preferred professors who moved around (pacing or not) to one attached to the podium/lectern.

As a professor, I move about the room so I can cover the entire room and make eye contact with all the students, especially in a large room.

Prior to being tenured, one of my peer reviewers said my hair was distracting to the learning environment. I get that personal mannerisms might not work for all individuals, but pacing? Hair? C'mon. Those have nothing to do with the ability to teach!

Anonymous said...

I totally looked at the student comment about pacing and thought "there goes another student looking for something to complain about because they don't like the teacher or their grade". I think I must just be deep in the anxiety of teaching evaluations season.

Psycgirl said...

I think there is a difference between moving around and pacing. I will move around to be on a different side of the class, keep them on their toes, remove myself from the center of discussion, etc. But pacing back and forth rather quickly - that's distracting, I agree.

Adultundergrad said...

I record most lectures to savour later at my own pace... so for purely practical reasons, I prefer professors to stay in the same place, so I can get a better recording. But it wouldn't have occurred to me to complain if the prof wasn't cooperating - I think it's your prerogative to find the style you're comfortable with!

Having said that, if you have anyone in the class who's hard of hearing and relies on speech reading to some extent, it would be good to stay in one spot facing the same direction.

Pharm Sci Grad said...

Was I the only one so busy frantically writing notes on the lectures to NOT notice whether my profs paced??? Although, I have to agree with spfspart and anon @ 2:45 - if I'm not writing notes, some movement keeps me a bit more engaged than a statue does.

When I teach I tend not to walk about much, just a leisurely stroll, as the damn slide advancer doesn't work from very far away. If I can find one that works from the back of the room I'd really unnerve some students with my wandering about the class.

Monisha said...

My most odd (both funny and sad) student evaluation comment was that my pacing exacerbated the students' anxiety disorder.

I pace while lecturing. I am usually feeling hyped up about lecturing and I am also a bit hyperactive in general (i fidget, fold up pieces of paper, wiggle, tap, and so on - albeit usually quietly). I have tripped (and i've had classes where students made serious efforts to clear my usual 'pacing pathway' of obstacles before i arrived - sweet of them.

Despite how annoying i'm sure the pacing might be, my evaluations are generally strong. So i guess either my students are like other commenters OR, they just forgive me.

studyzone said...

I think there is a difference between pacing and moving around a classroom. I am hearing-impaired, and I often move around the room so I can better hear my students' questions and comments. [I also appreciated when faculty did this, since it made it easier for me to hear them.] I also move around to communicate to students that I'm on to their games, such as texting during class. It has worked for me.

That said, I do agree that aimless pacing is distracting. When I was in grad school, one class was taught by a faculty member who often taught without any slides, notes, etc. and would walk from one wall to the other, running his hand through his hair, and talk while looking at the floor. He often had very interesting things to say (his research is fascinating), but we were usually more fixated on the state of his hair at the end of class than on his lecture.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

I'm a pacer during those rare times when I need to talk for a while without writing or running a demo. But most of my movement has some purpose

* To move from the lectern where I manage my planned display to the board where I deal with unexpected questions
* To get to demos
* To listen to a quiet student ask a question

I recall being very aware of which professors paced (and occasionally made light of it with my buddies--who can resist accusing a prof of being "the physics department leprechaun"?), but I don't recall being annoyed by it.

Anonymous said...

I do not pace, and I wish I were better able to, because there are times when I would like to lecture while moving about specific parts of the room. The reason is that there are parts of the room where students are paying less attention and I think that if I were physically near them, they would wake up. But even though I've consciously wanted to do this, I find that I need to stay in the same place when I'm making an important point (which is, er, all the time...). I do make a conscious effort to move about to different points in the room while lecturing, but it's often an effort to do so, unless it's "purposeful", i.e., I need to get to the AV controls, or the black board, etc.

Digger said...

I do pace, but it is because I have back pain, and standing in one place hurts. It also gets me out from behind the podium/desk/whatever, so that's probably a good side effect.

Anonymous said...

I'm autistic and when someone moves my attention immediately goes to where all the movements are. Likewise, when my profs write on the blackboard (chalk and an actual blackboard) my focus is on the movement of the chalk...so I'd rather have them stand still and talk with the slides. Though I have noticed that a little movement or the occassional steps every 30s or so are usually fine...or actually a big breather between rapid movements. Then again, I'm not the average student!

Anonymous said...

I don't pace. I lean on the lectern that holds the computer and mindlessly toss chalk in the air.

I'm trying to not lean because I feel like it is too casual. I've given up on trying to not toss the chalk. I've realized it helps me slow down the speed of my lecture, and students have never complained about the chalk tossing (of course, they tend to be trying to write out in longhand every word I say. Whatever happened to note taking skills?).

unlikelygrad said...

@Adultundergrad:

I tend to move while I lecture (though I wouldn't exactly call it pacing). I did have a hearing-impaired student my first semester as a TA, and I just made my best effort to face her every time I spoke, no matter where in the room I was. It seemed to work pretty well; I checked in with her several times during the semester and she seemed to be understanding me just fine.

The hardest part of this on my end of things was NOT writing while I wrote on the blackboard. That took a lot of practice!

Anonymous said...

Moving around the room is to be encouraged. Pacing monotonously backwards and forwards is distracting.

EcoGeoFemme said...

Ugh! I had one professor in grad school who paced so fast and so erratically that he was practically dancing while he lectured. It was so annoying and distracting!

I think it's like many things, where a little bit is really good but too much is really bad.

Carmelo Fruciano said...

Personally, I pace while I present, essentially for the reasons FSP stated in her post: drawing attention and making eye contact.

In particular, I tend to focus on the positions while presenting (center of the room, on the sides) giving them a purpose.
However, given that I don't focus all the time on my position and on the purpose of changing it, I also find myself pacing without purpose between purpose-driven pacing "bursts" just because I'm used to pace.

I also do a lot of gestures (I'm Italian and I've been said by American people this is very common in Italians compared to their standards) and also in that case there is a mix of purpose-driven and purposeless gestures...

Anonymous said...

The weirdest comment I've heard about is really sad. My dad had a bright student from India who asked very good questions. One of the other students, on the evaluation, wrote "The prof spends too much time talking to the dirty paki in the front row". Can you BELIEVE it? And we count these evaluations towards people's tenure. Are we incentivizing professors to play to a "lowest common denominator"?

worldin1450 said...

As a student I usually don't mind my professors pacing. But the only time it ticked me off was during a class taken place in a regular room (as opposed to an auditorium like lecture hall) and the prof was walking up and down between the tables where the students sat, and it was really annoying to have to turn you body to follow the sight of the prof. I thought that was obnoxious, especially it was a class where they had more people signed up for it than they had originally anticipated, so the room/tables were cramped to begin with.

Other than that I like to watch an intelligent person pace and talk, so that he/she doesn't look like a robot while teaching.

Anonymous said...

I teach a 270-student intro to social science course in an auditorium-style lecture hall. I am rarely up on the stage; instead I am walking up and down the aisles all the time (and my GA is on the other aisle). This helps to stop texting. But "worldin1450" -- I tell them to NOT follow me (I won't see that as rude) but to look forward at the PPT slides and clicker slides. So long as I don't trip (haven't yet) then I think that this works for me and for them. Plus, it is great if I think some talking, etc., is going on, I don't have to make a fuss, I just walk to that part of the aisle and lecture there for quite a while. Stops the annoying behavior like a charm!

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I don't "pace" but I do move around. Often I move from a seated position in the center (when answering questions or having a general discussion) to the whiteboard for pictures, math, or code. I rarely use slides, as they are too static. They also take far too long to develop for a one-use lecture. Although I may teach the same general topic in a course each year, I try different approaches to the material, so I wouldn't be able to re-use many slides.

Amanda said...

I'm a student. I've had a handful of teachers and professors that were truly frenetic pacers. It seemed like they were doing laps, speedwalking back and forth across the whole length of the front of the classroom. That's really distracting.

I don't mind sedate pacing, but it shouldn't be too fast or too far ranging. As long as I'm not having to whip my head back and forth like I'm at a tennis match, I can deal with it.

josie said...

I used to just stay near the lectern since I have to press the enter key to change slides. After a couple of advices from peer reviewers that I have to move around more, I bought a remote/laser combination. Now, I move a bit from near the lectern to the center of the of the podium to just below the screen. I find that moving a bit (not really pacing) actually calms me down a bit as well. I do have another question and hope someone can answer me. Anyone with suggestions on what kind of laser pointer to use? I've tried 3 different ones and none will show up on the screen bec the backlit is so bright and there's no way I can change that. I used to just use the cursor but now that I'm using a remote, I'm not at the lectern so much. I've resorted to pointing with my finger while I'm standing below the huge screen. I'm very tempted to get a pointer but it will have to be a very long one (even a collapsible one will have to be a special one, I think) as the screen is huge and several feet above me.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

"Anyone with suggestions on what kind of laser pointer to use?"

Don't use one. Arrange your slides so that the point you are making is obvious without point to a tiny place on the screen. This may mean more slides with less on each, or it may mean prepositioning some pointers on the slide itself. Try using verbal cues to tell students where to look.

Overuse of laser pointers has ruined many otherwise acceptable conference talks, and I'm sure the presenters are no better in their own classrooms.

Anonymous said...

Apparently professors pace. If you aren't aware of it already, Aristotle paced as well, and the verb "peripatetic" was coined after how much he paced during lectures. I pace during lectures too--it keeps my students' eyes on me, and their attention.

josie said...

Unfortunately that's not applicable to my topic. It will be hard to explain reaction mechanisms with one structure per slide. I do use verbal cues but with more complex structures, you really have to point at the area to guide students. I've used animation arrows, but it defeats the purpose if after a while, you have 3 arrows pointing on different areas of a slide.

Evgenya Shkolnik said...

Dear FSP,
I forwarded this post to a friend who trains people in public speaking. This was her response:

http://sarahgershman.blogspot.com/2010/12/move-purposefully.html

EliRabett said...

Eli does not pace, he marches up the aisle to look directly at the students hiding in the last row and point their noses at the periodic table hiding on the wall (also to get a glimpse of the pictures on their computers.)

EliRabett said...

Oh, about pointers, you can with a little bit of practice use the mouse to position the pointer. Another tactic if the projector is at ground level is to stick your finger in the beam