PowerPoint in the Classroom

Do you use PowerPoint (or Keynote, Prezi or other presentation software) as part of your teaching? If yes, why? This is not meant to be a question that puts you on the defensive, rather to ask you to reflect on how the use of a presentation application enhances your teaching and fits in with other strategies to meet your learning objectives for the class.

Cartoon-like drawing of a presenter showing a slide to a sleeping/snoring audience.It’s been almost three years since The Innovative Instructor wrote on using PowerPoint in the classroom. See Polishing your PowerPoints, a post that covered some tips for creating more effective slides, citing a book by Nancy Duarte called Slide:ology [Nancy Duarte, Slide:ology,  O’Reilly Media, Inc., 2008].

A key point from that post to reiterate: “Duarte reports on research showing that listening and reading are conflicting cognitive processes, meaning that your audience can either read your slides or listen to you; they cannot do both at the same time. However, our brains can handle simultaneous listening to a speaker and seeing relevant visual material.”

It’s important to keep this in mind, particularly if your slides are text heavy. Your students will be scrambling to copy the text verbatim without actually processing what is being said. On the other hand, if your slides are used as prompts (presenting questions or key points with minimal text) or if you don’t use slides at all, students will have to listen to what you are saying, and summarize those concepts in their notes. This process will enhance their understanding of the material.

An article in Focus on Teaching from August 1, 2012 by Maryellen Weimer, PhD asks us to consider Does PowerPoint Help or Hinder Learning? Weimer references a survey of students on the use of PowerPoint by their instructors. A majority of students reported that all or most of their instructors used PowerPoint. Weimer’s expresses the concern that “Eighty-two percent [of students surveyed] said they “always,” “almost always,” or “usually” copy the information on the slides.” She asks, “Does copying down content word-for-word develop the skills needed to organize material on your own? Does it expedite understanding the relationships between ideas? Does it set students up to master the material or to simply memorize it?” Further, she notes that PowerPoint slides that serve as an outline or use bulleted lists may “oversimplify” complex content, encourage passivity, and limit critical thinking.

Four journal articles from Cell Biology Education on PowerPoint in the Classroom (2004 Fall) present different points of view (POV) on the use of PowerPoint. Although written over a decade ago, most of the concepts are still relevant. Be aware that some of the links are no longer working. From the introduction to the series:

Four POVs are presented: 1) David Keefe and James Willett provide their case why PowerPoint is an ideal teaching software. Keefe is an educational researcher at the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International. Willett is a professor at George Mason University in the Departments of Microbial and Molecular Bioscience; as well as Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. 2) Kim McDonald highlights the causes of PowerPointlessness, a term which indicates the frequent use of PowerPoint as a crutch rather than a tool. She is a Bioscience Educator at the Shodor Education Foundation, Inc. 3) Diana Voss asks readers if PowerPoint is really necessary to present the material effectively or not. Voss is a Instructional Computing Support Specialist at SUNY Stony Brook. 4) Cynthia Lanius takes a light-hearted approach to ask whether PowerPoint is a technological improvement or just a change of pace for teacher and student presentations. Lanius is a Technology Integration Specialist in the Sinton (Texas) Independent School District.

These are short, op-ed style, pieces that will further stimulate your thinking on using presentation software in your teaching.

For more humorous, but none-the-less thought provoking approach, see Rebecca Shuman’s anti-PowerPoint tirade featured in Slate (March 7, 2014): PowerPointless. With the tagline, “Digital slideshows are the scourge of higher education,” Shuman reminds us that “A presentation, believe it or not, is the opening move of a conversation—not the entire conversation.”

Shuman offers a practical guide for those, like her, who do use presentation software, but seek to avoid abusing it. “It is with a few techniques and a little attention, possible to ensure that your presentations rest in the slim minority that are truly interactive and actually help your audience learn.” Speaking.io, the website Shuman references, discusses the use of presentation software broadly, not just for academics, but has many useful ideas and tips. 

For a resource specific to academic use, see the University of Central Florida’s Faculty Center for Teaching & Learning’s Effective Use of PowerPoint. The experts at the Center examine the advantages and challenges of using presentation software in the classroom, suggest approaches to take, and discuss in detail using PowerPoint for case studies, with clickers, as worksheets, for online (think flipped classes as well) teaching, the of use presenter view, and demonstrate best practices for delivery and content construction.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: CC Oliver Tacke https://www.flickr.com/photos/otacke/12635014673/

To Curve or Not to Curve Revisited

Yellow traffic signs showing a bell curve and a stylized graph referencing criterion-referenced grading.The practice of normalizing grades, more popularly known as curving, was a subject of an Innovative Instructor post, To Curve or Not to Curve on May 13, 2013. That article discussed both norm-referenced grading (curving) and criterion-referenced grading (not curving). As the practice of curving has become more controversial in recent years, an op-ed piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times caught my eye. In Why We Should Stop Grading Students on a Curve (The New York Times Sunday Review, September 10, 2016), Adam Grant argues that grade deflation, which occurs when teachers use a curve, is more worrisome than grade inflation. First, by limiting the number of students who can excel, other students who may have mastered the course content are unfairly punished. Second, curving creates a “toxic” environment, a “hypercompetitive culture” where one student’s success means another’s failure.

Grant, a professor of psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, cites evidence that curving is a “disincentive to study.” Taking observations from his work as an organizational psychologist and applying those in his classroom, Grant has found he could both disrupt the culture of cutthroat competition and get students to work together as a team to prepare for exams. Teamwork has numerous advantages in both the classroom and the workplace as Grant details. Another important aspect is “…that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it.” When students study together for an exam they benefit from each other’s strengths and expertise. Grant details the methods he used in constructing the exams and how his students have leveraged teamwork to improve their scores on course assessments. One device he uses is a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-type “lifeline” for students taking the final exam. While his particular approaches may not be suitable for your teaching, the article provides food for thought.

Because I am not advocating for one way of grading over another, but rather encouraging instructors to think about why they are taking a particular approach and whether it is the best solution, I’d like to present a counter argument. In praise of grading on a curve by Eugene Volokh appeared in The Washington Post on February 9, 2015. “Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.” He counters some of the standard arguments against curving by pointing out that students and exams will vary from year to year making it difficult to draw consistent lines between, say an A- and B+ exam. This may be even more difficult for a less experienced teacher. Volokh also believes in the value of the curve for reducing the pressure to inflate grades. He points out that competing law schools tend to align their curves, making it an accepted practice for law school faculty to curve. As well, he suggests some tweaks to curving that strengthen its application.

As was pointed out in the earlier post, curving is often used in large lecture or lab courses that may have multiple sections and graders, as it provides a way to standardize grades. However, that issue may be resolved by instructing multiple graders how to assign grades based on a rubric. See The Innovative Instructor on creating rubrics and calibrating multiple graders.

Designing effective assessments is another important skill for instructors to learn, and one that can eliminate the need to use curving to adjust grades on a poorly conceived test. A good place to start is Brown University’s Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning webpages on designing assessments where you will find resources compiled from a number of Teaching and Learning Centers on designing “assessments that promote and measure student learning.”  The topics include: Classroom Assessment and Feedback, Quizzes, Tests and Exams, Homework Assignments and Problem Sets, Writing Assignments, Student Presentations, Group Projects and Presentations, Labs, and Field Work.

Macie Hall, Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: © Reid Sczerba, 2013.