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/

Polishing your PowerPoints

You’ve rebooted your syllabus, now it’s time to take a serious look at your PowerPoint/Keynote presentations. We all know that nothing is more deadly to an audience than a speaker who presents by reading from his/her text-covered slides. And yet, when it comes to preparing lecture slides for our students, we are sometimes hard pressed to come up with alternatives. For one, there is the idea that the slides are serving a double purpose – first there is the lecture, and second, the slides, packaged for distribution on a course website, present a review of the material covered. The Innovative Instructor is here to tell you that this is poor pedagogy and offer better practices.

Roadside billboard with message "your (brief) message here" displayed.For starters, when your slides are playing a dual role, neither objective is well-served. Create review sheets or outlines for your students as a component separate from your lecture slides. Rather than repeating the information you are giving in the lecture, use the opportunity to create a set of questions that your students should be able to answer after the lecture. This will help prepare them for exams by making them think about the material and identifying areas of weak understanding.

As for the in-class presentation, those slides with dozens of bullet points and incomprehensible charts and graphs need a makeover. An book by Nancy Duarte called Slide:ology – offers a quick read and great tips. [Nancy Duarte, Slide:ology,  O’Reilly Media, Inc., 2008] 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.

Duarte contends that if you have more than 75 words on a slide, it is serving as a document. Your students can’t even see the text when it is projected, so the information is lost. With around 50 words a slide acts as a teleprompter. The default method for the instructor is to turn his or her back to the audience and recite from the words on the slide while the students are reading along, usually faster than the speaker is speaking. The best presentations use minimal text on the slide. The slides act as visual aids, reinforcing your message and allowing the students to concentrate on what you are saying.

Ideally your students should be able to process the message on your slide within 3 seconds. Think of it as a billboard. As a driver, you only have a few seconds to read a billboard as you drive past, so the message must be compelling and to the point. The three second rule works because it puts the focus on what you, the instructor, are saying. Remember, your students can’t read and listen simultaneously. The ideal slide will be a short sentence or phrase summarizing the main point you are making, or an image that reinforces your message. Each slide should have only one point.

Data slides should also be rethought. Have you ever found yourself saying, “I know you can’t really see this, but….”? Stop right there. If the chart, graph, table, or diagram isn’t readable, don’t show it. The fact is that presentation slides are not a good medium for displaying complex data. If it is really important that your students examine your data details closely, then you should think about creating a handout and allowing for consideration of that information apart from your slide presentation. Otherwise, consider that the data slide should not be about the data display but about the meaning of the data. What is the point you want to make? Do you need a chart or graph to make that point? If the answer is yes, then simplify. Keep your data points to a minimum, eliminate chart clutter such as unnecessary labels and lines, and spread the information over several slides if you are making more than one point about the data.

Duarte provides lots of information on colors and fonts. The essential take-away is to keep it basic. Black text on a plain white background will work in any situation. San-serif fonts such as Arial or Verdana, are easiest to read. Keep the font size large (not a problem when you aren’t trying to cram so much text on each slide) and in no case should it be less than 24 points.

It doesn’t take much work to clean up your slides and become a power presenter. And your students will thank you.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art edited by Macie Hall