Using PowerPoint Right

At last, a topic I can pontificate about off the top of my head.

The case against PowerPoint, starting with yesterday’s piece in the SMH by Anna Patty, and followed up by Dr Faustus (courtesy of today’s Missing Link), is a textbook example of reasonable arguments leading to unwarranted conclusions.

Patty’s article quotes Professor Sweller, who says:

It is effective to speak to a diagram, because it presents information in a different form. But it is not effective to speak the same words that are written, because it is putting too much load on the mind and decreases your ability to understand what is being presented.

Exactly. And Dr Faustus says:

Personally, the way I have always presented (particularly when I taught at university) is put my key points up on the sides and talk around them. Essentially I’m using the sides to both focus my students’ attention, and as an aide memoir for myself. This makes it less likely that the students will just copy down the points on the slide, but will actually listen to what I’m saying.


So how does it follow that PowerPoint, in Sweller’s words, is a disaster? Or in Faustus’s words, that it sucks? (And am I the only one who is sick of this feeble and vulgar word, by the way?) Why does one of my colleagues hate PowerPoint with a passion? Why do we need to ban it, as one of the generals in Iraq did, according to Thomas Ricks in Fiasco?

It’s like saying that bicycles are unsuitable in heavy rain and can’t be driven in reverse, therefore they suck.

Here’s the big news that some may not have heard. There’s actually an art to using PowerPoint — or old fashioned transparencies for that matter — effectively.

The basic rule is that whatever is on the screen should complement what you are saying, not compete with it. The worst thing you can do is put up a slide with a lot of text and talk at the same time. It’s like having two people talking at once. Unless, of course, you read what is on the screen word-for-word. This might be approporiate if you’re struggling in the language, or the audience is, but otherwise it looks silly. And if the material is conceptually tricky, the audience will stop listening altogether and strain to extract the meaning from the text alone. This is disastrous.

The best things to project on a screen while talking are pictures, graphs and diagrams. Text is very helpful when it consists of names of people, places, books, theories, events and so on – in short, anything that might be unfamiliar, and needs to be read to be grasped. An audience will always get pleasure from a well-chosen quote or two (I imagine there are lots of these in literature lectures), and they also create the sense of a dialogue between the speaker and the quoted luminary. Lists of things are good, too, as they reinforce the relationship between the parts and the whole.

Speaking of lists, it’s worth remembering that you don’t need to use bullets. These are the default on the slide template, but you can and should use ordinary text boxes if bullets are not specifically called for. Bullets are good for lists and headings, and that’s about all. Dr Faustus above referred to his ‘key points’, but if this means actual statements in ‘note form’, that is, sentences with articles and other little words left out — notes of the kind that a speaker used to have in front of him for his own use — it would be better to leave these out altogether. They have all the pitfalls of complete sentences, but are uglier; if in addition they are accompanied without justification by bullets, they are also foolish — at least to an intelligent eye.

Students need to be taught these rules now that they are regularly using the medium for class presentations. For them, presenting with Powerpoint can actually detract from the learning experience. They are capable of trawling through web pages, shovelling vast slabs of text onto the pages of their presentation, then coming to the class and reading it to their peers. The sheer quantity of information on display, and its professional appearance, creates the illusion, even in the minds of the presenters, of a job well done. Trouble is, they may not even have read what they’ve gathered, let alone digested and critically evaluated it. In the old days, if a student just plagiarised something and read it in a seminar, you could tell them to put the text down and explain in their own words. If it’s on the screen, though, it’s hard to ask them just to switch it off, because they’ll feel you are pulling the curtain on their whole act.

Notwithstanding all of the above, PowertPoint used properly is a boon, especially for economics lectures. I can display technical terms and propositions with a click, show heaps of graphs, and build up complicated diagrams bit by bit, backtracking if the students aren’t following.

Ackknowledgement: the slide at the top is by Joey deVilla, who makes a point about PowerPoint’s encroachment on the broader culture, and has some more interesting links.

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17 years ago

There is a “If the Gettysburg address was given in Powerpoint” somewhere around the net which is amusing.

But I agree, I’ve seen alot of good PowerPoint presentations although never done one myself. My classes benefit greatly from having large, clear pictures to illustrate the topic, also graphs, timelines etc — vastly superior to any quality you can get via OHP or photocopies. My heart does sink a bit though when I see its going to be PP: it inevitably means at least several minutes of faffing about setting up the technology.

James Farrell
James Farrell
17 years ago


Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

So bicycles can’t be driven in reverse – so that was my problem!

Pavlov's Cat
17 years ago

Or in Faustus

Kieran Bennett
17 years ago

Occasional graphs, pictures, diagrams; sure. But there is nothing quite so painful as a lecturer who reads from or goes through points on a powerpoint presentation.

Ken Lovell
17 years ago

I agree completely with the sentiments in the post but there’s another relevant consideration. Students are now customers and good customer service consists of giving customers what they want they way they want it. Many students demand PowerPoint lecture notes as a study aid. One year I almost had a revolution from a group of MBA students because I refused to use PP and tried to get them to do things in class instead. The lectures were at night, all they wanted was to come and stare at a screen for 3 hours.

Truth is lecturing is a poor teaching method, no matter what technological marvels are used in the process. Nevertheless it continues to dominate because (a) that’s the way it’s always been and (2) it’s very cost-effective compared to inter-active teaching methods.

Stephen Bounds
17 years ago

My memories of attending lectures during my undergraduate degree are fading fast, but I do remember three distinct types of lecturers who used to particularly get my goat:

(1) The Bore – Stands up the front and reads 32 PowerPoint slides word for word. Shows no passion on enthusiasm for the class they are teaching. Regrettably all too common. On the other hand, the Bore is useful because you can safely skip class altogether and just read through the lecture notes in 15 minutes at some later date.

(2) The Rambler – Has slides and/or notes, but ignores them almost completely. Has a tendency to go off on irrelevant tangents and recount “amusing” anecdotes for 40 minutes of the hour. Will typically randomly skip forward and back between slides because their points are covered out of order. The worst ramblers verbally contradict what’s written in the notes and then remind you that “all lecture material is examinable”.

(3) The Puppetmaster – Believes that students need interactivity to maintain attention span and maximise learning. Unfortunately, their definition of “interactivity” means trailing off in the middle of every third sentence hoping that a student will …? (fill in the final words). The awkward silence each time as the lecturer waits for a student who isn’t asleep/hungover/playing Solitaire on their laptop destroys the narrative continuity of the lecture and leads to acture embarrassment for 70% of students.

It might seem callous, but as a student all you really cared about was making sure you had enough information to pass. From this perspective, Powerpoint was fantastic because it was almost guaranteed to contain information which would be examined later.

The very best lecturers did just what James suggests: They provided all key information up front in the Powerpoint slides and then augmented this with more detail in their talk. Examples strengthened the points being made by including ‘volunteers from the audience’ or more general audience Q&A session.

This meant two really big benefits: lectures were still worth attending to get a deeper understanding of the subject, but the basics were all in front of you, on paper.


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