August 1st, 2012

Does PowerPoint Help or Hinder Learning?


I’ve had some nagging concerns about PowerPoint for some time now. I should be upfront and admit to not using it; when I taught or currently in my presentations. Perhaps that clouds my objectivity. But my worries resurfaced after reading an article in the current issue of Teaching Sociology. I’ll use this post to raise some questions and concerns about the role of PowerPoint both in the classroom and in student learning experiences.

Too often we forget how significantly teaching practices shape learning experiences and PowerPoint is a perfect example. It has redefined “what a lecture looks like, consists of, and how it’s experienced,” according to one source quoted in the article (p. 254). Add to that how regularly PowerPoint is used these days. Sixty-seven percent of the 384 students surveyed in this study reported that all or most of their instructors used PowerPoint, another 23% said that at least half their instructors used it and 95% said that their instructors who used PowerPoint did so in all or most class sessions.

The article reviews studies that have looked at the influence of PowerPoint on performance in the course and course grades. Most studies find that PowerPoint has “no measurable influence on course performance and minimal effect on grades.” (p. 243) Yet students often report a favorable view of PowerPoint, saying it helps them with learning, content organization and note taking. The students in this cohort confirmed these positive effects.

What students in this study said they liked about PowerPoint is part of my concern. When asked to identify those features of PowerPoint they found most helpful, about 80% said the software organized lecture content and indicated which points were most important. Eighty-two percent said they “always,” “almost always,” or “usually” copy the information on the slides. 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?

And then there’s the potential of PowerPoint to oversimplify the material. What students need to know is reduced to a bulleted list of five items described in five words or less. (I know, not always.) That does make complicated material more manageable for students and perhaps that’s beneficial, but does it fairly and accurately represent the nature of the material we are asking students to learn? Do the lists convey any sense of context? Do they hint at the complex relationships that exist between and among items on the list?

I also worry that using PowerPoint encourages passivity. Well-designed PowerPoint presentations can be graphically impressive. They do add a great deal of interest and without question make it easier to listen and follow along. But do they encourage interaction? Do they promote critical thinking? Possibly, but often they make having discussions more difficult. The lights are partially dimmed and the seats arranged so that everyone focuses on the screen. Those aren’t features that foster the vibrant exchange of ideas.

Finally, faculty in this survey and other studies report that using PowerPoint improves their teaching. It certainly does help with organization and with keeping teachers on track, but PowerPoint does not easily accommodate those digressions that are necessary to respond to what’s happening at the moment. I do know that some of us digress too much, but there’s a spontaneity to good discussion that fits uncomfortably with a predetermined sequence of slides.

Like so many instructional practices, PowerPoint is not inherently good or bad. It’s all about how we use it and that’s not something about which we can afford to be complacent. Please consider this post an invitation to revisit the role of PowerPoint in teaching and learning. Yours might be an individual assessment, or it might be a conversation that explores assets, limitations and how to make the most of PowerPoint’s potential to improve teaching and promote learning.

Reference: Hill, A., Arford, T., Lubitow, A., and Smollin, L. (2012). “I’m ambivalent about it”: The dilemmas of PowerPoint. Teaching Sociology, 40 (3), 242-256.