August 22nd, 2012

What Did We Learn about PowerPoint and Student Learning?


The recent post on PowerPoint use generated a healthy response. That’s encouraging, but blog exchanges can seem like conversations without conclusions. There is no summary, no distillation, and no set of next questions. And when there are many comments, I worry that those who respond first don’t return to read what follows and those who check in later don’t have time to read all the comments. So for my benefit and yours (hopefully), here’s how I would summarize our exchange on using PowerPoint.

One of the points made in the post was affirmed in the commentary. PowerPoint is a tool and that means how it affects learning depends on how it’s used. Tim H. said it clearly and succinctly, “Any statement you can make about PowerPoint, good or bad, can also be made about any other presentation method—chalkboard, overhead projector, etc. PowerPoint is only a tool.”

Most folks who commented use PowerPoint and they do for a number of different reasons. A Guest pointed out that it’s “crucial” in making information “accessible” for students with learning challenges or for whom English is not their first language. Jana M. elaborates in a different direction: “PowerPoint is excellent for the introverted, visual and to some degree auditory learner. However, the tactile, extroverted, verbal learners will quickly become bored and lose the desire to learn.” J. Hardy noted what is repeated in a number of comments, “PowerPoint is an effective tool for showcasing schematic models or diagrams or presenting pictures of key features. . . .” Laurel writes, “Lecturers can often forget to emphasize the ‘four most important points’ as they teach, and all of us learners want to know what those are and why. Creating a good PowerPoint reinforces that information for everyone.” LAB offers a particularly pithy summary. He/she uses PowerPoint “to show my students pictures of places and processes they’ve never encountered.”

Some commented that using PowerPoint benefits the teacher. I hadn’t thought of that before. Dave P. explains. “Preparing PowerPoint slides may be a useful exercise for faculty members because it forces them to think about, organize, and prioritize the material to be covered in a particular lesson.” Dave T said, “Some of the best teaching ideas come as one is preparing a PowerPoint presentation.” Follow-up question: How do we balance these teacher benefits against giving students the opportunity to learn how to organize material on their own? And how do we avoid Bernd S.’s concern that using slides can increase “presentation speed to unacceptable levels”?

A number of comments correctly noted that my post omitted discussing the many other PowerPoint enhancements beyond bulleted points and other forms of texts—enhancements like video clips, websites, blogs, polls, clickers, hot links and various forms of animation used by teachers. Dave L. writes “PowerPoint. . . used as more than a projector for ‘words’ or ‘organization’ promotes interest and should assist learning.” 45Doc70 notes that PowerPoint “gives faculty an incredible amount of creativity.”

Fewer comments decried the use of PowerPoint but those that did listed objections like these. Christopher H. wrote, “Intended or not, PowerPoint is an instrument of faculty control in the classroom. It inhibits interaction, squashes student creativity and inquisitiveness, interferes with faculty responsiveness, and reduces students to passive consumers of knowledge. . .” Keith D. has observed a “depressing number of professors who have no idea how to use such programs. I have seen slides with up to 75 to 100 words on them. . .hour and a half lectures with 50 or 60 slides.” Jana M notes that when there are too many slides “students sit back like they are watching a movie instead of taking notes and asking questions.” Joanne A. shared a comment from a student who loved PowerPoint “because he didn’t have to do anything.”

It was a good exchange with folks doing what I had hoped: revisiting their use of PowerPoint—what they do and why they do it. Thanks to all who contributed! It would be equally useful for students to revisit (or maybe visit for the first time) the role of PowerPoint in their efforts to learn. What does it contribute? When is it a crutch? What learning skills does it develop? It would be interesting for faculty to then ponder students’ perspectives.

  • Laura

    I am surprised from the update that I did not see that anyone commented on the use of powerpoint in online education. Many instructors at my college use powerpoint to enhance textbook learning in online courses. Some include videos of actual demonstrations and lectures in the powerpoint. Others do voice over narratives for the powerpoint. Additionally, powerpoint is tool that when combined with other tools like socrative app or turning technologies clicker systems can actually promote discussion and interaction with material. Expanding our tool boxes and combining great tools allows us to reach more learning styles and hopefully deepen the learning that occurs.
    Thanks for the interesting discussion.

  • Karen

    Great points. I think both instructors and students need to take advantage of the advances in technology, things are only going to get better.

  • Jayant Bose

    I agree with Laura & Karen, Power Point is an excellent tool for both class room as well as e-Learning as long as the instructor utilizes it properly. quite often I put up complex business models on Power Point aand ask students to work on it. however, used indiscriminatly it will obviously be disfunctional as far as learning is concerned.

  • Teri

    I see way too many people doing what I call "Karaoke Powerpoint" – there is good research that when we ask students to read and listen, retention is decreased. With the short attention span, many students speed read the bullet points and if nothing catches their interest, they disengage much quicker than the normal 6 – 7 minute attention span. Powerpoint is not the culprit – bullet points is what decreases learning/retention. Images can draw them in and capture their interest without compromising retention.

    • Bruce Gabrielle

      Teri – what research are you referring to? I've read all the research on bullet points and cannot find anything that says learning is decreased by reading bullet points to students. In fact, research by Blokzijl & Andeweg (2005, 2007) says learning is IMPROVED with bullet points (over using no slides at all, or even picture slides).

      You may be referring to research that says combining text, visuals and voice decreases learning (Mayer, Sweller). This means don't read your slides if you also have PICTURES on them. But even Mayer clarifies in his book "Multi-Media Learning" that using bullet points to outline and summarize a talk may be a good pedagogical practice (4 bullets points at a time; not 20).

      There is some misinformation about this research on blogs and discussion forums. I wouldn't want instructors to feel bad about using bullet points, and deprive students of proven educational value, because of that misinformation. But if I've missed some research, I'd love to see it.

  • Bo Ljungholm

    Similar to many other teaching techniques, the effectiveness of a PowerPoint presentation depends on the material
    and on the delivery. The presentation can be interactive when students respond to multiple choice questions, for example.
    Students can also be divided into teams and each team gets a shot at answering questions from the PowerPoint slides.

    Better yet, from time to time have the STUDENTS create PowerPoint slides and then deliver a presentation to the class.
    This activity provides a number of learning opportunities to students: they have to focus on, organize, and learn the material that they will present.

    After all, the students are the ones who should do most of the work in the classroom–the instructor, presumably, already understands the material!

  • Michele Curry

    I agree that PowerPoint presentations are helpful to the instructors in keeping organized and on point when there is a lot of content to cover. I realize I cannot cover all the content and possibly that is ok, but I find the PowerPoint can deliver diagrams and videos to clarify my lecture points. I use the power points for points of discussion and not a lot of content or info is on my power points. I encourage note taking with lecture points on the screen. I appreciate the discussion on this topic.

  • Matt Fisher

    As many others have written, the problem is not inherent to PowerPoint but how it is used. In my own discipline (chemistry), my use of PowerPoint varies significantly. In general chemistry, I use it on occasion when sharing an image with students is relevant to the topic under discussion. But there are a number of class periods where I don't use it. My practice in biochemistry is almost the exact opposite, in large part because biochemistry is such a visual subject. My slides typically have one or two images, sometimes text (although not all that often), and I print copies out in advance so that students can annotate the images as we work with them in class.

    One point that I'm a little surprised no one mentioned is how much easier it is to embed images/data from the primary literature into PowerPoint compared to overhead transparencies. With the explosion in journal articles available as PDF's, that allows me to engage my students with research and images from the primary literature even more. Without PowerPoint, that would be impossible.

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  • I usually teach with the help of powerpoint and LCD projector. Whenever i demonstrate process in my computer subject i make sure everybody can see it well. However, when i give the student the opportunity to present, some failed to produce well design presentation.