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.