PowerPoint in Education: Academic Presentations

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009 , , 10 comments

academic-lectureWhen this author studied at a rather ancient university fifteen years ago few lecturers used pre-prepared visual aids in academic presentations. Physicists scrawled equations over giant blackboards. Philosophers asked students to imagine things for themselves. Occasionally, somebody used an overhead projector, but they were probably trying to seem avant-garde.

Fast-forward ten years to business school, and almost without fail, every lecturer used slides. PowerPoint had become ubiquitous. Most slides were made up of lines of text, with font sizes as low as six points. Some lecturers used the university template, others plain white or blue. Clip art was widely abused. Nearly all lecturers spent hours either reading sides aloud, or attempting not to read slides aloud by saying the same stuff that was written on the slides in a much less efficient way.

My fellow students and I were reduced to being spoon-fed, and long parts of each lecture became enormously boring and unhelpful. Worse, everybody knew that this would be the case well in advance. Teachers weren’t teaching effectively, students weren’t learning effectively, and everybody knew it. Strength in numbers ensured that lecturers all felt safe continuing to read their bullet points aloud.

One of our team was invited to present at Surrey University recently, as part of a programme of enrichment activities. Shortly afterwards, we received the following message from a student who attended the session:

I recently attended a “killer presentations” session taken by Alex Hardy at the University of Surrey. I would just like to say thank you for the advice and tips given to me during that time. I learnt a tremendous amount during the one hour that Alex presented and after having a brief look around your website, I can safely say that I will learn a great deal more in the future. This sort of information and advice should be provided to universities up and down the country. In the two lectures I sat in today, I could not believe the lack of effort put into the slides. A brief look at this website (or indeed a training session) would ensure lecturers transformed the learning experience to facilitate a better transfer of knowledge.

bored-audience-2This got us to thinking: Why do educated people present in such a thoughtless way? What mistakes are made in the use of PowerPoint in university, and what should lecturers do instead?

Most lecturers (in our completely unscientific study based on asking recent graduates in the office to ask their friends) use slides for nearly all of their material, make these slides full of bullet points, and then distribute these text-heavy slides as handouts. This creates three fundamental problems:

  1. If slides make sense without the presenter, then during the session the lecturer is redundant. Many presenters try to get around this problem by adding additional material or attempting to explain the material on the slides – but students will tend to disengage, feeling they can already see the key information. Besides, it is impossible to read and listen at the same time, so audience members simply ‘block out’ the lecturer in order to focus on reading the slides. It’s really hard to present self-explanatory slides well.
  2. An opportunity to use genuine visual aids is missed, and a chance to actually teach goes missing. If students come to lectures to read abbreviated text books, then those lectures are a waste of time.
  3. As any student will tell you, if the handouts contain the information that will be presented in a self-explanatory and unembellished form, there’s really not much point attending the lecture. Pick up or download the slides, and then go do something else instead.

If reading slides aloud is so ineffective in teaching, how has the technique become so widespread? Why have lecturers everywhere adopted a technique that students recognise as ineffective? Why copy an approach that doesn’t work? After all, most lecturers have attended academic presentations given by others, and been utterly bored. We would postulate that there are a few factors:

  1. Using the latest technology makes presenters seem up-to-date and avoiding it risks giving the impression of being old-fashioned;
  2. Everybody else is doing it. For those teaching who aren’t experts in pedagogy it is easy to just copy what everyone else is doing;
  3. Using visual aids that can be re-used year after year reduces overall effort;
  4. Delivering a lecture by reading slides seems easy – the lecturer doesn’t need to think too hard about what to say;
  5. When expected to produce handouts, using text-heavy slides reduces overall effort;
  6. Anybody can do it. Typing into PowerPoint is extremely easy.

lecturer-chalk-boardThe accessibility of PowerPoint has caused problems. Most people can draw diagrams – however messy – onto acetate or a blackboard. Switch to PowerPoint and these same people – experts in something other than graphic design or software – no longer have the ability to create diagrams. PowerPoint certainly doesn’t force people to use bullet points (check out these PowerPoint slides), but doing something else does requires an investment of time and effort.

So, what should a university lecturer interested in teaching effectively actually do, given that they are unlikely to have time or inclination to master presentation software? With no budget, but a vague wish to stop being hated by students, what is the best way to use visual aids?

  1. Visuals should help students to understand material. Find helpful visual concepts – a timeline, process, map, matrix or graph – and create simple PowerPoint diagrams. If a visual aid doesn’t help the audience to understand material, what is it for?
  2. Don’t worry about slide count. Be prepared to use more slides, but with less content on each slide. Remember because the slides won’t be printed as handouts, they won’t waste paper.
  3. Use simple graphs and charts. Graphs for projection should be clean, and build. Check out our tutorials on creating PowerPoint graphs.
  4. Show photographs. Not just stock photography, but photos taken specifically to demonstrate a point or illustrate issues.
  5. Use video clips. Shooting video is relatively easy nowadays, and interviewing people can demonstrate points forcibly (e.g. Google ask what is a browser?)
  6. Show quotes and definitions as slides, but present them by saying nothing and letting the audience read for themselves. Don’t read aloud when the audience are reading for themselves.
  7. Don’t feel it’s necessary to use visual aids for all material. Prioritise the areas where visuals will most help – definitions of concepts, relationships, presentation structure and comparisons, examples, and for summary. Better to have a few helpful slides than dozens of pointless slides.
  8. Use the whiteboard. Not everything needs to be prepared in PowerPoint in advance, and drawing “live” on a whiteboard can be engaging for students.
  9. Use a tool like Papershow to annotate slides in real-time.
  10. Produce handouts in Word, not PowerPoint. Because slides shouldn’t make sense without a presenter, but handouts should, the same material can’t be reused effectively. Consider recording narration if distributing slides to students.

Remember, PowerPoint is not the enemy – but nor should it be abused. Use the whiteboard, use acetates, use video clips and use PowerPoint. But do not present self-explanatory slides.

Want to see how academic presentation slides could be improved? Submit some lecture slides to our PowerPoint clinic, and we’ll transform a selection of those we receive, free of charge. We’ll emphasise approaches and techniques that are accessible for those without a studio of PowerPoint designers to rely on. This one is for lecturers only – no class assessments please. (We’ve tried that before, and most lecturers mark presentations down if they don’t have enough text. Honestly.)

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10 Comments to PowerPoint in Education: Academic Presentations

  1. #1

    Rowan Manahan

    8:51 pm, December 16th, 2009

    So true – and the atrocious ppt virus is spreading throughout every level of academe.

    I tried an interesting experiment with 2 academics this year, both of who had been receiving poor scores from their student evaluations. I gave each of them a presenter remote and disconnected their laptops from the data projector. They still had their roadmap/autocue in easy sight and their students were no longer distracted (or irritated!) by their appalling slides.

    Over two semesters, their evaluation scores rose from an average of 4.5 to an average of 7.75.

  2. #2

    Joby Blume

    3:01 pm, December 18th, 2009

    Rowan – that’s a really interesting experiment. Somehow not surprising.

  3. #3

    Janice Tomich

    5:51 pm, January 4th, 2010

    I’ve just been through 3 years of far too many ppt lectures. When I look back, I remember very little of what was presented. I do remember the classes and material where engaging discussion was the norm. And as mentioned above not surprising.

    Thank you for the introduction to Papershow. Looks like an interesting resource.

  4. #4

    Joby Blume

    5:44 pm, January 5th, 2010

    Janice, Papershow is pretty interesting. We’re always looking for technology that helps presenters deliver interesting presentations. For those who don’t want to learn anything too sophisticated with PowerPoint, but who to use technology when presenting, Papershow is definitely worth a look.

  5. #5

    trainee teacher

    6:39 am, November 26th, 2011

    I’ve just been condemned for bad presentation skills with unfriendly slides and more disengaged students of 15 years old.

    Your tips here are really true. I shouldn’t put in all my information in the slides in a too enthusiastic attitude to let my students have a copy to revisit after my lessons.
    I should let it be a “conversation” enhancements, to my delivery. I will pepper it with interactive activities of points I covered. I will get them to present back to me, what I just showed with visuals and videos, with matching sentences as definitions to key concept words.


  6. #6

    Jessica Pyne

    12:26 pm, November 28th, 2011

    Really glad you’ve found our content useful – we hope it helps you to be successful. If you think your fellow trainee teachers could benefit from this site, please do let them know about us!

  7. #7


    4:14 am, February 21st, 2013

    I’ve recently switched back to ppt after a year with prezi. I am finding the ppt prep SO boring compared to prezi, and I honestly can’t believe my students hated prezi. I followed all of the tips here about minimal material, good visuals and so on, and I certainly found the classes were more interactive and dynamic. I am an experienced public speaker, and get great appreciation at conferences. But what the students really wanted was — all the material on the slides. So have we conditioned them to expect this utter boredom!?

  8. #8

    Jessica Pyne

    2:33 pm, March 4th, 2013

    Thanks for the comment Kelly – glad you’re getting on better with PowerPoint!

    Yes, it’s unfortunate that many people seem to have been conditioned to expect all content on the slides! I think that the reason students like this is that they can then print these slides and use them as notes – but while slides containing a lot of content work well as handouts, they don’t work well in a presentation. In this situation the best thing to do is provide a separate document as a handout, or provide speaker notes alongside PowerPoint slides that students can print off themselves.

  9. #9


    10:00 pm, November 8th, 2013

    One PowerPoint limitation that can hinder lectures being engaging and interactive is the necessity to follow a predetermined slide order. Lecturers need flexibility to “deviate from the script” and follow different slide paths in response to class interaction.
    Have a look at a new PowerPoint Add-in called FlexiPrez (www.flexiprez.com) to see how this can be done with a little extra effort.

  10. #10

    Harry Wilson

    9:45 am, November 11th, 2013

    Thanks for the tip David, expect an email from us soon! :-)