PowerPoint in Education: Academic Presentations
When 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.
This 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Using the latest technology makes presenters seem up-to-date and avoiding it risks giving the impression of being old-fashioned;
- 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;
- Using visual aids that can be re-used year after year reduces overall effort;
- Delivering a lecture by reading slides seems easy – the lecturer doesn’t need to think too hard about what to say;
- When expected to produce handouts, using text-heavy slides reduces overall effort;
- Anybody can do it. Typing into PowerPoint is extremely easy.
The 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- Use simple graphs and charts. Graphs for projection should be clean, and build. Check out our tutorials on creating PowerPoint graphs.
- Show photographs. Not just stock photography, but photos taken specifically to demonstrate a point or illustrate issues.
- Use video clips. Shooting video is relatively easy nowadays, and interviewing people can demonstrate points forcibly (e.g. Google ask what is a browser?)
- 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.
- 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.
- Use the whiteboard. Not everything needs to be prepared in PowerPoint in advance, and drawing “live” on a whiteboard can be engaging for students.
- Use a tool like Papershow to annotate slides in real-time.
- 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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