PowerPoint: To Use or Not to Use?
by Madeleine Cousineau, Mount Ida College
A presenter at the ASA Annual Meeting draws applause by announcing that she will not be using PowerPoint. A participant in a teaching roundtable declares that he never uses this program in the classroom, despite pressure from students. These statements, along with negative comments about PowerPoint posted on a teaching listserv, create the impression that no self-respecting scholar would ever use this software.
There may be some justification for this impression. Many of us have experienced how dreadful PowerPoint can be. We have endured presentations in which the speaker placed a large amount of text on the screen only to read it to the audience, or inserted so many special effects as to lead us to suspect that they were a cover for weakness of substance. We have colleagues who use prepackaged slide sets provided by textbook publishers, rather than creating fresh, original material for their classes or finding ways to encourage student participation. And, sadly, some students may prefer to be entertained by lively and amusing special effects, rather than engaging in active learning, or may be insufficiently literate to read anything longer than a bullet.
Nevertheless, these negative examples do not represent the total picture. PowerPoint can be an effective tool for highlighting key aspects of a presentation and maintaining audience attention. When there are complaints about this program at professional meetings, the problem is likely that the presenter lacks skill in effectively using it. Suggestions later in this article will address this problem.
Encouraging Active Learning
Although lack of skill with the program may be the main objection to its use at conferences, its application in the classroom creates an additional problem. Many professors believe that PowerPoint interferes with active learning because it is one more way of encouraging passivity in students who were raised on television and computer games. Nevertheless, the program can support active learning if applied carefully.
A central goal of an active learning approach is to engage the students in their own process of developing knowledge. One way of doing this is by raising questions during class that encourage the students to make connections between the course material and their personal experiences and observations. A teacher may integrate PowerPoint into this approach by keeping the information on the screen to a minimum in order to allow time to pause in the presentation and invite input from the students. In this context it is helpful to think of PowerPoint as a replacement for the blackboard or whiteboard. The program provides for smoother delivery than the latter because of the ease of moving the presentation along with a mouse click, rather than stopping to write and then to erase the board in order to write more and because of the clarity of a well designed slide in contrast to the professor’s handwriting. In addition, it is possible to go back to an earlier slide, which is not the case with material that has been erased. The use of presentation software in the classroom is especially helpful to students who are visual learners or who have auditory learning disabilities. Many professors do not write on the board as often as these students need them to. The ease of using PowerPoint provides an incentive for professors to take appropriate steps to meet their students’ need for visual cues.
Suggestions for Using PowerPoint
- In order to utilize the benefits of PowerPoint, it is important to know how to apply it well. The following suggestions aim at achieving this goal.
- Learn the technology. Take a workshop, read a manual, or search the Internet for ideas and tutorials; experiment with the program and look for opportunities to gain experience with it.
- In preparing a presentation, animate the bullets or lines of text, so that they are introduced one at a time. This is one of the most important recommendations. A large amount of text on the screen all at once may overwhelm the listeners and cause them to lose interest. In a classroom setting, students are likely to write down everything on the screen instead of listening to the professor’s explanation. However, it is imperative to avoid the more distracting animation options, and, instead, create simple, effective animation, highlight each line of text and click on "add effect," then on "entrance," and then on "appear."
- Ensure that the bullets or lines of text are easy to read by choosing large fonts (e.g., 36-point Arial bold) along with a low-key, eye-pleasing background. Explore the "background fill" section of the program to find light colored textures.
- Keep the bullets to a minimum in both length and number. This brevity, along with simple animation, will help to focus the audience’s attention.
- Use pictures selectively. An excessive number of illustrations, especially clip art, can be distracting. In some situations, however, images enhance the presentation. In a social theory course, for example, pictures of early sociologists may stimulate the interest of students who feel daunted by the classical writings.
- Ensure the smooth delivery of the presentation by inserting reminders into the lecture notes (such as the word "click") to advance the slides at specific points. These written reminders help to synchronize the visual cues with the oral commentary.
- During the delivery of the presentation, pause with the appearance of each line of text and elaborate on it. When providing definitions of concepts in the classroom, give a further explanation of each concept, along with one or more examples. Ask the students to suggest additional examples.
- During a class, pause at regular intervals to ask questions of the students in order to engage them in discussion—for example, by encouraging them to talk about how the information relates to their own experiences and observations.
- Do not hand out printouts of the slides before or during a class. This practice tends to discourage note taking.
- If there is a website for the course, do not upload the slides in advance of the lecture. Let students know that the presentation will be available the next day for review, but that they should take notes during class.
It should be evident that presentation software is neither the worst evil to invade academia nor the most brilliant teaching technique available. It is simply a tool. One may employ it in a useful manner or in a destructive one, just as a physical tool, such as a hammer, may be used to build homes for low-income people or to commit a brutal murder. Fortunately, the consequences of the clumsy use of PowerPoint are not fatal. On the other hand, skill with this program provides a means to achieve the goal of holding the attention of an audience, whether in a classroom or during a presentation to colleagues. When one has important information to deliver, it is worthwhile to use the tools that will get it across in a clear and compelling manner.