March 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 3

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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

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. logo_small


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