Friday, November 20, 2009

PowerPoint in the Classroom

Guest Writer, Dave Royer

PowerPoint – so who has the power and what’s the point? What a great opening this could be if I had a clever answer. But you do get the message that I have chosen to write about PowerPoint, hereafter abbreviated PP. I will give you my perspective and then my students’ multiple perspectives, the latter being the more important as they are the ones who are doing the learning. Based on no reliable or systematic data, I would say that PP is used in more than half the classes at Lincoln, but have we investigated whether it improves student learning, compromises student learning or is neutral? It certainly offers more versatility as to what I can offer in the classroom; I can show pictures, animations, diagrams, figures, etc. that I could never adequately draw on the whiteboard so I feel my lectures are more interesting and engaging. I can go beyond talking about global warming by embedding video of glaciers crashing into the sea in my PP presentation. My students can see the results of extended droughts in sub-Sahara Africa that are more graphic and provocative than my recitation of statistics of rainfall amounts. PP also makes my life easier, and I admit that with some guilt. Nearly every textbook in the sciences comes with a companion website that includes an instructors’ section with a full set of PP lectures. One could simply copy the PP lecture onto a computer or flash drive and present it in the classroom with minimal preparation, and while the quality of these PP lectures varies, most of them are, at the very least, adequate. So even though I routinely edit these PPs by adding, deleting and modifying slides, it is still much easier than preparing a lecture from scratch and thus my guilt. My lectures are being at least partially prepared by a person or team at the publisher with whom I do not need to share my office or my salary. Another advantageous aspect of PP lectures is the ease with which they can be posted to WebCT, where they are accessible to students at any time and from nearly any location.

So what are my concerns about PP lectures? First, I think they contribute to our perennial problem of students not purchasing textbooks; the students feel that the PPs give them all the information that they need to prepare for exams, making the text an unnecessary expense. Second, many of our students have poor note-taking skills, and PPs prevent the development of those skills as students see little or no need to take notes when the PPs will be posted for them.

And for those students who do want to take notes, there is no training available on how to take notes during a PP lecture. My last concern is whether students are learning better, learning more, and developing effective critical thinking skills with PPs, and I have no information or impressions about this.

The second part of the story is what the students think so I took some time with my General Biology II and Microbial Ecology classes to get their thoughts on the subject. I started my classes one day recently by asking whether I should teach with PP or with a traditional write on the board lecture, and more than half voted for the latter. When I asked why, I received a variety of responses. One student stated that if I wrote the information on the board, he would copy it and begin the learning process with the act of writing the information in his notebook. Another said that when I write on the board, it slows things down a bit, and when she copies from the board, it gives her time to think about what is being taught and to come up with questions. She sees PP lectures as going too fast and not allowing for some thoughtful consideration of the material being covered.

Several students thought it was easier to follow the lecture when the instructor wrote on the board, and one student said he was less likely to fall asleep if I wrote on the board; presumably the act of copying something would keep him awake. And many students felt their notes were better when the professor was writing on the board.

As for the students who preferred PP lectures, they cited the ability to include various types of media in the presentation. They also liked that the lectures are available online; the word “convenient” came up several times. Last, they felt that material missed when they could not attend lecture was easily obtained because most faculty post their PPs to WebCT.

In general, the students also noted that the quality of PPs varied considerably from course to course with the worst ones being those that were slide after slide of just text.

So what can be drawn from all of this information? While there are some implicit suggestions above, I invite you, the reader, to share your thoughts, experiences and responses. Barring some new technology, we will be using PP for many years to come.

Last, special thanks to my students in Microbial Ecology and General Biology II for their input on the use of PowerPoints in classes.


  1. Dr. Royer poses some vitally interesting questions that have implications for assessment of student learning. Power points often bore me unless they are really animated and infuse some spontaneity on the part of the speaker. Apparently most of his students feel the same way. It is why I am still wedded to overhead projectors and drawing diagrams as I go. Happily, I expect we have not heard the last of these kinds of discussions.

  2. Dave, your posting really made me think. I'm going to ask my students that same question on our last-day-of-class discussion about what worked and what didn't this semester; I'll let you know what they say.

    One worry I have about PPTs (and whiteboards, and the overhead projector Dr. V talks about, for that matter) is that they tend to reinforce the "sage on the stage" kind of teaching in which the PPT and I are center stage, just talking and explaining. I have to be very careful to make things interactive.

    It would be fun, I think, to have a faculty colloquium on the whole PPT topic sometime, and have everyone present a sample of a favorite PPT they use and discuss what they do with it and how it fits into and advances their presentation of the subject matter.

  3. I recall someone blaming professors' use of PowerPoint for cheating by student at Oxford University. Why don't we do a full (Middle States type of) assessment of the use of PowerPoint in the Classroom? PowerPoint is just a tool and whether it is used well or effectively depends on the goal. I tend to use PowerPoint mainly for reviews (in preparation for exams) and use the chalkboard, if any, for most of my classes. We also need to figure out the role that Smart Boards (which have replaced chalk and white boards in some classrooms) play in forcing teachers to use PowerPoint.

  4. Whoever has the point has a power; and whoever has the power has a point. With PowerPoint, in the classroom, the teacher usually has the power. The point, however, is to use the power wisely and effectively for the benefit of the students!

  5. Dr. Royer, I agree heartily both with your summary of the advantages of using Power Point, and your concerns about the "side-effects" of that use.