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We all know how to use PowerPoint badly. Cramped or illegible slides, distracting transitions, stock clip art, students rushing to transcribe from slides, presenters reading word-for-word off the screen… But how can instructors use presentation software to engage students and help them take ownership of the material?


Should I even use PowerPoint?

While students find repetitive or poorly prepared PowerPoints boring, they generally prefer PowerPoint lectures and rate lectures and courses that use PowerPoint more highly. Survey results indicate that students appreciate PowerPoint because it offers a visual stimulus, a sense of progression during the lecture, and change. Use a variety of media and consider using different color schemes or templates during a semester to keep things fresh. Most research, however, finds that the use or non-use of PowerPoint does not significantly affect student learning.


Does the format reinforce the message?

PowerPoint carries its own way of thinking:  the outline. Poorly designed PowerPoints often convey information via unconnected or oversimplified bullet points. In most cases, outline material is probably better communicated by distributing lecture notes, rather than having students rush to copy every word. Instead of putting your notes up on the projector screen, present charts, diagrams, artwork, artifacts, maps, quotes, or other media suitable for your discipline. Use the presentation to bring sources and problems into the classroom as a way to spark discussion, stimulate creative answers to questions, and encourage students to construct their own understanding of the material.

You might also consider using Prezi as an alternative to PowerPoint. Instead of slides, Prezi organizes information on a very large canvas. The user creates a series of frames on the canvas to order the information and can pan, zoom, or rotate across the canvas. A completed Prezi often looks like an infographic, but Prezis can also be used to visualize a cycle or process, depict geographic or other spatial relationships between ideas, or zoom into details in images for closer analysis.


How do I take a pedagogically-oriented approach to presentations?

Consider distributing the presentation to students. Depending on your learning goals, you might provide students a complete copy of the presentation or a partial framework with blanks to guide notetaking. When students are not scrambling to record every word, they have more time to listen and to engage in higher levels of thinking.

Make the first slide count. As students enter the room, make sure your first slide prepares them for the class period. Instead of putting up the lecture title, which is probably already in the syllabus, try the “three things” alternative:  List the top three central ideas students should take from the lecture. (You might adapt the number for your course if you give particularly long or short lectures.)  If your lecturing style is more narrative, consider listing a few additional key ID terms to guide students’ listening and notetaking.

Students waiting for the start of class can take time to read the slide, anticipate main lecture points, and begin taking notes. Beginning with this slide will also help you to clearly articulate the learning goals for the day. Students appreciate having a road-map that helps them follow the structure of the lecture and take better notes without becoming overwhelmed with extraneous details.

Incorporate active learning. Student attention spans during lecture are roughly fifteen minutes, so breaking up segments of lecture with active learning can keep students engaged. After several minutes of lecture, check for understanding and prompt original thinking with activities such as:

  • Note comparison: Pause for two minutes after an important point in the lecture to allow students to compare notes with their neighbors and ask clarifying questions.
  • Think-Pair-Share: After confronting students with a problem or question, ask students to think individually about their answers for a minute or two. Then ask students to pair up to discuss their response with a partner so that each student can formulate his or her ideas aloud and get feedback from a peer. Finally, ask a few groups to share their thoughts with the class.
  • Polling: Use a service like Poll Everywhere to ask questions to a large group of students and get immediate feedback on student learning.

Sources and further reading:

Jennifer Clark, “Powerpoint and Pedagogy:  Maintaining Student Interest in University Lectures,” in College Teaching, 56 (2), 2008, pp. 39-45.

Linda Cornwell, “What is the Impact of PowerPoint Lectures on Learning? A Brief Review of the Research,” 2014.

Michael Prince, “Does Active Learning Work?  A Review of the Research,” in Journal of Engineering Education, 93 (3), 2004, pp. 223-231.

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