Education, Science / Tech
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Why Universities Should Get Rid of PowerPoint and Why They Won’t

Do you really believe that watching a lecturer read hundreds of PowerPoint slides is making you smarter?

I asked this of a class of 105 computer science and software engineering students last semester.

An article in The Conversation recently argued universities should ban PowerPoint because it makes students stupid and professors boring. I agree entirely. However, most universities will ignore this good advice because rather than measuring success by how much their students learn, universities measure success with student satisfaction surveys, among other things.

What is so wrong with PowerPoint?

Overreliance on slides has contributed to the absurd belief that expecting and requiring students to read books, attend classes, take notes and do homework is unreasonable.

Courses designed around slides therefore propagate the myth that students can become skilled and knowledgeable without working through dozens of books, hundreds of articles and thousands of problems.

A review of research on PowerPoint found that while students liked PowerPoint better than overhead transparencies, PowerPoint did not increase learning or grades. Liking something doesn’t make it effective, and there’s nothing to suggest transparencies are especially effective learning tools either.

Research comparing teaching based on slides against other methods such as problem-based learning – where students develop knowledge and skills by confronting realistic, challenging problems – predominantly supports alternative methods.

PowerPoint slides are toxic to education for three main reasons:

  1. Slides discourage complex thinking. Slides encourage instructors to present complex topics using bullet points, slogans, abstract figures and oversimplified tables with minimal evidence. They discourage deep analysis of complex, ambiguous situations because it is nearly impossible to present a complex, ambiguous situation on a slide. This gives students the illusion of clarity and understanding.
  2. Reading evaluations from students has convinced me that when most courses are based on slides, students come to think of a course as a set of slides. Good teachers who present realistic complexity and ambiguity are criticised for being unclear. Teachers who eschew bullet points for graphical slides are criticised for not providing proper notes.
  3. Slides discourage reasonable expectations. When I used PowerPoint, students expected the slides to contain every detail necessary for projects, tests and assignments. Why would anyone waste time reading a book or going to a class when they can get an A by perusing a slide deck at home in their pyjamas?

Measuring the wrong things

If slide shows are so bad, why are they so popular?

Universities measure student satisfaction but they do not measure learning. Since organisations focus on what they measure and students like PowerPoint, it stays, regardless of its educational effectiveness.

Hospitals measure morbidity and mortality. Corporations measure revenue and profit. Governments measure unemployment and gross domestic product. Even this website measures readership, broken down by article and author. But universities don’t measure learning.

Exams, term papers and group projects ostensibly measure knowledge or ability. Learning is the change in knowledge and skills and therefore must be measured over time.

When we do attempt to measure learning, the results are not pretty. US researchers found that a third of American undergraduates demonstrated no significant improvement in learning over their four-year degree programs. They tested students in the beginning, middle and end of their degrees using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, an instrument that tests skills any degree should improve – analytic reasoning, critical thinking, problem solving and writing.

Any university can deploy similar testing to measure student learning. Doing so would facilitate rigorous evaluations of different teaching methods. We would be able to quantify the relationship between PowerPoint use and learning. We would be able to investigate dozens of learning correlates and eventually establish what works and what doesn’t.

Unfortunately, many key drivers of learning appear to reduce student satisfaction and vice versa. As long as universities continue to measure satisfaction but not learning, the downward spiral of lower expectations, less hard work and less learning will continue.

The Conversation

Paul Ralph, is a lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Auckland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

10 Comments

  1. The question that this article opens with –“Do you really believe that watching a lecturer read hundreds of PowerPoint slides is making you smarter?” — is absurd. Obviously, the answer is no, and any lecturer who does do that is not doing their job. Yes, some lecturers use Powerpoint ineptly, as some do with any teaching aid. Used properly, Powerpoint can be illuminating and stimulating in the lecture room. And all universities I know have training in place to make sure lecturers use the teaching tools available to them effectively – and the first thing you’ll be told in that training is “don’t read out the text on the slides.” I’m baffled by statements such as “When I used PowerPoint, students expected the slides to contain every detail necessary for projects, tests and assignments.” So perhaps you could tell them, emphatically, and back it up with a note in the handbook, that that was not the case.

  2. Phil S says

    I have to agree with the above comment. PowerPoint is like anything else – it has to be used appropriately. I always use it for lectures and make clear to students that the slides provide a structure -.they need to bring copies of the slides because my lecture is where I analyse, explain areas of controversy or complexity and go into depth. So I don’t want them sat there writing down what is on the slides when they need to be taking notes on what I am actually saying. Reading from slides is just bad teaching.

  3. Paul Ralph’s article stating PowerPoint should be banned because some people use it poorly is absurd. Is his next article going to be that MS Word should also be banned because some are using it to write boring lectures, articles and books? Or that all cars should be taken off the road because some drivers drive poorly?

    PowerPoint and it’s more potent cousin Apple Keynote are excellent platforms to explain complex concepts. You don’t start by projecting a complex chart in its entirety, but build it module by module. What is then on the screen is the complex chart where the students understand all of the components and how those components inter-relate. It’s called teaching and learning.

    In the late 1970s I did a presentation that explained this same concept with the PowerPoint of the day – overhead transparencies. One prof in the audience then spent the summer converting his entire filing cabinet of flat overheads into more animated multi-sheet overheads. While he jokingly cursed my suggestion, he later commented that his students were able to grasp his concepts more easily and thoroughly.

    That’s the same idea as animation on PowerPoint today. Build your teaching one small part at a time.

  4. Sharmaine Williams says

    I like Bob Gallenger’s idea. Build teaching one small part at a time.

  5. Pingback: OTR Links 09/04/2016 | doug --- off the record

  6. Having studied online short courses in engineering and statistics as well as undergraduate finance and humanities at two Australian universities, I have mixed opinions about the use of PowerPoint.

    Firstly, in any subject with maths it is immensely handy to have the formulas and definitions of variables on a slide. It is searchable, does not get lost, and hand writing and mistakes become less of an issue. While everything is in the text and online one cannot bank on every equation being written identically and been given the same notation. The finance (but not the eng) I’ve done has a formula sheet but this typically lacks the meaning of the terms. I guess that have to make it challenging somehow.

    In philosophy, it is terrific to have a precise quotation or definition up on a screen. This is excellent when the student needs a solid understanding of a field as a springboard for writing research essays. Usually, there are many such small but crucial passages. Of course, you could look up what Susan Haack means by ‘foundherentism’ or by what thought experiment Saul Kripke defends his ‘causal theory of reference’ in those philosophers’ books. But that assumes that the passage in question can be found easily in a 300 page text and that the text in question hasn’t been borrowed from the library by your classmate (poor you). Here, PowerPoint is a definite plus and a great supplement to the lecture.

    It becomes dicey when one is assessed on course content (by means of examination) and that course content consists precisely in what appears in the lecture slides. A cog psych unit I took was like this and gave the student a crash course in half a century of research literature. The $200 textbook contained a ton of great material but sometimes went into too much or too little detail for what the lecturer had set for the exam. When it comes close to end of semester every student is keen to get hints from the tutor on what is going to be on the paper. My heart leapt with joy when he told us to memorise thirteen weeks of slides (only a couple dozen slides per lecture). One had to know the theoretical importance of each study, the method used, the researcher’s name and the year it appeared. This probably works best for motivated students although made revision somewhat impractical. I still remember Cherry (1953), Broadbent (1958) and Posner (1980) with great fondness although Loftus and Palmer (1974) might have something to say about that.

    These were great units given by professors who obviously enjoyed teaching undergrads. I’m not so sure about PowerPoint making good subjects bad, rather I think that intellectual wastelands try to furnish themselves with bullet points and theories and gobbledygook. Banning PowerPoint in tutorial may help, however. E.g. last week I learnt to ‘use constructive communication skills with a problem-solving orientation’. Well, how about actually making the kids in the tute actually discuss the material then, Prof, instead of feeding what is in lecture twice-over?

    I strongly disagree with the idea that degrees should improve “analytic reasoning, critical thinking, problem solving and writing”. It is fine and dandy if they do – but the focus of undergraduate education ought to be imparting content to students and laying the foundation for further knowledge. No one cares about whether the accountant can write prose or whether the lawyer has deep thoughts about Derrida. What is important is for the graduate to know procedures and principles and case law and the like. When someone claims they teach critical thinking, but mentions nothing else that is valuable, I worry. I do not dispute that language, mathematic, logic and philosophy subjects make indispensable use of such skills, but imparting knowledge should be the core focus on any program.

    The other part of the argument is also unconvincing. I’m aware that we can measure pressure, voltage, flux, profit, mass and floating point operations per second. How do you propose to “measure learning”? What is the unit for learning? Sure, we can say that ‘Jane learnt more chemistry than Fred’, but I have not been convinced that quantification is possible simply because we think it may be useful.

  7. Barbara Piper says

    Hypotheses about student learning and Powerpoint are hard to test, and the range of ways in which it is used is so broad that it may not even be worth it. I use Powerpoint in teaching anthropology courses, almost exclusively for illustrations, visuals — Powerpoint replaces my old 35mm slides. Showing PP slides of a Nigerian village is more effective than only a verbal description. On the other hand, I rarely use PP in my law school lectures, in which complex arguments are central, and visuals could be distracting.

  8. Talking at people is an extremely poor way to teach them anything, with or without slides or other visual aids. The best that a lecturer can hope to do is to convey some of their own interest and enthusiasm in the subject; and the chances of that get smaller as the size of the audience increases. A genuine education requires reading, writing and small group discussions, as Stephen Leacock discovered at Oxford:

    ‘At Oxford it is not so. The lectures, I understand, are given and may even be taken. But they are quite worthless and are not supposed to have anything much to do with the development of the, student’s mind. “The lectures here,” said a Canadian student to me, “are punk.” I appealed to another student to know if this was so. “I don’t know whether I’d call them exactly punk,” he answered, “but they’re certainly rotten.” Other judgments were that the lectures were of no importance: that nobody took them: that they don’t matter: that you can take them if you like: that they do you no harm.

    ‘It appears further that the professors themselves are not keen on their lectures. If the lectures are called for they give them; if not, the professor’s feelings are not hurt. He merely waits and rests his brain until in some later year the students call for his lectures. There are men at Oxford who have rested their brains this way for over thirty years: the accumulated brain power thus dammed up is said to be colossal.

    ‘I understand that the key to this mystery is found in the operations of the person called the tutor. It is from him, or rather with him, that the students learn all that they know: one and all are agreed on that. Yet it is a little odd to know just how he does it. “We go over to his rooms,” said one student, “and he just lights a pipe and talks to us.” “We sit round with him,” said another, “and he simply smokes and goes over our exercises with us.” From this and other evidence I gather that what an Oxford tutor does is to get a little group of students together and smoke at them. Men who have been systematically smoked at for four years turn into ripe scholars.’

    http://www.online-literature.com/stephen-leacock/my-discovery-of-england/6/

    But this is far too expensive a process for a modern world of mass education in which possession of a piece of paper indicating one has attended university is regarded as far more important than possession of a mind which has benefited from the process.

  9. Well, I experimented briefly with powerpoint-style lectures, but my students didn’t like it and nor did I, so I promptly went back to either using ‘gapped’ printed notes or brief summary notes with additional material done live on the board.

  10. I think that the abandonment of depth is a byproduct of democracy, and more democratic education.
    In two ways:

    1) University gradually becomes more accessible intellectually: if you think of Philology or Literature degrees
    in the 19th century in Europe (it’s not accidentally I am mentioning humanities: they are thought to be “easier”
    merely since they have been “democraticized” earlier), only the book-writing level people could graduate.
    The final dissertation had to be in Latin, and nobody who didn’t know perfectly Latin, Greek, their mother idiom (funny this
    shall be mentioned, isn’t it?), at least one between French German Italian English would be allowed to graduate.

    I wouldn’t have been able to complete my graduate studies in the 19th century; this is why I am in the right standpoint to
    know that some balance is the best way to go. Today we simplify, seemingly with no limit in mind.
    This is heading for the other extreme, and an error.

    2) Have you read I am Charlotte Simmons?
    Sincerely, our fully liberal mores have led to a youth that’s on drugs/alcohol/electronic device addiction, goes to sleep
    no earlier than at 2 in the night, and is raised with no constraints, discipline, requirements by parents or teachers in lower school.
    Think of an athlete that would start training seriously at 18 or 19: how would that work? It wouldn’t, it couldn’t.

    ———–

    Add to this that every mass gravitates toward its minimum common denominator, and this concerns elite university classes like everything else, and you wonder, I at least do, why this student evaluation method has been adopted, when its consequences could never be anything but correctly exacting,
    genuinely thinking lecturers and professors being intimidated and deterred from doing their job as well as they can.
    It’s as if the dumbing down, that must be here in democracy, is being accelerated by design.

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