Avoiding Death by PowerPoint – using PowerPoint

The past few months have seen a resurgence of calls to ban PowerPoint in lectures. Apparently, PowerPoint is toxic for education, and  makes students stupider and professors more boring. Being a fan of PowerPoint, and less so of the traditional lecture, you can imagine my delight to read Jared Horvath and Jason Lodge’s recent sensible article that it’s not PowerPoint’s fault – you’re just using it wrong.  Since lectures and, let’s face it, PowerPoint, aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, how can we avoid death by PowerPoint and make them work together?

A small-scale review has queried whether PowerPoint actually improves student learning, but the authors quietly note that many “authoritative studies” merely compare lectures + PowerPoint to lectures + overhead transparencies. What many fail to realise is that PowerPoint is capable of so much more – as Jared and Jason put it in their article, “don’t ban the hammer – simply use it for what it was meant for.” A small US study on PowerPoint use in lectures confirmed that students prefer slides with helpful visuals and succinct, targeted text  – not long blocks of prose presented through elocution. Here are some quick tips to think about when revising your slides for next session.

Clarity through simplicity

As an experts in our fields, we all suffer from expert blindspot, which makes it difficult to work out the salient points students need. We are often tempted to crowd a lot of superfluous detail into our slides. Your slides should only contain the summary text necessary to get the important points across. When designing the flow of a lecture, consider the slides as a storyboard, and present concepts in a way that gradually builds understanding. So, work out the key points for a lecture, write a few simple phrases for each, and arrange them in a slidedeck so that they have a clear progression for non-experts.

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If you want to provide a full-text expansion, by all means do so but either present it as a supplementary resource, or leave it in your slidedeck and just refer your students to it, instead of reading the text. When designing slides for lectures, remember the KISS principle (keep it simple, silly). But don’t go too far – your slides probably shouldn’t look like a sales presentation with tonnes of hip whitespace.

Complement yourself

Screen Shot 07-03-15 at 08.58 AMScreen Shot 07-03-15 at 08.58 AM 001Related to clarity through simplicity are the ideas around cognitive load. Our brains have a limited ‘working memory’ capacity, and overloading it leads to a learning deficit. Also, working memory seems to have two ‘codes’ – words and images. When you teach, avoid coding information the same way (‘dual coding‘, or the ‘redundancy effect‘). Don’t show blocks of text (words) and read them (words). Instead, use visuals to complement the words that come out of your mouth. This way, you can reduce extraneous load on students’ brains and improve their learning.

Be animated

We all know that passion is contagious, so it’s important for you to be enthusiastic and animated. But it’s important for the content of your slidedeck to be animated as well. I’m not referring to spurious flying text or typewriter sound effects. Rather, instead of showing everything on your slide at once, reveal aspects bit by bit. This helps your students focus on what is important at that very moment, instead of frantically searching the slide for what you’re talking about. Get to know the animations in PowerPoint: start with just making things appear as you click. As you get more comfortable, you can do even cooler things that help students better understand the links and transitions between concepts. Also, consider implementing some interactivity into your lectures or making them ‘lectorials‘.

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A picture is worth a thousand words

Screen Shot 07-03-15 at 09.19 AMOnly use images if they serve a real educational purpose. Don’t include them just to fill in space or for visual effect. Distracting visual backgrounds are a no-go as well – and they can chew through expensive ink when students print off your slides. Instead, get to know the PowerPoint drawing tools and create some simple diagrams for your slides. Bringing together a few of the points mentioned so far, convert some of your text into diagrams, and reveal parts of the diagram as you talk. Make sure your imagery is consistent and rational across your slides as well; if a red circle represents an element in one slide, and it’s a blue triangle on another, this is going to unnecessarily add to students’ cognitive load.

Instead of making your own diagrams, search repositories that have images with Creative Commons (CC) licensing. This will become more important as we move into Open Educational Resources so that licensing does not tie us down. My favourite is to look through Wikimedia Commons (I’ve replaced almost all images in my lectures with CC images from here), and you can also search through other repositories.

CARP style – Contrast, Alignment, Repetition, and Proximity

Screen Shot 07-03-15 at 09.23 AMThe acronym could have been constructed somewhat differently, but we’re trying to be positive here. Ensure your text and diagrams are contrasted with the background, and maybe even each other, so that they are easier to see. Align the elements of your slide – it can appear distracting and unsophisticated if they are not. Use the same imagery, iconography, phrase, etc if you are talking about the same concept across multiple slides (even multiple lectures); the consistency that comes from repetition reduces unnecessary cognitive load and emphasises relationships between concepts. To help with this, use the visual guides of proximity (or distance) to illustrate the relationships between elements.

The Power is in your hands

Remember that PowerPoint can help you provide great power to your points (unfortunately that’s not how its name came about). To use it effectively, keep in mind how brains and memory work. Keep things simple, use visual cues, and use it to complement what you say. It’s important to note that PowerPoint isn’t the only commonly-named culprit in death by presentation. Prezi, the zooming presentation software frequently associated with nausea, is another powerful tool that is often misused (most often by people using it just to show slides of text). No matter which slidedeck or presentation tool you choose to use, use it for what it was built for.

If you’re keen, come and have a chat to see how we can work together to avoid death by PowerPoint, using PowerPoint.

Tell me more!

Simple tips to make your PowerPoint more accessible by our very own Michael Grant has some great pointers for not only making your slides easy to understand, but accessible to more people.

Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen book and website have some great tips on making simple, effective slidedeck presentations. For teaching, some of these tips go a bit too far, but if we take the geometric mean of typical lecture PowerPoints and Garr’s presentations, we should be about right.

Why your students forget everything on your PowerPoint slides is a wonderful article that describes exactly that. However, I wouldn’t recommend going as far as having only one word per slide or having slide after slide of pictures – these make your slides notoriously difficult for students to revise from, and student feedback often points to the need for balance.

Evidence-based PowerPoint is a very short curation by Phillip Dawson of some good research behind the effective design of PowerPoint slides.

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