To powerpoint or not to powerpoint?

I read an interesting article published on over the weekend that I thought would be a perfect topic to kick off this blog.  The article concerns the use, and more specifically, the abuse, of powerpoint by professors for lecturing.

I think we’ve all heard the usual arguments, so I won’t rehash them here.  If you are interested though, the Slate article does a good job of summarizing them in a very enlightening format.  In fact, it is actually a Powerpoint “lecture” itself,quite literally illustrating the reasons that the author, and many others, think that Powerpoint lectures are the source of higher education.

Screen Shot 2014 03 10 at 10 13 43 AM

Full disclosure: I use Powerpoint and I love it.  I love using it as a teaching tool and I loved it when professors used it when I was in college.

I make pdfs of my lectures available before lecture (whenever possible) for students to print and bring to class.  I have found that most students still come to class, having printed the slides, and are more actively engaged in lecture.  They are able to answer my questions instead of scribbling, word for word, my slides into their notebooks.  They ask me questions, and not just “can you go back to that last slide?”, but thoughtful and reflective questions.

I don’t, however, read directly from my slides.  In fact, I rarely even look at them.  My slides have very little text on them, instead they have pictures and diagrams, and a few very brief main points.

In other words, students who don’t come to class get only half, at most, of the information that I lecture on.  And those students do not do as well on exams.  I know this to be a fact, because I checked.  I looked at the data.


In my current class of 41 students, 28 attend lecture regularly (at least 75% of the time).  For these students, the average grade on both of the exams so far is an 82%.  Both times, same average!

However, for the students who attend lecture less frequently, regardless of any other factor, the exam averages are 71% and 74%.

Clearly, there is a greater standard error (that’s what the bars represent) for those who do not attend regularly (17 and 12 vs. 10 and 14, for exams 1 and 2, respectively) which isn’t surprising.  There are lots of students who can do very well in class learning on their own; I myself was one of them.  I used to see that as somehow taking away from my teaching skills, but I no longer do.

What is clears that, even in a small class, students who attend class regularly do better on lecture exams.  In my class.

Is this trend universal?  Is it a reflection on my ability to teach?  Is it indicative of how useful my Powerpoint lectures are?  I don’t really know.  What I do know is that students overwhelmingly say, on both formal and informal course evaluations, that they like the structure of my class.  Which I will take to mean that I should continue to do what I am doing, regardless of what articles like this Slate one purport.

Screen Shot 2014 03 10 at 11 07 04 AM

Going back to Powerpoints and Slate article though.

Used well and made well, Powerpoint lectures as A tool, as opposed to THE tool, can be extremely beneficial.  I can’t draw to save my life, so when I need to teach my physiology students about the structure of a neuron, or the process of neurotransmitter release across the synaptic cleft, I need to have a proper, legible, diagram to illustrate the concept.  That is where powerpoint comes in.

The slide above illustrates what I would call a bad slide.  Below, a good slide.  (It’s my slide though, so I might be  little biased.)

Screen Shot 2014 03 10 at 11 09 52 AM

It’s also animated, so that each numbered step comes up with I click the button on my wireless remote.  It keeps me on track and keeps the students focused.

What do you think about Powerpoint lectures – for meetings or for classes?  Do you use them?  Do you like watching others?  


6 thoughts on “To powerpoint or not to powerpoint?

  1. This is just my opinion, of course. But I’d replace your good slide with just the image and no text. I’d have the students work in small groups to write their own captions describing the sequence of events in the slide, and explain the mechanisms at work.

    The words and the animations turn the students into sponges instead of independent thinkers. They’d understand it far better, and for longer, if they figured it out in their own, using prompts and clues from you when the groups get stuck.

    1. I have actually been thinking about doing something like that. I should have also noted that I hand out worksheets with this process on it, and ask them to fill it in, using their own words, as I explain it. I am sure that most don’t but those that do understand it far better. If I weren’t so pressed for time, I’d love to more like your suggestion. I have been thinking about ways to use the flipped classroom idea, and I think this is a great example and one I may try next time I teach this topic.

      Great suggestion and thanks!

    2. Here’s an additional thought. When the students say that they like the slides and that they are helpful, it’s likely that they’re referring to their ability to do well on exams, rather than an assessment of the quality of their learning. Keeping students satisfied is important, but there are many avenues where the can happen, and some of them involve more learning than others. But seriously, I’m just some dude, and there are plenty of education experts out there, and I’m not one.

      1. That’s a really good point. This is the first year I’ve made my slides available though and I have, if nothing else, gotten consistently better and more thoughtful questions during lecture.

  2. I agree with Terry. If you need powerpoint to help with an image, then just use the image. No text! You can always use a tablet to write on the projected image. And the exercise to group up students and work on a the sequence of event is excellent.

    But, One of the reasons that I draw is that there is no reason to draw a structure that actually looks like a terminal button, synaptic cleft, vesicles, etc. These can be simple boxes. Distill the relevant information. Drawing processes is very useful pedagogically (Science had a good article on this in the last year or two) and you doing this sets a good example of what they should be doing (including drawing this in their notes and before and after class). You don’t need artistic skills to draw processes!

  3. All great points! I agree no one needs to know what these structures actually look like, seeing them like this is infinitely more interesting than boxes and circles. Though, perhaps a mix of the two would be the best.

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