Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Late to the game: PowerPoint

I know that this makes me a late adopter, but I am considering using PowerPoint to teach my Intro class next term. I’ve taught this class a few times and I’m comfortable with the mix of lecturing and discussion that I have now. I consult my lecture notes sparingly and have a worked out rhythm that doesn’t require too much preparation on my part. So why change a good thing? Because I think that it is time to take a new look at how I’m teaching the course and try something new. As they say, don’t knock it until you try it. And some students really do seem to think that PowerPoint would help them learn the material.  

I’ve observed a few lectures involving PowerPoint and thought it does seem helpful in many ways, I have noticed a few key problems that I want to avoid. On the one hand, there are the students who zone out or those who engage in furious note taking of the slides word by word without reflecting on what they are writing or raising questions. On the other hand, I have noticed that it is easier for lecturers to stifle discussion because they feel pressed to move on to the next slide or pay more attention to the PowerPoint than checking in to see that most of the students are remaining engaged. What I like about my current lecturing style is that I’m constantly interacting with my students, asking them questions, calling on or making eye contact with students who seem zoned out or confused, and I want to maintain as much as I can of that dynamic while using PowerPoint to make points clearer, organize the material better, and use primary sources more effectively.

Therefore, I’m asking for your expertise. Are there any tips about how to use PowerPoint that those of you who use it to lecture have found particularly helpful? For example, how much information and what kind of information should I put on the slide? How frequently should I change slides? How much of the allotted class time should I take up with the PowerPoint presentation? ETC. I’ve used powerpoint to give talks before, but never to teach so any advice would be helpful.


  1. I have mixed feelings about power point. I have tried it a few times, but can't seem to make it work for my class. One thing I would strongly suggest though, is to have the slides available to students prior to class if at all possible. Otherwise you spend a lot of time backing up and waiting for a student to get the notes from the slide. One solution to this of course, is to have only a little information per slide. But for something like a quote, or a list, there will be students who want to write it all down but can't seem to get it in a timely fashion.

  2. Jim, I agree with your suggestion, but I always make the presentations available to students *after* class. Otherwise, some will skip class and rely on the presentations instead. Also, I explicitly tell students not to write down the content of the slides — their notes should consist of comments and reactions to what they've seen, since they can always consult the presentation later.

    Jennifer asks about slide content: The usual advice is not to put a lot of text on individual slides. I agree, except ... it's so much easier to represent an argument on a Ppt slide than writing on the board (especially given my occasionally not so legible handwriting!). I'd recommend using a few iconic images in the presentation and repeating them on multiple slides. Also, repetition is very easy with Ppt, and I've noticed that it seems to make it easier to return to claims or ideas introduced earlier in the class session.

    Lastly, I sometimes fiddle with the color scheme of the presentation once I have it on the display. Classrooms vary — some do well with dark text/light background, others with light text/dark background. I usually go to the rear of the room to see what might be best colorwise.

  3. Another option is just to open a word processor and use that to present your notes or whatever, instead of powerpoint. That might make changing things on the fly easier too, compared to powerpoint: e.g., you can type up interesting things that students say to examine them, etc.

  4. As a pretty long-time user, I eventually wrote a couple of posts on some of these issues at and The second one is pretty old now, but they might be of some help.

  5. Thank you everyone for your advice! I do think making the slide available at some point would be one of the huge benefits, especially if I can somehow make that lead to students listening instead of furiously taking notes or playing on their computers... I will report on how it goes.

  6. In what ways is PowerPoint helpful in the classroom? As a student, I always found it seemed like an attempt to make lectures more like tv. I can see how it could be useful in an art history class, as a simple way to display images up for discussion, but in any other lecture I'd want to bang my head against the nearest wall as soon as I saw it on the projector screen.

    It lacks the natural pacing of a prof writing on the board; a huge block of text can appear in a split second, which the student feels compelled to read (or some to write down) while the professor goes on lecturing. If we pay attention to one, we miss the other, and if we try to pay attention to both, we likely don't really get either. And if there's material on the slides that I have to remember, I *have* to write it down--the writing is an important part of how I organize and absorb ideas in my own mind. A piece of paper handed to me with the notes pre-written doesn't come close. In the end, I can't think of any time in a classroom when a lecturer has done something with PowerPoint that couldn't be done as well without. PowerPoint seems to encourage us to shift our focus away from the content itself and toward the way the content appears. It's a distraction. Why use it? Is my experience unique?


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