by Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
In 2006, an article published for Innovative Higher Education claimed that “PowerPoint should be recognized as a new communication medium that is fundamentally changing the nature and dynamic of how we teach”.
No educator could argue with this statement. While there are certainly a few old-timers who still lecture from their sloppily scrawled notes on a fading yellow pad, it’s nearly impossible to look into a college classroom without seeing the familiar glow of a projector screen gently reflecting off the faces of students in a dimly lit chamber.
No one will argue that PowerPoint isn’t changing how we teach, but there is still much room for argument about how it is changing what students learn.
What’s wrong with PowerPoint?
One argument often raised against PowerPoint presentations is that they are so prescriptive that teachers fail to leave any wiggle room in their lecture. If my entire lecture outline is broadcasted for the students to see, then how likely am I to improvise with a real-life example that strikes me at the moment? How likely am I to let a student’s question derail my plans in order to capitalize on a teachable moment. Furthermore, the monotonous process of reading bullet points to students is just boring, and they can’t possibly learn much more than how to take a good nap without getting caught. Well, one small study called “Investigating technologies in teacher education: Does PowerPoint enhance or influence attitudes?” sought to quantify the differences among PowerPoint and other modes of lecture.
In this study, 79 elementary education majors were enrolled in three different sections of the same methods course, all taught by the same instructor. One section received information through a PowerPoint presentation, one through black and white overhead transparencies, and one through color overhead transparencies. Following instruction, each group took a quiz to gauge their grasp of the lecture’s content as well as a survey about various aspects of the presentation.
The study confirmed the suspicions of many: Powerpoint is boring for students and it doesn’t help them learn. Survey results indicated that students reported the lowest levels of interest in the PowerPoint lectures compared to the other modes, and that student’s thought the PowerPoint had the least aesthetic appeal. Furthermore, students subjected to the PowerPoint lecture retained the least information. The average score of these students on the content quiz was 16.4, compared to an average of 18.6 for students viewing colored transparencies.
Is that the whole picture?
But this was just one study, and it was a small one. If educators left it to these findings, we might throw out PowerPoint altogether. But let’s take a look at a different piece of research to get another point of view on the matter.
In 2011, Naki Erdamir published his findings about PowerPoint in the Physics classroom. He studied 90 student teachers taking an introductory physics course over eight weeks. Half of the students were taught using the traditional talk-and-chalk method; the other half were taught with a lecture supported by PowerPoint presentations which included “figures, texts, and … images”. Such images were primarily used to visually demonstrate real examples of the concept being taught. All ninety students completed pre- and post-tests to gauge their understanding of Newtonian physics before and after instruction.
The results were quite the opposite of the previous study. Although both groups scored similarly on the pre-test (indicating their initial knowledge of physics was equivalent), the students who learned via PowerPoint scored 12.5% higher on the post-test. In terms of growth of knowledge, the talk-and-chalk group only improved their score by just under four points from pre-test to post-test, while the PowerPoint group improved theirs by almost twelve.
So what’s the point?
What accounts for the disparity between these two studies? Part of it might be that they were both relatively small, and so it is hard to draw any sweeping conclusions from their findings. But I think if you look at the two pieces of research side-by-side, you’ll find that they teach us an important lesson about PowerPoint: just like any other instructional tool, it has good applications and bad ones.
It makes sense that physics students would learn better from visual media. Physics is a complex field in which real-world events are translated into cryptic numbers and symbols. A video of a roller coaster nearly defying gravity will likely last in the mind of students far longer than a white graph on a black chalkboard. The students in the first study, however, were elementary education majors in a language arts methods course. It is hard to imagine what sort of visuals could enhance that content. Although the authors of the study did not describe the nature of the PowerPoint slides used, it is safe to conjecture that they were predominantly used as topic outlines.
So, what’s the takeaway here? PowerPoint has likely changed how you teach. But just because it is easy to use doesn’t mean that it is right for your classroom. Swinging a hammer is pretty straightforward, but if you’re trying to saw a plank in half, it’s the wrong tool for the job.
Leave a comment and tell us how PowerPoint has changed your classroom, for better or for worse.
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Craig, R. J., & Amernic, J. H. (2006, October). PowerPoint presentation technology and the dynamics of teaching. Innovative Higher Education, 31(3), 156.
Erdemir, N. (2011, September). The effect of PowerPoint and traditional lectures on students’ achievement in physics. Journal of Turkish Science Education, 8(3), 176 – 189.
Giles, R. M., & Bagget, P. V. (2008/2009, Winter). Investigating technologies in teacher education: Does PowerPoint enhance or influence attitudes? SRATE Journal, 18(1), 44 – 52.