The Right Tool for the Right Job: A Closer Look at PowerPoint

by Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

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 ProjectorPowerPoint?

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?Lecture

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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References

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.

18 thoughts on “The Right Tool for the Right Job: A Closer Look at PowerPoint

  1. In mathematics, I find it vital for students to see the problems as they go. PowerPoint takes away from that because everything is so static!

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    • I can see what you mean, Molli. I enjoyed math a lot back when I was in school, and I always thought seeing instructors model their thought process as they worked through a problem really helped me learn to think like a mathematician. I could see that modeling process lost if all the steps were laid out in a pre-determined PowerPoint presentation. I’m curious to hear from other math teachers though. Has anyone out there figured out a way to effectively use PowerPoint in mathematics?

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      • For math, I would not use it for a live presentation unless there was a physical interface. However, I have used it with a Smart Sympodium to create learning videos. It is a great way to build a very professional looking presentation; however, it is very time consuming. Now, I use my iPad and I can produce decent videos in a fraction of the time.

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  2. Great article Ish. As with any piece of technology, it is how you use it. There are definitely some terrible powerpoints. I like to show my students this presentation (http://www.slideshare.net/thecroaker/death-by-powerpoint) called death by powerpoint. In my opinion the best point is on slide 14 where he distinguishes between using powerpoint to pass information or to make meaning. Powerpoint is often used just to pass information, but it can be much more powerful to make meaning. This is the difference I think between using powerpoint in courses like English or Physics. Just like Ish states, “It makes sense that physics students would learn better from visual media”. Therefore, conveying meaning in powerpoint may be more effective in Physics than English.

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    • Thanks, Cory. I’ve seen that slideshare before; it’s a great one. Slide 14 that you reference reminds me of something that marketing guru Seth Godin states in an article called Really Bad PowerPoint (http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2007/01/really_bad_powe.html) that I like to share with my students : “Communication is the transfer of emotion. Communication is about getting others to adopt your point of view, to help them understand why you’re excited (or sad, or optimistic or whatever else you are). If all you want to do is create a file of facts and figures, then cancel the meeting and send in a report.”

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      • Ish, thanks for the article. It seems to make so many of the same points as in death by powerpoint. I especially like “If all you want to do is create a file of facts and figures, then cancel the meeting and send in a report.”

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  4. I don’t use powerpoints for math, but I do use SmartBoard. I find it useful to have the “shell” of each problem there on each slide, then I fill it in during the lecture. This keeps the points I need to hit from getting lost when a student does take us on a tangent.

    I still let the mood of the day drive the lecture. And most certainly allow students to give examples from their lives, etc. But I find it useful to have things like formulas already there so I don’t spend class time rewriting the quadratic formula, etc. I love to use color-filled rectangles to cover up stuff I don’t want students to see yet (I’m not a big fan of the sliding shade)

    And I definitely find it important to use color for Smartboard. Not just black writing on white slide.

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    • Ann, I know what you mean about having the “shell of each problem” on the slide being helpful. As an English teacher, I don’t find many instances that call for PowerPoint, but back when I taught Pre-Tech Writing I actually got some good use out of (dare I say it) the textbook PowerPoints. I used the slides that had the grammar exercises pre-loaded. They were useful because the sentence would appear on the slide, students would work it out in their notebooks, and then I just had to advance the slide and the correct answer would appear. Having the problems pre-loaded saved me a lot of time that would have been wasted transcribing.

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    • SmartBoard — where PowerPoint meets a whiteboard! Even if someone uses PowerPoint to build the presentation, the actual physical interaction — math in motion — is key.

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      • I agree. One of the problems I remember having when I used PowerPoint was not giving students enough time to think about the slide. Back when you had to write everything down by hand, this wait time was built-in. The physical interaction of the teacher writing down does somehow seem more interactive.

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  5. I have recently found that adding one additional slide at the end of my PowerPoint presentations really helps. It simply says, “IN CONCLUSION”. It forces me to leave time for class discussion and to receive feedback on the information presented.

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