Monday, June 08, 2009

They Heart Powerpoint

We have all seen horrific examples of presentation software abuse, I am sure, but I don't think there is anything inherently evil about presentation software. I think that if used with care and thought, it can be a force for good (learning).

Consider these comments from my teaching evaluations from students who took my Huge Intro Science Class this past term:

Created great presentations
Had a well prepared powerpoint
Her powerpoints were great
Power point worked well!
Presented the material clearly through the slides
Provided great visuals.
Really great powerpoints
She had great powerpoints
She had really great powerpoints
She had very well written powerpoints
her powerpoints helped me learn a lot.
She used power points that were easy to take notes from
She used powerpoints during lecture
Spoke effectively and used powerpoints
The Power Point slides were very easy to follow
The Powerpoint presentations were very well done
The power points were very helpful
The prepared slides were really helpful
The slides were great.
great visual aids

Etc.. you get the picture that they liked the pictures. Those comments were not prompted by any sort of directed question, but were part of the general comments section of the course evaluation.

I was pretty sure that the course had gone well overall, but I was stunned by the overwhelming positive comments about the presentations. I have taught this course many times but I have never gotten comments like these on the presentation aspect of the class. What was different this time?

Although I have taught this course many times, I don't teach it so often that I can just walk into the lecture hall and automatically emit coherent words of great wisdom. I also change the course a bit each time in terms of materials and emphasis and examples. The re-thinking that I do before every class to make sure that I have a good idea of what I want to say and how I want to say it is accompanied by tinkering with the visual aids (The Powerpoints).

This past term I did in fact spend a lot of time working on the presentation part of the class. I think the presentations are good, but I don't think there is anything extraordinary about them, despite the raves in the evaluations. I think that what mostly improved was how I used The Powerpoints.

Or, at least, I like to think that it wasn't The Powerpoints alone that the students found useful. I don't use text slides (I write on the board and talk as I go along) and I used the images as one component of the class. My hope is that the students found the combination of teaching methods effective, and not just The Powerpoints -- that is, the images and what I said and how I said it and the pace that I went and the amount of material I covered in a certain combination of depth : breadth and the jokes that I told and maybe also the interpretive dances that I did on the table at the front of the room.


Anonymous said...

You're too modest, FSP! Of course they loved both the lecture and the PowerPoints (which I'm sure were extraordinary)!

Is there anything you can't do?

Margaret L said...

I'm interested that you don't use text. Or rather, that you don't use text and the students like it. I would get torn apart by wolves if I didn't have short encapsulations of my main points for them to write down.

Maybe it's a difference between fields? (I'm in a "soft" science.) That is, maybe it's the nature of my topic that a conceptual grasp of the main points is more language-y, and lends itself to bullet lists? Interesting . . .

Anonymous said...

Slides can't stand on their own-- to have made an impression with them you would have had to have a good lecture overall.

Powerpoint is often poorly-used. Perhaps this was the first class these students had encountered where it was used effectively?

John said...

Something that I think made a big difference in my own use of PowerPoints was the purchase of a "clicker" (technically called a "Wireless Presenter with Laser Pointer"). Some classrooms have similar devices in them as part of the standard equipment but the ones that I taught in didn't. Although I don't use the laser pointer, this has allowed me to move freely about the classroom without having to run up to the front every few minutes to change slides. Unless they had my classes before and after my students probably didn't notice a difference but it definitely helped me feel more comfortable during class.

Emily said...

I team-taught a course last term where the profs dared to use...chalk and NOT POWERPOINT. An overwhelming number of students suggested (nicely) that we use powerpoint next time. They really love it.

Greg said...

Nice to see such comments about powerpoints. I just finished teaching the large organic chemistry in a big auditorium and I used 98% blackboard and chalk. It was interested to see my student comments. They loved the fact that I did not use powerpoint. It's like they've never seen chalk before. I guess it's retro!

Dr M said...

When I was an undergraduate student, some teachers tended to use powerpoint or, more frequently, transparencies as a kind of easy way out of having to make coherent notes on the blackboard. The result was almost invariably disastrous. On the few occasions that a teacher had a well-prepared presentation using slides, realising and utilising the different possibilities and limitations of slides vs. blackboard, this was almost cause for standing ovations. I have a slight suspicion that this may still be true.

Visual aids used correctly are powerful tools, even if your presentation as such isn't extraordinary. Visual aids used incorrectly (e.g., as a direct substitute for the blackboard) will quickly drag down even an otherwise excellent lecture to a level of quality below the acceptable. Your choice of visual aids (blackboard, transparencies, powerpoint, video, table-top experiments, ...) set the pace and structure of your lecture. Any speaker needs to be aware of this, and doubly so teachers, who not only have to give a good talk, but who have to cater to an audience of people with different learning styles, different ways of taking notes (or not taking notes, depending on preference), all of whom are supposed to not just get an impression, but get an in-depth understanding of a certain topic.

Without knowing anything apart from what the blog post says, I would think that the thing you most certainly did right was to turn the powerpoints into an aid for the students, not (just) for yourself. We need more people with the skill to do this. Congratulations on a job well done!

Female Science Professor said...

Margaret L - I do use text, just not on the ppts (except for titles and labels). I write the main points on the board as I go along, including bullet lists etc.

American in Oxbridge said...

When I use powerpoints, the students complain vociferously in the feedback forms if they have to write anything down at all. When I occasionally give them powerpoints with textual explanations, they always comment that it's so much easier for them to pay attention when they don't have to worry about copying things down. I could never adopt your teaching style here.

Kate said...

You said the Power Points aren't text, but visual aids. If they are graphs or equations and students have copies of the slides they can be unbelievably helpful because you don't have to worry about focusing on copying down the visual, but just make a handful of notes around it. Power Point was new between the time I was an undergrad and the time I was a grad student and stats was so much easier when I wasn't trying to copy equations off the board like a crazy person.

aceon said...

In the class I taught last quarter I started off with a heavily powerpoint approach. As the quarter went on, I decided to cut every scrap of text from the slides, and write on the board instead, keeping only the photos, graphs and diagrams in the slides. The students were very positive about this change. I had a similar reaction to the use of the board versus the document camera. My only hesitation there is it means as I speak while I write, with my back to the class, I have to shout at the board, or over my shoulder, to still be heard.

MC said...

Having recently returned to being a student in the 2000s after being one in the 1980s', it is true that concentrating on what the teacher is explaning rather than copiing like crazy (even if I did have good notetaking skills back then) is much less stressfull and should be adopted by the majority of teachers in thoses subjects where "visuals" (equations, graphs, pictures, schematics etc.) are necessary to comprehension.

Two years ago I had to take 2 complete courses on the web (i.e. using only PPts and the notes that came with them) We also had a forum and the use of emails for questions. One of those courses was a complete desaster (the teacher finally had to be replaced after mid-term, the students complained so much) and the other went rather well considering this was not an easy topic. That last one had excellent visual aids with pertinent and short notes if more infos were needed.

Anonymous said...

I hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate powerpoint for teaching. I think this is because in 99% of cases it is used incorrectly. Meaning 1) the slides have too much text, 2) the presenter spends too little time on each slide, or 3) the slides are irrelavent/unrelated to what the presenter is saying.

The solution is probably for instructors to be trained that using powerpoint in any of these ways is unacceptable and to be given instruction on what methods actually work. Powerpoint should be used as a VISUAL AID much like slideshows once were. The actual instruction should be what the instructor says and/or writes down on the board (particularly the latter for key points).

I have a feeling that few college-level instructors spend any time thinking about how to actually teach effectively. Thankfully we have a few like yourself that clearly do. I expect that this is why you got so many positive comments - not that you used powerpoint persay, but that you were in the <1% that actually used it effectively.

Unknown said...

I graduated college a year ago, and most my professors who used PowerPoint did a terrible job of it. I think I am scarred for life. I think that PowerPoint can work well for some courses, but not ones that involve a lot of equations and long problems with a lot of work. Most of my teachers use chalk, and I preferred that, bust some would use PP and read directly from the slides. Any time I see PowerPoint now, I get very sleepy. Maybe it's a Pavlovian response sort of thing. Also, cutesy graphics and animation are really just a waste of time. Relevant graphics are great, but I'd rather the teacher spent less time on finding a cute picture to use as a bullet-point, and more time on content. Oh, and this should go without saying, but yellow or white text on a dark background is just distracting, even if it's a nice, cute background like a picture of a constellation.

I like your idea of using the PP slides as a guide only, and writing the text on the board. That's the proper way to use PowerPoint. It should be a teaching aid, not a substitute. You seem to have done it right, but I would advise most professors to stay away from it.

qaz said...

Powerpoint is like a piano. The mere existence of it does not make beautiful music. But if done right, it can spectacular.

Personally, what I do is project powerpoint onto a white board and then write on the white board while talking. That seems to work well.

eggplantonice said...

Nice job FSP! I agree that using powerpoints primarily for images - No Text or very little - is the best route. This became a huge issue when I was assigned a room where the only white board was _behind_ the screen - so I couldn't use both at the same time. Frustrating!!! I went so far as to request one of the big easel pads - so I could write and have the power point images visible. This did work very well either. The layout of the room makes a big difference in what is possible. And many rooms (especially smaller ones) I've seen or worked in do not have a good setup for using both powerpoint AND the blackboard.

Kevin said...

I resonate with what eggplantonice said, namely that few lecture rooms I use allow simultaneous projection and use of the whiteboard. In fact, one of the reasons that I have my grad classes rescheduled into the department conference room is because that room has a full wall of whiteboards next to the screen.

I rarely use projection of bullet-point slides (except at conferences). My lectures are quite likely to go off on tangents prompted by student questions, and so I can't pre-prepare slides. I use projection more for live demos of software or occasional illustration than for the guts of the material.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

Eduard Tufte has a lovely broschure on the cognitive style of powerpoint:

I actually gave up PowerPoint (or rather Keynote) and have been using the board this semester. Students are much awaker and can take notes better, I feel. And I somehow feel more in control at the board. But then, we middle-aged ladies are strange at times.

Anonymous said...

I once spent several hundred hours putting together a combined PP/chalk-talk for a freshman chemistry class. As in your case, the response from the students was overwhelmingly positive.

The next semester, I was assigned the same class in a room where projection screen pulled down directly in front of the only chalkboard, i.e., you could do either one or the other, but not both simultaneously.

I protested and asked for a new room... to no avail. All of that hard work was basically tossed aside.

I vowed to never again invest that amount of time into constructing presentations so long as my administration refused to support such endeavors. Three years later, more than half of the classrooms on campus are still in this antiquated screen-in-front-of-chalkboard configuration.

Doctor Pion said...

What interests me is that they liked the fact that you did NOT write vast amounts of text on the PowerPoint slides. What probably made it easy for them to take notes was that you wrote on the board what they needed to write in their notes about what they saw on the slide.

If a student has to write down everything that gets said AND everything that is written down AND everything that ze thinks of while this is going on, ze can't keep up without the combination of awesome notetaking skills and an hour or two copying over those notes each night.

miss chand said...

I agree your students probably commented on the powerpoint because more and more, professors are so subpar in its use. Kudos to you for knowing how to use it, because it can be such an effective teaching tool.

EliRabett said...

I tend to use Powerpoint for lecturing and the board for doing examples, shifting between the two as needed

Anonymous said...

I can completely understand the students' comments. I just started graduate school, and the first day of class one of my profs asked "Would you guys like powerpoint or me to write on the board." We unanimously voted for the board. I just started the next course in that series and the professor who teaches it uses powerpoint exclusively. It's TERRIBLE!! Reading derivations off of a powerpoint slide is just about the worst way to learn ever. I can definitely see that students would want to commend you for decent use of a powerpoint during lecture. I've never seen it done, but if I did, I would certainly want to give that person a hug! (I'm a hugger...)

hkukbilingualidiot said...

When we had our lectures for Organic/Organometalic lectures the lecturers used OHPs so the write directly onto the OHP slides, which is a good compromise to the slides and write-on-board teaching, we had no problems with screen in front of blckboards. Though watching the lecturers manouever an OHP to the right position and focusing the lens was rather amusing

Anonymous said...

As a student, I love diagrams, pictures, etc. in Powerpoint because of the clarity and time put into the slide (versus scribbling a sketch on the board). I HATE when a professor also puts the text into the slideshow so that he/she does not have to write on the board. As much as this may be more comfortable for the professor, I find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to keep up with note taking. A text-less slideshow is manageable for taking notes.

EliRabett said...

The other thing I do is post all the lectures on Blackboard BEFORE the class. Some students use this NOT to attend, but the others all have the material before class. OTOH Eli has posted stuff at 2 in the morning for a 9 AM class, but we all know the students can download the stuff after they get back from whatever students do at 2 in the morning...

Narya said...

I have an observation from another angle: as part of my freelance editing work, I often have to edit PPT slides. They're sold by the company, I believe, as part of a package to get people to adopt the text; the package often also includes teaching outlines (!!). (The texts are NOT at the level at which most/all of you are teaching/learning.)

The slides are nearly uniformly hideously put together. For one job, the author(s) took the text, turned it into an "outline" format nearly word for word (sorry, people, that is NOT an outline!), and then took that and slapped the text onto slides. The most recent one was a tiny bit better--not least because the author understood the concept of a phrase, say, instead of a paragraph, but also because it included pictures of various bits.

In general, though, PPTs make me a little crazy.

And can I assume that all of you are familiar with the PowerPoint Gettysburg Address? If not, ask the great Google for help . . .

R.L. said...

Would you be able to post a screenshot of one slide as an example? I'm interested in seeing what prompted such a positive response.