.ppt? . . . pfft!

In 2002, after most of the initial kinks had been worked out of the Vertical Campus, I had the opportunity to teach a large lecture class (MSC 1003–the music appreciation course, a.k.a. Music in Civilization) using all the smart technology available.

I decided to try PowerPoint (known by its .ppt file extension). I slogged through the program, determined to make slides for three lectures. I compiled some nice illustrations of sound waves and musical instruments, discovered pleasant fonts and colors, added some zippy effects, and spent a lot of time trying out the various bells and whistles. In the end, I found the product ossifying. Something about the slides made them impossible to “riff off of,” as musicians might say. I was disappointed in the software, but figured, “It must be me,” since I was age 50, and this was a new technology that demanded a more malleable brain and a youthful receptiveness to the “new media” I suppose I had lost.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to see two, much younger colleagues teach on straightforward music-historical topics using PowerPoint. The first instructor presented a mess of slides, filled with typos and formatting inconsistencies, quite an unstructured piece of work that was hard for me to follow. The second instructor was worse. Besides using a historically inappropriate illustration (a saccharine, late 19th-century rendering of Martin Luther), the second colleague provided too much information. Each of the slides comprised long lists of seven or eight bullet points with a mass of detail. Furthermore, he was incapable of reading the muddle of facts. The student seated next to me was furiously copying the useless text (e.g., “Luther married a nun, Katherine von Bora when he was 42 and she was 26”–remember, this is a music class). My other experiences viewing ppt presentations have not been much better than these.

Hmm. At that point I knew something was wrong. I knew it wasn’t me.

At the end of last semester, I came upon John Medina‘s book Brain Rules. In it he discusses ways of keeping your brain operating at maximum efficiency. In the online chapter on “Vision” (his Rule #10), he states the following:

Toss your PowerPoint presentations. It’s text-based (nearly 40 words per slide), with six hierarchical levels of chapters and subheads—all words. Professionals everywhere need to know about the incredible inefficiency of text-based information and the incredible effects of images. Burn your current PowerPoint presentations and make new ones.

The online film for Rule #10 does make reference to the business applications of pictures and points up the potential failure of wordy ppt slides. This is not to say, of course, that illustrations and graphs shouldn’t be used. On the contrary, Medina makes it clear that the use of pictures increases our understanding and reinforces our memory. Therefore ppt pictures should be primary, superseding any verbal information on the slides.

My own feelings about ppt include the lack spontaneity it engenders. The instructor can’t very well follow the flow, the lead of the class, since the slides and their order have to be determined beforehand. To my mind, there’s something substantially different between underlining or circling a handwritten word with a marker and highlighting a term with a mouse or making the words flash. The intimate contact with the class that an instructor tries to achieve (especially in a large class) is rendered cold and distant when mediated by ppt technology. I think it’s much more useful, in a classroom situation, to write out words or sketch out graphs and symbols by hand, with the dynamism of a high school geometry teacher rather than rely on last night’s (or last year’s) bright idea.

I suppose I have three main problems with ppt: 1) it’s sometimes (often?) sloppily done; 2) it’s too frequently wordy; and 3) its use often further separates the instructor from the students.

So I ask you, is there a proper use for ppt? In my opinion, pfft!


This entry was posted in Teaching Large Classes, Using Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to .ppt? . . . pfft!

  1. Elisabeth Gareis says:

    Another funny look at PowerPoint is Norvig’s Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation: http://www.norvig.com/Gettysburg/ (download presentation).

    Wordy slides are a bore, and PowerPoint would not enhance some of the great speeches of the past; but it remains effective for presenting complex ideas and communicating points visually.

    We have a popular tutorial on the effective design and delivery of PowerPoint presentations in our digital media library. I either ask students to check it our as a homework assignment, or we go over it in class. It’s at http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/tutorials/powerpoint

  2. Tomasello says:

    The tutorial recommends the 6×6 method, six lines of text with six words per line. Medina (and I’m not calling him an expert) bemoans the fact that wordy ppt slides are, on average, almost 40 words per slide. I think that what Medina is saying is that an individual word is, in fact, an image. So if you have a slide with 40 words, you’re presenting 40 images that the brain must interpret.

    I did mention that I personally couldn’t handle 7 or 8 bullet points, and some of these were quite short. But then again, having been raised in the 50s and being a devotee of television, I have an extremely short attention span.

    I honestly have to say that for me the only effective slide in the tutorial was the one that showed the world map. Mrs. Roosevelt was a distant second. I don’t think the tutorial presents an “effective design of ppt” at least for me.

    Also, I think ppt begs the question of immediacy of classroom presentation. I would need to see proof that ppt is effective in a classroom. Is there any research on the positives of using of ppt vs. hand-written materials in schools? There must be, yes?

  3. sfrancoeur says:

    I’d like to recommend the blog, Presentation Zen, as an excellent source of ideas and inspiration for anyone who wants to make use of a projector in a classroom.

    I’m trying to move away from slides that feature any sort of bulleted list; personally, I respond better to presentations where single ideas are given their own slides and accented or punctuated with some sort of visual (or the visual stands alone and the idea is only presented verbally, not as text on the slide).

  4. sfrancoeur says:

    I’d also like to suggest this post on Presentation Zen (“What Is Good PowerPoint Design?”) as a good starting point for the site.

  5. EGareis says:

    To my knowledge, there is no research yet comparing ppt vs. hand-written materials in schools. From what I’ve read over the years, however, instructors and students who prefer hand-writing find that it allows for better timing (if students want to take notes, they can do so at a reasonable speed); it allows for flexibility and elaborations; and it allows for better immediacy (in part also because the lights are on). I think PowerPoint is a great vehicle for visuals (see also the http://www.spokenimpact.com/movies/toxic_powerpoint_media/video.htm), but when it comes to text, I prefer to use the board.

  6. WMillhiser says:

    Speaking of humor and PPT, I enjoyed this 32-page essay by the guru of graphical display of quantitative information, Edward Tufte (see the title and picture: http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint). I believe it was Tufte who suggested that only Microsoft would have the moxie to include an “auto content wizard” in PPT. Auto content?

  7. Tomasello says:

    Will, thanks for the Tufte link. At least for most of our faculty and students, their ppt slide presentations will not result in catastrophe and death but merely in confusion and torpor.

  8. Sandra Mullings says:

    I started using PPT in 2003 when we piloted a large section (100 students) of one of our courses and I decided I preferred not to frequently turn my back on 100 students to write on the board. Jim Russell had given a presentation on turning Word notes into PPT. I created my first set of PPt’s essentially by transferring the notes I had used for myself, which often contained notes on examples to help in explicating concepts. Over the last few years, I have worked on pruning the slides so they are not so dense.

    From the first semester, at the request of students, I post the PPT’s in advance of class. I’ve found that students really appreciate the PPT’s and most print them out and bring them to class. I think the advantages of the PPT’s are that students can see the organization I am putting on the text material, they have key terms in front of them and they can take notes or not, knowing that they already have an outline of the material.
    The drawback to PPT’s is the effort and thought it takes not to fall into a class room presentation that is essentially reading the PPT’s.

  9. Sean O'Toole says:

    This reminds me of a great New Yorker article from 2001, “Absolute Powerpoint” by Ian Parker:


    Parker suggests that Powerpoint is a software that you impose on other people – one that actually edits ideas “so that the user is shepherded toward a stacato, summarizing frame of mind.”

    I teach mostly discussion-based courses in the humanities and spend a lot of time trying to get students to open up and explore ideas (ideally, their own). But if Parker is right, that Powerpoint actually, surreptitiously, affects the way we think – that it “helps you make a case but it also makes its own case: about how to organize information, how much information to organize, how to look at the world” – then its usefulness comes at a pretty high price for any kind of teaching. I’d think twice about using it in my classroom, even in larger lecture courses.

  10. Leah Schanke says:

    I was away from work for a few years (as a full-time mom), and on my first job back I had to prepare a professional development class on performance appraisals.

    Having missed the infiltration of PowerPoint into teaching, I followed my usual practices in designing the class. I did not prepare a PowerPoint presentation. I discovered in talking with a few colleagues that they assumed I had a PowerPoint presentation for my class. I thought, “Wow, this seems to be expected.” So being new to the job and just coming back to work, I quickly put together a PowerPoint presentation. The training class was well received but now I am evaluating PowerPoint’s usefulness in instruction.

    Here’s link to a YouTube video from UNH Professor Bill Condon entitled, “Using PowerPoint (or not)”:


    He presents a more balanced view of PowerPoint and talks about when it aids instruction and when it doesn’t from his experience.

  11. Jean Boddewyn says:

    Please follow the link below to read the following article:
    “PowerPoint – A Learning Tool?”


  12. WMillhiser says:

    A follow-up to an old post. I enjoyed this commentary on presentations/PowerPoint: “Vinod Khosla’s Five-Second Rule” by Jerry Weissman, Forbes, 10/26/2011.

Leave a Reply