Talking Teaching

June 13, 2010

the tyranny of powerpoint

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , — alison @ 11:31 pm

This is a re-post of something I originally wrote for my ‘other’ blog, as a result of reading a thought-provoking paper about powerpoint that was given to me by a colleague.

I began my university teaching career in the years B.P. (Before Powerpoint). Blackboards, chalk, & overhead transparencies (often hand-written & hand-drawn) were the order of the day. Since then, Powerpoint has become an almost universal tool & ‘chalk-&-talk’ is a rarity. But Powerpoint is just a tool, & using it doesn’t guarantee a good presentation. (Slides that simply present large blocks of text; blocks of text in tiny fonts; lines of text that ‘fly’ in from one side or the other; typewriter sounds as letters appear on the screen – don’t do it! Please don’t go there!)

Anyway, a colleague has just given me a copy of Yiannis Gabriel’s 2008 paper looking at the use (& abuse) of Poweroint as a teaching tool. And it’s really got me thinking.

Gabriel begins by noting that Powerpoint “accomplish[ed] what earlier technologies did (overhead transparencies, slides, chalk and blackboard) only more efficiently, more stylishly.” However, it’s probably had more widespread, more pervasive effects: Powerpoint has become the basic lecture  tool, but simply relying on it without thinking about how it’s used can have some far-reaching effects on the nature of the learning that goes on in lecture theatres. One of his concerns is that, while Powerpoint is great for showing information in visual form (graphs, diagrams, photos, embedded videos), it may also affect students’ abilities to analyse & think critically about information. (It can also act as a prop – how many lecturers these days would feel comfortable giving a lecture without powerpoint, if the power goes down or the technology fails?) In fact, he expresses his own concern that “Powerpoint inevitably leads to comfortable, incontestable, uncritical, visually seductive and intellectually dulling communication.”

Now, like almost all my colleagues I use Powerpoint on pretty much an everyday basis, & so Gabriel’s ideas gave me considerable food for thought. It’s easy to slip into using this technology routinely, in a way that’s really just ‘chalk-&-talk elevated to another level. I try hard to avoid this: I use images & phrases as something to talk around & as cues for students to think about concepts, & I try to encourage discussion around the ‘big ideas’ of each lecture, using things like pop quizzes to start things off. (I really enjoy it when students ask probing questions that require a bit of thought for me to answer properly, not least because it lets me model how scientists think about things.) But is this enough?

Certainly the technology has its shortcomings, although these tend to be in how it’s applied rather than inherent in Powerpoint itself. You’ve planned your lecture in advance, all the images & words are assembled onto your slides – how easy is it to deviate from this if during the course of the lecture it becomes obvious that some in the class don’t understand what you’re saying, or want to ask questions around a particular issue? It could be argued that you just have to get through that material – it’s needed as the basis for the next lecture or some other paper – & the students will have to come to tutorials or ‘office hours’ to fill the gaps. But by then the moment’s passed.

Myself, I don’t see the value in that. Better by far to address the issues that students raise, on the spot – after all, how can I expect them to understand the material that follows if they haven’t ‘got’ what I’m talking about at the moment? You can deal with this with Powerpoint, as you would have done in the ‘old days’: I had the experience a few weeks ago where it became clear that many in the class hadn’t a clue about meiosis, & without it much of the rest of the lecture wasn’t going to make much sense to them. We ended up with an impromptu tutorial, with me using the computer mouse to ‘draw’ on my slides (having changed it from the usual arrow to a virtual felt-tip pen) to illustrate the points we were talking about. Yes, we didn’t get through everything I’d intended to for that class – but I was able to do an extra panopto recording later that day for the students to follow, & there were always the tutorials…

So I thought I was doing OK – & then Gabriel mentioned bullet-point lists… These are pretty much the standard way to present information in Powerpoint, but Gabriel points out that they contain some fish-hooks for teacher & student alike: “many people (and most  students) confronting a list will assume that it is exhaustive, that the items on it are co-equivalent…, and that they are mutually exclusive. In reality, few lists meet these requirements, and yet they block thinking into precise areas of overlap or items that are absent from the list.” There’s also a risk that students will see the lists as completely authoritative where they may actually be tentative. And it’s easy to use them to gloss over things that the lecturer’s not sure about, or doesn’t want to discuss – just don’t put those items on the list! 

When I think about it, I can see some of these things coming through in students’ test papers. For example, in teaching about the different ‘major phyla’ of animals, it’s easy to list the key features of each phylum in a series of bullet-points. I make the point in lectures that there may be other interesting features in a particular phylum – but in a test, for many students it’s as if I’d never said that; the bullet-point items seem to be all-important. This suggests to me that these students haven’t thought about other things that were said in lecture, or maybe those other things didn’t even register. And it’s made me wonder if there are other steps I could take to get this information across in a meaningful way that prompts the class to think carefully about what’s being said & why it matters.

Gabriel criticises images as well. And I agree with him – it’s quite easy to put together a sequence of images that can engross the audience, to the point where they don’t actually think critically about what’s being said. But I also strongly agree that it can enhance student learning & understanding of things like anatomy or physics. Diagrams, too, are a double-edged sword. Used simply to present large amounts of information they can be both boring & overwhelming – but they can “also open up new possibilities of creative thinking, communication and learning.”

I can see that I’ve got a lot of thinking and reorganising to do. I’d like to re-jig my Powerpoints to encourage a number of skills in my students, to enhance their learning – and because many of the skills that Gabriel identifies as desirable emphasise aspects of the nature of science itself:

  • filtering out the irrelevant & focusing on the memorable and significant;
  • tolerating uncertainty;
  • coping with ambiguity;
  • recognising & enjoying the fact that we don’t have clear, permanent solutions to every puzzle & problem;
  • developing the capacity for analytical, critical thought.

Using Powerpoint in a way that goes beyond it being merely a tool for presenting information can only enhance students’ learning (& – speaking personally – my enjoyment of teaching).

Y.Gabriel (2008) Against the tyranny of powerpoint: technology-in-use and technology abuse. Organisation Studies 29: 255-276. doi: 10.1177/0170840607079536. Document available online at


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    Pingback by the tyranny of powerpoint « Talking Teaching « PPT Converter — June 14, 2010 @ 12:49 am

  2. I’ve heard a lot of people criticize Powerpoint and pretty much any new method of teaching and it is pretty much all wrong. As you noted, it is not Powerpoint itself, but a lack of comprehension in using it and a large part due to the lack of concern of a teacher on what they are teaching and who they are teaching. Few college teachers have any real training in education or presentation and this problem is compounded by few universities valuing teaching anywhere near the level they value the money they get from grants.

    Like any tool, Powerpoint is usually misused by the lazy, but more commonly by the harried. Few professors have the luxury to spend inordinate amounts of time reviewing their teaching. My school has a reputation for firing those that spend too much time teaching and not enough bringing in grant money. I honestly fear for my job because of that.

    Properly used, Powerpoint is lecture aid, it is not a lecture basis. I have found that most teachers design their lectures starting off with the idea of what information do I want to tell the students when they should be starting off with what do they want the students to know at the end of the lesson. Quite frankly, if they did that, they would realize that most lectures are a waste of time. Students don’t learn from lectures. I am currently fighting the incredibly prevalent belief that professors can’t expect students to learn anything not in the lecture. With that attitude, the students will only learn what you write on the PP slides. You hamstring the learning process this way.

    Lecture to me should be designed to get the students to think about the material in ways they may not do so simply by reading the text book. Lectures should be done as a way to supplement the reading, guide the students into what you think is truly important for them to get out of the reading, and connect ideas together so that the student is not just learning isolated facts, but given impetus to tie them together.

    I was always taught that students will rise to the expectations of their teachers, although they often won’t like doing so at first. But so many places demand little more of their students than passively listening to a lecture and parroting what they here. It is not the Powerpoint that is the problem, it is the mode of lecture teaching that is the issue and the lack of understanding of how to use the tools given. Too many people use Powerpoint as a crutch to guide their lecture, they do not use it as a tool guided by their teaching goals. The focus on the tool simply misses the point.

    Yes, I am a new teacher, not yet beaten down by the grind of reality in teaching. How did you know?:)

    Comment by jdmimic — June 15, 2010 @ 4:17 am

    • I couldn’t agree more! Powerpoint is a tool & not an end in itself; unfortunately I think a lot of people get seduced by all the bells & whistles & then think that if you’ve got a nice flashy presentation then that’s all that you need to have. And then it’s easy for students to see it as a spectacle (Giannis’s word) & sit there like little sponges.
      You’re right; lectures help students to think about things in new ways. And we as lecturers need to model those ways of thinking for them – we can’t expect them to simply start thinking in a particular way from scratch. That of course means starting some in-house dialogues over just what our teaching goals are & how to achieve them…

      Comment by alison — June 15, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

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