How can I use PowerPoint more effectively?

Prepared by David Forrest                                                                                 See the PDF version

Introduction

When used thoughtfully, presentation software such as PowerPoint and Keynote (Macintosh) can be very powerful teaching tools. Conversely, when used poorly, these programs can dilute and distract from your lesson. Below are some philosophical tips for focusing your use of presentation software in the classroom. At the bottom of this page are links to a tutorial, demonstration videos, and Texas Tech’s policy for conference presentations. (Though the following tips apply to all presentation software, because of its widespread popularity, this paper will primarily discuss Microsoft PowerPoint.)

Decide the Role(s)

PowerPoint can play a variety of roles in your lecture. Below is a list of suggested roles that PowerPoint may serve in your class. For you, PowerPoint might serve one or a combination of these purposes. Decide the role or roles that you want PowerPoint to play in your classroom and clearly communicate those roles to your students.

Example 1: Fill-in-the-blank Slides


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Notice that this is a very different role than “lecture prompt for instructor.” Combining these two roles effectively requires a conscious understanding of the different types of information that might appear on the screen and what you expect the students to do with that information.

Example 2: Visual Aid Slides

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Funny cat

Distraction by Design

In long lecture classes, some lecturers will periodically insert slides with humorous or interesting content to accompany an anecdote unrelated to the lecture material. These asides are intended to give students a mental break and can actually increase student attention to the lecture.

Do not rely on PowerPoint to deliver the lesson content.  PowerPoint should play a supporting role to the lead actor, the instructor.  In the words of Patrick Winston, your presentation tools should be the “condiment to your entrée.”  If you allow your PowerPoint to upstage you then the students will tune you out and miss the important material.

Whichever role(s) you choose for your presentation software, maintain consistency.  Students appreciate consistency and can similarly be confused by inconsistency.  Students can get frustrated when the purpose of the PowerPoint changes without warning.  If, for example, the first 10 slides are simply organizational prompts for the instructor, don’t be surprised when students don’t automatically write down the key terms on slide 11.  Similarly, if the first 10 slides are note-taking slides then the students will be likely to start transcribing whatever appears on slide 11 whether it is intended for that purpose or not.

 

Appearance: Less is more

Keep the appearance of your slides simple.  Consider the two slides in Example 3 as a visual catalogue of dos and don’ts in PowerPoint slide design.  Both slides introduce the same content but the slide on the left suffers from a host of distractions that would impede students’ ability to synthesize and focus on the important lecture content.  Below are some simple tips for producing focused, legible slides.

Example 3: Complicated vs. Simple Appearance

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To post or not to post
Some professors and departments have great success posting their PowerPoint documents online for students to download and review.  Others have reported lower attendance and participation when students know that they will be able to get the notes online.  Many students appreciate the study assistance that online PowerPoint notes offer.  The trick is to communicate that downloading the PowerPoints is not a substitute for attending class. Here are some tips for making the most of freely available PowerPoint shows.

Murphy’s Law of Technology

Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.  Think of all of the individual components that need to be present, functional, and compatible in order to deliver a PowerPoint show to your class: computer, operating system, PowerPoint software, your PowerPoint document, computer to projector connection, projector, screen, clicker, electricity (extension chords and/or power strips in older buildings).  When transferring a PowerPoint document from one computer to another via email, website, or thumb drive, each of the components listed above could present their own conversion or compatibility issues.  If the font you used to create your show is not available on the presentation computer, the text could show up as gibberish.  If your show includes sound you may have to deal with internal volume controls, external volume controls, and speakers.  Laptops are often dependent on battery life.  A host of connection and security issues can arise if you choose to make use of network or online tools.  The classroom computer may use a different version of PowerPoint than your work computer.  The projector connection wire may not interface with your laptop.  Many of these components are out of your control and each is an opportunity for failure.  It is an awful feeling to have spent time preparing a quality lesson only to have the students watch you and the nearest computer tech try to diagnose and fix a technical problem for the greater part of class.  Here are some tips for avoiding disaster, making the most of class time, and ensuring a quality lesson.

Conclusion

The best strategy for incorporating all of the above advice is to create your PowerPoint show after you have completely planned the corresponding lesson.  Working from a complete lesson will ensure that the main content is in your lecture and that your PowerPoint show is supportive in nature, clear, and, if necessary, expendable.

Online Resources

Faulkner, D. (2008) “PowerPoint and the Art of Student Dis/Engagement,” videotaped presentation at the The Teaching, Learning, and Professional Development Center.  Click here for video
This session explores the "how" and the "why" of using PowerPoint, not only as an efficient medium for information, but also as a tool that can compel your students to participate actively. Topics addressed include effectively using animations and templates, and incorporating video.

Jobs, S. (2001) Introduction of the first iPod --  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kN0SVBCJqLs
Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computers, is famous for using a less-is-more approach to presentation software.  This YouTube video exemplifies his presentation style.  Notice his use of short, focused text, plain backgrounds, and clean graphics.

PowerPoint Tutorial -- http://www.electricteacher.com/tutorial3.htm
There are many tutorials available online.  This one from ElectricTeacher.com is pretty straight forward for the PowerPoint beginner.  This tutorial is complete with screen shots (from Office 2007) to show you exactly how to find each button. 

Texas Tech Identity Guidelines -- http://www.depts.ttu.edu/communications/identityguidelines/idguidelines/ttu/commsystem/presentations.php
Refer to this site for TTU policies regarding PowerPoint slideshows for conferences presentations.  The site includes downloadable templates of how presentations should appear.