Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why shouldn't you use PowerPoint slides in your classes?

Chris Buddle of McGill University (Montreal, Canada) thinks that instructors should stop putting your Powerpoint slides on-line.

He makes some excellent and powerful points but the best ones are directed at not using PowerPoint at all.
Powerpoint is so awesome! Textbook companies provide the slides and all the material is ready to go! Clickity-click-click let’s LECTURE!

Powerpoint is not awesome. Powerpoint slides are an ineffective and rather annoying tool for the University classroom. Text-heavy Powerpoint slides do not promote an active learning environment. Active learning is an important and valuable concept in higher education. Active learning means the classroom becomes a space for debate, discussion, interaction, and the instructor is the facilitator of all of this rather than a ‘voice from a podium’. Powerpoint slides can be used to illustrate concepts, for showing relevant graphs or images, but they should not be used for a long list of bulleted points. Frankly, Powerpoint often becomes a memory tool for the instructor rather than a tool for effective instruction. Try a chalkboard instead…

Students shouldn’t be forced to come to lecture – heck, they are paying for University and we are at their service. It’s their right to have access to course notes on-line.

Yes, students are paying to come to University, and instructors are paid to teach. In most cases, this means teaching in a seminar room or lecture hall. In most cases, this means teaching in a context where direct interaction with students is possible, important and a key part of the University experience! To me, it’s the student’s right to be able to go to lecture and experience an active and engaging environment: an environment that creates opportunity for learning from an expert on a topic, but also learning from peers. These are difficult things to replicate outside of a classroom. So, instead of thinking of it as forcing students to come to lecture, it’s time to create a lecture environment that is welcoming, exciting and engaging. Let’s create environments which make it so students want to come to lecture.

I wonder what he thinks of MOOC's?


  1. I generally agree that programs like PowerPoint are often misused when giving talks and lectures. It is my information that there are a number of guidelines available on the Internet and elsewhere that discuss the proper us of these programs. In particular, these publications discuss issues like the recommended number of words per slide and the number of slides that should be used, based on the length of the talk.

  2. I agree that posting Powerpoints is a mistake, based on experience, but I think that if you entirely prepare your slides, as guides for discussion, with minimal text then they can be helpful. After all, you either prepare written notes and write them on the board or you project the same information, perhaps actually enhanced with better diagrams than you (or at least I) can do with chalk or whiteboard markers. I think it really depends on how you use the Powerpoint and how much effort you are willing to put in to make it fully effective

  3. Larry - you remind me of one of my esteemed professors, a classical geneticist of the old school

    Students needed to present an article (or better yet present two contradictory articles) armed with nothing more than a piece of chalk and an empty blackboard.

    He once sat in front of me for an entire hour (one on one) as I explained to him an impetuous note I had scrawled to him on the back of my final exam. It was a large class in a lecture hall - I finished early and was bored so I decided to respond to a challenge he had muttered under his breath in class. I had managed to reconcile some Tn5 data that the authors interpreted as vindicating an exclusively conservative model of replication for Tn5 transposition. I proved that their data could also support a replicative model.

    He returned my corrected exam and asked me to meet him in the Genetics Dept. seminar room at some determined time and date. Now that I think of it - our one-on-one session actually lasted more than an hour - and at the end, the entire blackboard was full of my jottings and diagrams in response to his persistent questioning.

    In effect, I had summarized everything that was known to date regarding bacterial transposition and how my impromptu proposal for Tn5 in fact employing a replicative model was more than plausible. I even managed to suggest some experiments that could address the question. It was the only time he had ever unreservedly congratulated me. It was my proudest moment in university - ever!

    It was then I realized he had never used power points in lecture and he explained his disdain for the medium. He dismissed powerpoints as intellectual laziness for mediocre minds in desperate need of a crutch. He never did mince words.

    I was then that I was accorded the occasional privilege of being able to join him in the Faculty Club and enjoy a beer with him and some of my other former profs.

    You just conjured up happy memories - That must have been 25 years ago!

    ITMT - I thought you would like these:

    but my all time favorite:

    1. 25 years ago? Does Powerpoint go back to 1989? I just don't recall that.

      It's not possible to do theoretical physics by writing all the math on a whiteboard on the fly. There are just too many equations. They must be written ahead of time.

      As late as 1995 I distinctly recall most physics lectures being done on those damn transparencies with colored pen marks all over them, projected on an overhead projector. I hated those damn things. You couldn't store them for long because they get all smeary when you put them in a folder, at least not the handwritten ones.

      In the late 1990's, certainly, I recall using those very finicky slide recorders-- you stick in a roll of slide film into the machine connected to the computer network and it "prints" your slides onto the film, then get it developed. Cool, but so finicky-- so many ways it could go wrong, and if one thing went wrong, then your whole roll of film was shot, and you had to get the film developed 2 days before your talk. The anxiety was insufferable. After you get the roll of film back, developed, you look it over-- Drat! A typo! Should we start the whole process over!?

      The hell with you all, PowerPoint rules.

    2. I think this applies to any field where many equations turn up. I gave a presentation this week and in some of my equations the indices had indices. I wouldn't have been able to present this decently if I had to write the equations down - I'd much rather spend my time and the time of my audience by explaining how I get from A to B and what that means, than by filling the blackboard with them.

      I've always been a fan of lecture notes to accompany the lecture itself. The problem with putting the powerpoint slides online is that they are used as a substitute for these notes and thus fail as both decent materials for the lecture and as decent lecture notes.

  4. I feel that PowerPoint should be used in biology classes or even more video; biologist should use this technology to spread the news about macroevolution-with all the proof they have.. which is supposed to be lots, and lots and lots...
    However, the "boys" can't even agree on the mechanism of the macroevolution... which means that blind evolution outwitted them again they just can't seem to figure out where.... I love this "science..."

    1. So, Quest, have you decided to answer the question: what evidence would you accept for common descent in the case of humans and chimps? We keep asking you this question. You raised the issue in an earlier thread. We'd like to know whether you understand the ways that evolutionary biologists make inferences about common descent. We keep asking you this. Ready to answer yet?

    2. Pest, I've asked you many times: how did you learn Witton is in prison?

  5. I am constantly puzzled by the hostility towards Powerpoint. It is a tool that can be used in many different ways, well or badly. If it is "used for a long list of bulleted points" then that is not the fault of the tool but that of the person using it, and they would probably make just as bad a presentation on a blackboard.

    One could just as well say that using hammers should be discouraged because some people hit their own thumbs.

    As for posting presentations online, I consider it a boon if students know that they can really listen to me and think instead of slavishly writing down all I say. And what about those who miss a lecture for legitimate reasons, such as illness?

    1. Well, I'm hostile to Powerpoint. It's a typical Microsoft product that knows what you need better than you do and resists attempts to do anything else. But I still use it because there's no easy alternative. Powerpoint does encourage text-heavy, bullet-pointy slides, but of course you can resist its evil influence, in a way similar to Frodo's ability to resist the power of the Ring. Just hope nobody has to bite off your finger.

      Blackboards have their uses, but I'm not going to trade in my computer, and good slides can communicate many sorts of information better than a blackboard can.

    2. While I would agree with the point of Microsoft products in general being made to attempt to think for the user - and very poorly at that - I am just not sure I see it in the case of PP specifically. You add a new, empty slide, and then it is up to you.

      A few slides could be just pictures of my study group; one has a few bullet points outlining the methods; another one is a phylogenetic tree. As long as I avoid a wall of text I have no idea how I could possibly do it better with another piece of software let alone with diapositives or an overhead projector as in days of yore. Of course I have seen horrific presentations, but it isn't some Microsoft programmer's fault if the presenter decided to use magenta plots on a black background or on font size 10.

      Can you explain what your issues are?

    3. (I realize my examples are for conference presentations while Larry Moran wrote about lectures. In the case of lectures, I at least need to show a lot of pictures and diagrams of plant morphology, and Powerpoint seems like a sensible choice for that.)

    4. I think it's weird not to post Powerpoint slides if you made them -- even back when I was an undergraduate (pre-Powerpoint), the better professors would normally publish little booklets of their lecture notes that you could buy in the University bookstore.

      That being said, the design of Powerpoint encourages bad habits -- the easiest thing to do is slides of mindless bullet points, so no wonder why people do it. Yes, you can go against the design of the program and eschew bullets, but a better program would encourage good slide design.

    5. The problem is again that every other tool also encourages bad habits in certain types of lecturers. I remember being inundated with photocopies after photocopies of molecule structures by our biochemistry professors; surely not wasting all that paper is a plus? I remember botany lecturers drawing diagrams in chalk on a blackboard that you couldn't see because they stood in front of it, and then when they stepped aside everybody furiously started copying what they had drawn and was thus able to pay attention to the next thing they talked about. Surely leafing through a PDF at your leisure after the lecture is better than that?

    6. What part of "active learning" or "student-centered learning" are you guys failing to understand?

      The point that Chris Buddle is making is not whether you can make good PowerPoint slides or whether something else might be effective in lectures. The point is that you shouldn't be lecturing. I agree with him.

    7. "The point is that you shouldn't be lecturing", he lectured.

    8. LM,

      Are you really implying that there is no place whatsoever for lectures in a university environment? That if first or second year students can immediately go to scientific experiments without needing to absorb any theory or terminology first?

    9. @Alex.SL,

      No, of course I don't mean to imply that formal "sage on a stage" lectures should be banned. However, I am convinced that in an ideal university they should be just a minor component of teaching. I am an advocate of teaching fundamental principles and concepts (theory) and not of forcing students to memorize details.

      I'm also a big fan of teaching critical thinking and of teaching the nature of scientific inquiry. I've been persuaded that this is more difficult than I used to think because students are burdened with many misconceptions that need to be dispelled before they can be replaced with better ways of thinking.

      I've also been convinced that a student-centered approach to learning is the only way to be successful in achieving these goals. We need to get students actively engaged in their own learning and we need to encourage them to express and debate their own ideas. The idea is to open a dialogue between the students and the teacher and, importantly, between students and their fellow learners. You can't do this if you are standing in front of the class flipping PowerPoint slides while the students sit passively taking notes.

      As a general rule, if the facts are in the textbook then you don't need to repeat them in class. What you need to do in class in to concentrate on the way you put those facts together to make sense of the subject and this requires listening to the students to see if they are getting it.

      I don't expect everyone to buy into this new way of teaching right away but I'll keep reminding everyone that they should be thinking about it rather than just blindly assuming that the only way to improve university education is to make better PowerPoint slides.

      BTW, I'm not a big fan of student laboratories. It's a very poor and inefficient way of teaching fundamental principles and concepts and it's not even a very good way of teaching students about the nature of science.

    10. I prefer engaging practicals but my experience is that memorising details is a necessary prerequisite for being able to understand principles and theory. Still, there are clearly better and worse ways of presenting even these.

  6. I’m with Larry! “As a general rule, if the facts are in the textbook then you don't need to repeat them in class.

    A friend of mine - Craig Nelson, Co-Director of ENSI posted the following on the ap biology site a couple of years ago regarding: the Flipped Classroom and team-based learning as an alternative to lecturing, even in large fixed-seating lecture halls.

    Here is what he wrote:

    A friend suggested that I check into this thread. Lots of great ideas, just as I expected.

    My expertise, such as it is, is in the college level. There are several important techniques used there in science (where it has become evident from meta-analyses that lectures are much less effective than some other techniques). I have just seen this citation that may be interesting to some of you:

    • Scott Kubina-Hovis. 2012. Adapting Team-Based Learning to a Seventh-Grade Life Science Classroom. [Presented as an answer to: I don’t dare teach with inquiry-base teaching methods when I have state testing breathing down my neck.] Chapter 18, p 291 on in • Sweet, M. & L. K. Michaelson, 2012. Team-Based Learning in the Social Sciences and Humanities: Group Work that Works to Generate Critical Thinking and Engagement. Stylus.

    For more on team-based learning see:

    • Team Based Learning Collaborative.
    • Videos at &
    • Michaelsen, L. K., A. B. Knight and L. D. Fink. Eds. 2004. Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Stylus.

    Inspirational stuff – IMHO!!!

    Kudos to Larry for raising the topic! Grateful thanks to Craig for providing inspired guidance.