Friday, January 18, 2008

Why I Don't Use PowerPoint For Teaching

This essay was originally written for a talk I was giving to brand new faculty members. I'll let it stand as an introduction to one of my passions—teaching. I'll introduce other passions in the coming weeks. Welcome to my blog!

Ok, I’m a freak. I admit it. I don’t use PowerPoint for teaching. Well, hardly ever. Once or twice a semester. Around my institution—and across the country—that puts me in the tiny minority. I know this because my students find it unusual enough to comment on. (Update: Since I wrote this, PowerPoint use in the classroom appears to be on the decline, at least at my institution. Hooray!)

Why do I take this heretical position? Part of it is that PowerPoint doesn’t mesh well with my personal teaching style. But mostly it’s because PowerPoint is just too hard for me. Oh, not making slides. That part’s easy. I mean that creating a PowerPoint presentation that effectively supports my goals in the classroom is too hard. It’s way too much work. Some people can—I tip my hat to them—but me? I’m just not good enough to do that.

I’m sure you’ve seen through my little rhetorical device to the arrogance that lies beneath, the arrogance that says “I think I’m pretty good, so if I’m not good enough, then I think most other people aren’t either”. But what makes using PowerPoint for teaching so hard, when it seems so seductively easy?

Well, that’s exactly the problem. PowerPoint is seductively easy. The problem is that PowerPoint makes it easy to do the wrong things.

Here’s an analogy. If you have taught beginner programming classes, you have seen badly indented code. Why? Because in an editor that does not automatically indent, it is easier to write badly indented code than to indent properly. (At least in the short term. Most students don't believe us when we tell them that indenting their code properly will actually save them time in the long run.)

With PowerPoint, however, the situation is more subtle. That’s where the “seductive” part comes in. With indentation, the student usually knows that he is doing the wrong thing, but does it anyway. With PowerPoint, the instructor probably sincerely believes he is doing the right thing. The road to hell is paved with good intentions…

Let’s look at five ways that PowerPoint makes it easy to do the wrong thing.


The original name of PowerPoint was Presenter and that’s exactly what PowerPoint was designed for—presentations. Think about what that implies. One person (the presenter) is presenting information to other people (the audience). The flow of information is one way, from the presenter to the audience. Because the flow of information is one way, the presenter can and does script out the entire presentation ahead of time, much like a movie or a novel. Like those forms, a PowerPoint presentation is highly linear. It is meant to be experienced in a particular order. Deviating from the expected order is possible, but awkward. This model has little room for interactivity, except perhaps a single slide at the end labeled “Questions?”.

There are contexts where this linear model may be appropriate. You’ve probably seen presentations like this at business meetings or at research conferences. But the purpose of those presentations is not teaching. The goal may be to inform, to persuade, maybe even to train, but the goal is not to educate. What’s the difference? In a presentation, you are trying to make the audience think your thoughts, but in education, you are trying to teach students to think for themselves. In terms of the well-known fishing analogy, it’s the difference between giving somebody a fish and teaching them how to fish.

To teach students to think for themselves, you must give them plenty of opportunities to think for themselves and then respond to those thoughts (or allow others to respond). But this breaks the model of information flowing in one direction in a linear order. Instead you now have information flowing in both directions—a feedback loop—and the order of information can and will change based on that feedback. Good teaching is highly interactive. A good teacher is highly adaptive, and can change the entire direction of a lesson midstream based on student input. But, if you’re using PowerPoint, how do you change direction midstream? It’s hard to tell students “Just wait a few minutes while I edit these slides!”

You may remember the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that were popular twenty or thirty years ago. You would read a page, and at the end of the page would be some choices. “If you pay the troll and cross the bridge, go to page 117. If you try to cross without paying, go to page 98. If you attack the troll, go to page 140.” These books were an attempt to shoehorn an interactive form into an inherently linear medium. It was an uncomfortable fit, and these books were soon replaced by computer programs that hid the linearity. It is certainly possible to design a PowerPoint presentation that supports interaction in this fashion, but, like the Choose Your Own Adventure books, it is always an uncomfortable fit.

So this is the first way that PowerPoint makes it easy to do the wrong thing. PowerPoint makes it easy to create a linear presentation, but hard to create an interactive lesson.

“It’s only wafer thin”

There is a scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life in which, at the end of a ridiculously large meal, the maitre d’ offers a diner a mint. At first, the man refuses, but the maitre d’ talks him into it, saying “It’s only wafer thin” and later “Oh, sir, just—just one.” The man eats the mint and literally explodes. (There’s also a brilliant send up of this scene in the comic strip Foxtrot, where a girl wakes up with a swollen head after cramming for finals, and her brother taunts her, saying “It’s only a wafer-thin math formula!”)

This is the second way that PowerPoint makes it easy to do the wrong thing. There’s always the temptation to add just one more word, just one more bullet, just one more slide. It’s so easy to do, and, after all, wouldn’t the students be better off with more information, with more complete slides?

Well…no. Students have a limited capacity to absorb information from slides. Exceed this capacity, and they not only fail to absorb the excess, they also fail to absorb or retain what came before. This can happen either when a single slide contains too much information or when the presentation as a whole has too many slides.

Think of that limited capacity in terms of juggling. Most people can learn to juggle three balls with a little practice, but juggling four is much more difficult. So there you are, happily juggling three balls, when somebody tosses you another ball. What happens? Do you just drop the new ball and continue juggling the three you already have? No. What really happens is you drop all four balls.

Teachers often prepare extra slides “just in case there’s extra time” or “just in case somebody asks”. After all, as discussed above, you want to be prepared to respond to student questions. That’s fine, as long as you are strong-willed enough to resist the temptation to show the extra slides. But, all too often, once you’ve invested the time and effort to create a slide you’re proud of, the psychological pressure to show that slide is irresistable.

Extra slides also cause awkward navigation issues. Where do you put the extra slide? Do you put it in the middle of the presentation, right where it might be needed? If so and it turns out not to be needed, then you have to hurriedly skip over the slide when it comes up, which never looks good. Or do you put it out of the way at the end of the presentation? But then, if it is needed, you have to skip through possibly dozens of slides to reach the extra one, and then go backwards through the same slides to get back to where you were. There are technical ways around these problems, but hardly anybody uses them.

He who controls the clicker, rules the world

Have you ever fought with a sibling or spouse or significant other over who gets to hold the TV remote control? This can be particularly contentious when you intend to channel surf, but the issue arises even if all you intend to do is watch a DVD. Why bother to fight over the remote in that situation? Because the person who holds the remote has enormous power. Another viewer with even the smallest request must approach as a humble supplicant—“please hit pause”, “please turn the volume up”, “hold on, I missed that, can you please go back a little bit?”

Teaching from PowerPoint slides is like holding the TV remote control (and, in fact, you may be literally holding a projector remote control). The teacher decides what slides to show and what to say about each, when to advance and when to go back, when to turn off the screen and when to turn it on. The teacher is in complete control. This is the epitome of teacher-centered learning, and is the third way in which PowerPoint makes it easy to do the wrong thing.

Especially to new teachers, being in complete control may sound like a good thing. The teacher's the one who knows what he's doing—of course the teacher should be in control! So then why does our dean's vision explicitly state that “Teaching is student centered and encourages active learning”?

Sure, the phrase student centered has been overused to the point of becoming educational gobbledygook, but there is an important idea there. The ultimate goal in any classroom is not for the instructor to teach, but for the student to learn. So shouldn’t attention be on the student learning? In a PowerPoint presentation, the attention is mostly on the teacher—the instructor is (mostly) concentrating on his own performance and the students are (hopefully) paying attention to that performance. Here’s a simple rule of thumb for you: If you’re not paying more attention to the students than they are paying to you, then your class is not student centered.

I always allow students to bring a single page of notes to exams. I encourage them to prepare the notes themselves, because the biggest benefit of the notes lies not in having the notes on the exam but rather in the cognitive act of organizing the information. Paradoxically, students who prepare their own notes often find that they never once refer to them during the exam, because the act of preparation was enough to get the information into their heads. On the other hand, students who use other people’s notes often find them useless on an exam because they don’t really understand how the information is organized.

This highlights the flaw in teacher-centered instruction, especially instruction based around PowerPoint. In creating the slides, the teacher is imposing his own organization of the information on the students, when he should be helping the students to organize the information for themselves.

Active learning

My friend Susan doesn’t like to listen to books on tape in the car, because inevitably she will zone out for a while and have to back up the tape. In a PowerPoint slide show, students also will inevitably zone out for a slide or two (or six). But when (if!) their attention wanders back to you, they probably will not ask you to back up the presentation a few slides. Not only will they have lost any chance of learning the content of the slides they missed, but now they probably will not have the context to be able to learn anything from the upcoming slides. And so the lost students will happily return to daydreaming. This is one danger of passive learning and why lectures are so often condemned. In a classroom where students are allowed to be passive observers, they need only keep reasonably attentive expressions on their faces and the instructor will never realize that no learning is taking place (or at least not until the moment has long passed).

This is the fourth way that PowerPoint makes it easy to do the wrong thing. The more you rely on slides, the more passive the students become.

Contrast a lesson where students are passively observing a PowerPoint presentation with a lesson where students are actively engaged in solving a problem. How easy is it to zone out when you are sitting at a desk looking at a screen full of text as opposed to when you are, say, trying to design a solution on a whiteboard? Now the intructor has a better chance of noticing that a student has failed to learn some important point in time to do something about it. Even better, the student has a better chance of remembering the important points of the lesson because memory formation and retrieval depend at least in part on how many different parts of the brain are active. When a student is thinking, writing, drawing, explaining, and building, more parts of the brain are involved than when he is merely watching and listening.

Although I know of no studies that measure audience brain activity during a PowerPoint presentation, I wouldn’t be surprised if it resembled the relatively flat EEGs found when people watch TV.

“It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping”

Although I almost never use slides in the classroom, I do use them for giving research talks. I am often approached and asked “I missed your talk. Can I get a copy of your slides?” The other person is usually shocked—and initially annoyed—when I say no. But they usually understand when I explain “I wrote the slides to accompany my talk. They wouldn’t make any sense without my words to go along with them. You’re better off looking at my paper, which was intended to be read on its own.”

A trap that instructors often fall into is putting their PowerPoint slides on the web. They feel virtuous in doing so, patting themselves on the back for helping out students who missed class and for giving students something to review later. This is the fifth way that PowerPoint makes it easy to do the wrong thing.

But how can it possibly be the wrong thing to give students your slides? Because slides that were designed for use in the classroom probably will not work well when viewed from a student's room, and slides that were designed to be viewed outside of class almost certainly will not work well in the classroom. Like the combination floor wax/dessert topping from the classic Saturday Night Live skit, it is nearly impossible to serve both purposes well—you can’t serve two masters. Chances are high that if you try to serve both purposes well, you’ll fail at both.

So perhaps you decide that you’re going to focus on making slides that work well in the classroom, and accept that maybe they won’t work so well from the student's room. Wouldn’t it still be better to give students the slides? Wouldn’t ineffective slides be better than nothing? Not necessarily. Not if the main outcome is to give students a false sense of security and to prevent them from seeking more effective means of learning. A student faced with the choice of reviewing bad slides, talking to a buddy about their notes, unsealing the shrinkwrap on the textbook, or coming in to see the teacher or TA will all too often choose the slides because they seem the easiest.

Going the other direction and deciding to focus on making slides that stand alone when read from the student's room is even worse. That way lies the kinds of overfull slides that leave students muttering “Death by PowerPoint”. Furthermore, students actively resent sitting through a 50 minute lecture when they feel they could have read through the slides in 10 minutes and gotten just as much out of it—especially when that impression is accurate!

In fact, the situation is even worse than I’ve described because instructors often try to create slides that serve more than two purposes:

  • visual aids for during the lesson
  • make-up material for students that missed the lesson
  • review for students that were present at the lesson
  • handouts for students during the lesson
  • read-ahead before the lesson
  • notes to the instructors themselves

I don’t care if you are Socrates, Halliday&Resnick, and Edward bloody Tufte all rolled into one. Try to do all this with one set of slides and you will fail. Decide which purpose you are trying to serve and serve it well.

Searching for the harder right

Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.
– USMA Cadet Prayer

I've shown five ways in which PowerPoint encourages you, subtly or not so subtly, to choose the easier wrong. But what then is the harder right? Sorry, I can't tell you. Good teaching is hard, and part of what makes it hard is that it is both highly personal and highly context dependent. My solution wouldn't necessarily be right for you.

I admit that's a cop out, but it's also true. For some of you, PowerPoint itself might be the harder right. If you use it carefully and in moderation, with an eye out for the kinds of traps described above, you can probably do fine. But it sure is a lot more work that way, isn't it?


Thinkingblade said...

Chris, interesting post and definately echos many of the thoughts that Tufte puts forth in his speaking out against PowerPoint.

I tend to agree with the linearity of thought in using PowerPoint, and I have found as well that it can be quite difficult to lead people to the realization that some sorts of problems are not linear using the package, because of the presentation method. I tend to create reference slides and then do most of my presenting using a white board or flip charts. I suppose it helps keep me sharp too.

Jason M. Adams said...

Excellent post. If only it were distributed to every faculty member at every major university, the world would be a better place for us students. The very sight of a power point slide begins the process of putting me to sleep. A few slides with discussion and board presentation is great, but a lecture entirely reliant on slides with even moderate amounts of text are bound to cause me to fade out for a bit (or more). I personally think PowerPoint is the worst thing to happen to university classes. Not because it can't be a useful tool, but because it is so often and so easily misused.

John Zabroski said...

In college, I would try to only put pictures on my slides with a terse caption. The project requirements sheets usually said I needed a PowerPoint presentation, but didn't say WHAT had to be on the slides, so that's what I did to fill the requirement. My presentations really stood out as a result.

The best lecturer I ever had never used PowerPoint. Instead, he had an outline from which he read. Occasionally, for something important, he'd yell out, "HELLOOOO! HELLOOOO!", and repeat the important point. It wasn't obnoxious at all. Throughout his lectures, he sounded and looked like Montel Williams. His classroom was almost like being in the audience of a TV talk show. And, yes, he absolutely looked like Montel.

I believe Valentin Turchin mentions in Phenomenon of Science that it used to be a tradition in mathematics that a professor would spend their first few years as a lecturer perfecting their lecture notes, and then read them a dictation pace the rest of their career. (The book might actually have been Science Awakening by Van Der Waerden.)

Here are some things you can add to your essay about PowerPoint:

Portability! I occasionally attend the monthly NYPHP user group meeting at IBM in NYC. Presenters who have never seen the room they present in seem to assume that they'll be presenting in a lecture hall with theater seating. Ultimately, no one behind the first row can see the entire bottom half of their slide show.

Permanency. This is actually an underutilized strength of PowerPoints. In college, my Data Structures & Algorithms professor would constant make mistakes using just the whiteboard. I would get so confused. What's interesting is that I was in the morning section of the class, and he taught an afternoon section of the class. During lunch one day, I asked my friends in the afternoon section if they were infuriated by how often he erased and corrected things on the whiteboard. They told me he NEVER made mistakes! Practice makes perfect. It seems that he would consistently make sure to avoid repeating the same mistakes with the afternoon lecture. I often wondered what the solution to this problem was. Is it to use PowerPoint and make sure the content is correct?

The same lecturer was my professor for a course in Computer Organization and Assembly Language. Interestingly, he provided PowerPoint for this class due to not being able to attend the first two weeks of class (he was healing from emergency hip surgery). He provided a button on the slides that would play a bite-sized oration by him on each slide. It was great. I learned a lot from that.

The biggest problem I find with PowerPoint is that some teachers don't know HOW to respond to questions after using slides so long. If it's not ON the slide, then they're not going to be prepared to answer the question.

In creating the slides, the teacher is imposing his own organization of the information on the students, when he should be helping the students to organize the information for themselves.

Sometimes, students do not question authority. They look to the teacher or the book for correct answers. What they fail to realize is that IT'S JUST A THEORY, and they are free to construct their own theories. This is particularly true in the humanities, but somewhat true in Computer Science, too, due to the fact it is still an emerging discipline where many areas are simply intuitively appealing and not mathematical.

Chris League said...

Well done. I sometimes hear profs complain about behavioral problems – students walking in and out, fiddling with mobile devices, napping. When you act like a television, don't be surprised that students treat you like a television.

rgrig said...

This is a funny post. Reading it would have made me think more than twice about posting my last post.

I always allow students to bring a single page of notes to exams. I encourage them to prepare the notes themselves, because the biggest benefit of the notes lies not in having the notes on the exam but rather in the cognitive act of organizing the information.

That reminded me of one cultural shock I had when moving from Romania to Ireland. In Romania, at least in my college, everyone took notes for every lecture. After doing this for five years most students get pretty good at it. In fact, I think I got reasonably good at it after my first term in college. By far the mot common failing was that people tried to write down everything, instead of organizing the information by jotting down the important points. Of course, you can't take good notes if you don't understand what is being presented. And once you understand what is being presented you hardly need the notes again. But I found that writing the notes helped me be focused. And usually I did need to read the notes once.

Why were all students taking notes? Because there were no slides (all lectures were using only blackboard and chalk) and the printed lecture notes were usually a couple of years behind. Many lecturers changed the course during those two years.

Then I came to Ireland. All slides, no notes. The students simply do not know how to take notes. Then this blog tells me that preparing notes once per term is good. Imagine my shock. However, for some obscure reason, I still feel that deliberately not giving slides to the students is a little sadistic. Maybe even only because the students will think so.

Chris Okasaki said...

rgrig, we're talking about different kinds of notes. The notes you take in real time during a lesson are quite different from notes you prepare off-line for use during an exam. For the exam, I'm asking to the students to compress their notes from during the semester--which in extreme cases could be an entire notebook--into a single page.

But yes, taking notes during a lesson is rapidly becoming a lost art, in part because of the widespread availability of electronic slides. Most of my students take some notes during class, but probably only 25% or less take effective notes.

rgrig said...

OFFTOPIC: Sometimes I prefer to print longer posts like yours and read them on the bus or home (where I don't have internet). For some reason your entries come out all wrong (and incomplete) when I try to print them. Do you think it would be possible to fix this? This info might help:

Aura Man said...

But if you don't use powerpoint, what *do* you use? A whiteboard? Please tell me you don't. One thing I can't stand is trying to take notes at the same time someone is speaking. And on a whiteboard its doubly worse, because its being erased as you go along. What's wrong with a set of basic slides (powerpoint or whatever your favorite program is), on which students can annotate with additional comments?

Chris Okasaki said...


What do I use? A variety of things. Yes, sometimes I use a whiteboard. Sometimes I have the students doing group work (sometimes at whiteboards, sometimes at their seats). Sometimes I'm typing in notes (and/or code) on the projector as the class is collectively trying to solve a program. Sometimes we move to a lab. Sometimes we have discussions or even formal debates. And every once in a while, maybe once or twice a semester, I even give a PowerPoint lecture.

John Zabroski said...

It's all about handling cognitive load.

I wanted to post this link earlier but it was difficult to locate. Today someone mentioned "John Zweller" to me and a signal went off in my brain about his research on PowerPoint presentations.

Anonymous said...

Excellent essay.

I was trying to articulate what exactly I find wrong with teaching-by-Powerpoint, and you cover everything I had thought of and more. Thanks!

I was treated to the "Powerpoint lecture" experience last semester, and found that I learnt nothing in class at all. As a result, I did not take another class taught by the same instructor.

I especially agree with your "The more you rely on slides, the more passive the students become" and the fact that it is impossible to have something that remains appropriate both for classroom teaching and as notes later.

Fortunately, most other instructors use the whiteboard and also separately provide notes for reading later. This has the advantage that there is always more context available when a student needs it than there would be on a single slide, and one does not have to struggle with taking down every word.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this essay. Now I've got something to point to when complaining about the CS lectures given here.

Studying computer science at LMU M√ľnchen, I'm in the interesting position to be intimately familiar with both the PowerPoint style of lecturing (CS department) and the traditional chalk + blackboard style (mathematics department). It's striking seeing how next to noone ever attends the CS classes, while math classrooms tend to overflow from students taking notes and listening attentively. I'm seriously considering switching my major to mathematics right now, with the respective lecture styles being the primary reason.

Do you hear me, CS departments the world over? You're going to lose students if you don't do something about lecture quality fast!