PowerPoint in the Classroom: A Practitioner’s Perspective

Author: Dr. Ken Wilkening (International Studies)

Once upon a time, the use of PowerPoint (PPT) for classroom lecturing was novel. Now it is almost expected. Back when I started teaching at UNBC in 2000, PPT was considered a wave of the future in classroom teaching. I got caught in the wave. I decided to ‘master’ the medium to my modest standards so I could judge for myself what all the hubbub was about. Eventually, after creating more PPT lectures than I care to think about, I came to realize that PPT is a valuable tool if used wisely but is no substitute for the essence of good teaching—a warm and dynamic personal connection between students and teacher.

PPT today is still a valuable tool but its uniqueness has worn off. In my early years, I sometimes received a round of applause at the end of a really good PPT lecture. Now I never do. My early PPT days were after the Internet and World Wide Web had been invented, and right around the time Google was established, but were before Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, iPhones, iPads, Instagram, and similar digital media entered our digital reality. And in my early days, there was no alternative to PPT. Now there are many, including PowToon, Prezi, Keynote, Prezentit, and SlideRocket, to name a few. Here I will talk only about PPT. For better or worse, it is still the most popular presentation software.

Let me begin with some pluses and minuses of PPT. First, some good things: PPT adds clarity to the content of lectures, makes their structure easier to follow, is a more engaging presentation style than the traditional stand-up lecture, and can be posted (for instance on a class website). Now some bad things: PPT requires huge upfront investments of time and energy to prepare, is prone to equipment or technological failures at the start of a lecture, takes students’ focus away from lecture content and places it on presentation style, and discourages good note taking by students. To me, the goods still outweigh the bads, but I rely on it less than I used to.

The essence of PPT is that it is fundamentally a VISUAL and GRAPHIC medium. Thus, if you don’t put its visual and graphic elements to work, then you are not utilizing its full power. There are four main visual/graphical components to PPT: images and other digital material (e.g., catchy pictures and animated clips), layering (being able to put images and other digital material on top of one another both spatially and temporally), animation (e.g., making images and text move and dance), and hyperlinking (being able to link outside a slide; for instance, to a video or website). Working effectively with all of these components is what makes the construction of a good PPT lecture so challenging. You have to be your own artistic director.

Effective PPT lectures are about balance, in multiple dimensions. For example, on one end of the spectrum of PPT use is the “bulleted lecture”. In other words, the PPT lecture is used only to present a list of bulleted talking points. There are few or no colorful no images or animation, except maybe a pretty background. (As an aside, I almost never use the fancy backgrounds that are provided with PPT software. To me, they detract more than add to the lecture.) At worst, a bulleted lecture is boring; at best, it does not take advantage of the visual and graphic strength of PPT. On the other end of the spectrum of PPT use is the “MTV lecture”. In other words, the PPT lecture is so full of razzle dazzle that it is hard to focus on the substance of the lecture. Text comes bouncing and hopping onto the screen, colors put the rainbow to shame, and added sound clips make you feel you are at a circus. In between the bulleted and MTV lecture extremes is the “balanced” lecture, one that judiciously uses the visual and graphic elements to enhance the verbal and interactive portions of a lecture. I came to understand balance only after embarrassing myself on both extremes on more than one occasion.

Now that you have a sense of my ‘ideal’ PPT lecture, let me give you an idea of how I go about trying to create such a lecture. First is TEXT. I begin by creating a regular (verbal) lecture. This allows me to get the logic and flow of the lecture down before I get immersed in the dynamic elements of PPT. Next is GRAPHICS. I put my text into PPT slides and add graphics (graphs, photos, images, streaming video, sounds, etc.). Then I go back and forth matching text and graphics, paring text (because I almost always have too much text on the screen; this is one of the most common problems with PPT lectures), and, very importantly, making each slide an aesthetically pleasing and balanced whole (this takes tons of tinkering). Last is ANIMATION. Once I have a “still” of each slide that I am happy with, I decide on the animation (or lack of it) that seems most appropriate. I try not to overdo the animation. I generally use the ‘quieter’ styles. I also try to maintain a consistent animation style for each lecture.

Overall, from my personal experience, constructing a good PPT lecture takes LOTS OF TIME. My best guess is that it takes me at minimum 10 hours for graphics/animation per a one-hour lecture with 10 slides. Thus, once I have the text portion of the lecture complete, it takes about one hour per slide for the non-text portions. Most of this time is spent searching for good images or other high quality digital material. It is easy to find some sort of image, for instance, that works but often time consuming to find one that is of high resolution, dynamic, and truly enhances the topic at hand. On average, each slide is shown for 5 minutes. Thus, a 50-minute lecture will have about 10 slides not including opening and outline slides, and an hour and 20 minute lecture will have 16 content-full slides. Again, balance. Too few slides leaves students wondering why you used PPT at all, and too many leaves their head spinning.

Once a lecture is complete, how about delivering it? First is TESTING before the semester starts and then there is SETUP before each class. Before the semester starts, you need to know that your PPT lectures interface smoothly with UNBC’s classroom technology. I use Apple computers and have occasionally had problems, for instance, because the classroom technology is PC-based. After ironing out any fundamental issues prior to the start of the semester, there is the daily joy of setting up your lecture before class—and steeling yourself to address unexpected technical problems. I wouldn’t even attempt of list of the weird and wonderful glitches that I have encountered. One can only learn to handle these glitches through experience. Also, be prepared with written lecture notes in case of projector bulb burnout or power failure.

Then once all is up and running, you will begin your lecture. A few tips. First, and going back to the construction of a lecture, don’t put too much text on the slide. Students will always read what is on the slide. Too much text makes it hard for them to concentrate on what you are saying, at least until they are done reading. Related to this, I almost always bring up segments of text (e.g., bullet points) one at a time, not all at once. Again, you want to give students digestible chunks of text. Second, don’t read from the slide, unless it is a quote or a point you want to emphasize. Use your PPT text as a jump-off point. Third, know the order in which things come up in your slide. Try not to get ahead of yourself. And fourth, bring up your images so that students have time to absorb what is on them. There is nothing more aggravating than a complex image coming up for just a few seconds before you shift to the next slide. I usually bring up images first and thereafter the text that is pertinent to it.

A PPT lecture is an instant set of class notes. I tend to post my lectures on the class website before each class period so that students can print them off before class and take notes on them. In the beginning I posted them after a lecture, but by overwhelming popular demand I was persuaded to post them before the lecture.

In conclusion, PPT software is a tool but the tool doesn’t necessarily make you a better teacher. My goal is to use PPT to enhance my ability to communicate with students and thus, hopefully, to enhance the learning experience.

Note: I have not provided any references here because, first, I have made no attempt to keep up on the literature on PowerPoint use in the classroom since I first wrote this piece years ago, and second, a quick web search will turn up dozens of sources on PPT lecturing if you are interested in diving more deeply into this subject.