Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Using Power Point Slides

When I was in college, I took a class on the American Presidents. It sounded so interesting in the college catalogue that I did not check it out in advance. Unfortunately, the teacher walked in with a notebook full of yellowed class notes that he proceeded to read to us day after day. He read and we copied (or slept). It was a horrible experience. And, although Richard Nixon was then president of the United States at the time, the class ended with Harry Truman because that is where the professor’s notes ended. I honestly do not believe he had updated those notes in two decades. Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson didn’t exist in that class of American Presidents.

A few years ago I was talking with some of my favorite students about education. I asked them what they liked least. I was surprised that they all expressed the same objection which was verbalized by one as “I hate it when a teacher comes into the room and throws up some Power Point slides and then proceeds to read them to us. I can read for myself.” Is Power Point the equivalent of my teacher reading his ancient notes to us? Yeah, maybe it is.

I have never used Power Point in a college class but I can understand why it is popular with teachers. First, it provides an easy way to organize the material in a logical fashion. Second, once they are made, they can be kept from year to year and save time in the future (hmm, now we are backed to the yellowed notes). Third, many textbook publishers will prepare them for you so the amount of work is slight. Fourth, at many schools, Power Point slides can be made available to the students to serve as study guides.

So, Power Point does have some benefits but what do your students think? I have a couple of suggestions.

--If your student evaluations allow you to do this, add the following question: “Does the teacher use Power Point slides too much, too little, or just the right amount?” Power Point slides can be a lot like bad breath—everyone might know you have a problem before you do. Although I am a heavy critic of student evaluations, I think that kind of question can be very helpful and should be more used on student evaluations.

--If your textbook publisher has Power Point slides available, send those to the students for study purposes. For class, make your own slides. It is your course—for goodness sakes—so design it the way you want. If nothing else, it forces you to think about the material more.

--Never put more than 10 words on a slide. That will break you of the habit of reading them to the students. When I give teaching presentations, I do use Power Point slides but I use them as a prompt for discussion. For example, we discussed inventory today in my Financial Accounting class here at the University of Richmond. If I had used Power Point slides, here are a few that I would have prepared because each of these would have prompted (I believe) some excellent class discussion.

Slide One: Who would possibly use a periodic system in 2010?
Slide Two: Inflation takes place: compare FIFO with LIFO
Slide Three: If you look poorer, why use LIFO?
Slide Four: LIFO conformity – what does it really mean?
Slide Five: You start a business: Would you choose FIFO or LIFO?
Slide Six: IFRS and LIFO - what is going on?

Well, you get the idea. I’ve accomplished what I wanted. I have organized the class in some logical manner and I can either explain the meaning of what I have written or I can ask the students about the meaning. Reading is not a real option. And, these slides don’t take long to prepare and I can use them again.

But, if you do choose to use your slides again next semester, I would urge you to always edit and freshen them up. Don’t simply rely on the same slides each semester from now until 2030. Each semester rethink what you want to cover and how you want to do it and change your slides accordingly.

Used correctly, I think Power Point can be great. However, used poorly, I think we are back to 1969 with my political science teacher reading notes to me that he hadn’t revised since the end of World War II. That's what my students were fussing about.


  1. I never use Powerpoint for a couple of reasons. First of all, if you have Powerpoint slides, the students feel like they can miss class. Why do they have to come if they can get get copies of the slides? Secondly, you have the opposite problem if you *don't* make the slides available to students: if there is too much information on the slides, then the students spend the whole time copying the slides instead of listening to the lecture.

    I like your idea of 10 word slides, but if they're really that short, why not just write those few words up on the board yourself?

    I'm old-fashioned: I write everything on the board. If I'm writing it myself, then I know that it takes roughly the same amount of time for the students to copy, so they shouldn't have too much writing when I'm just lecturing. Also, the students see me *involved* in the lecture, and they know that I'm putting in the effort (instead of just droning on with some pre-made slides) and then they are much more likely to put in effort themselves.

    However, I think the real thing here that you are commenting on is notes that never get updated. This is something to be avoided, no matter what course you teach. In accounting, we need to always update our notes for the latest changes to GAAP, the latest updates on IFRS convergence (and differences between current US GAAP and IFRS) and also to update our examples. It's sad to say, but in 2010 when I talk about Enron, students don't always know to what I am referring.

    Of course, this is outside of teaching updating: sometimes I will just 'stumble across' better ways to present information, or cross-knowledge instructional ideas among accounting topics. That always deserves an update to my notes. Yes, I've been using some of the same examples for about 10 years, but I'd say that at least half of my notes have changed in the past decade.

  2. One of the things that I find odd is that after 39 years of doing this, I still write out my notes long hand every night before class. When I started teaching, I would have bet that I would not be doing it this way. However, if I don't, I am just not able to ad lib a logical class. And, of course, it keeps things fresh.

    As to the reason for 10 word PP slides, it provides an organizational structure that can really be helpful. I don't use them because I write out my notes but if I ever stop writing the notes, I'll switch to the 10 word slides to provide a structure that can otherwise get lost in the hustle and bustle of class. Joe

  3. It always saddens me when I hear people speak negatively about Power Point because it tells me they just haven't learned how to use it properly. I will agree that linear, text-based presentations can be sleep inducing but that isn't what was intended when Microsoft called it POWER Point. All you have to do to put the POWER in Power Point is make your presentations non-linear and interactive with action buttons, include audio and video clips, use PPt's internal or Flash animation, create interactive Excel charts, and/or create hyperlinks to other instructional files or Internet sites.

  4. Good point. When it comes to teaching, every hand is potentially a winner and every hand is potentially a loser. I have several questions that I like to ask about teaching styles: (1) does it work for you and your students, (2) are you sure that you have reasonably good feedback from your students to know that this works, and (3) do you have a way to keep the presentation and materials fresh semester after semester. As far as I’m concerned, you can beat the students with chains if you can answer “YES” to all three of these questions. The problem I have with lectures and with Power Point is that, for many teachers, the answers to some/all of these questions is “No.”

    However, you make an excellent point as to how Power Point can be turned into a winner. One thing you might do is date the slides when you create or change them so you are aware of whether they might be getting a bit old.