Take Back the Classroom from PowerPoint

Sep 02, 2010 | 

Jason Fertig

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Take Back the Classroom from PowerPoint

Sep 02, 2010 | 

Jason Fertig



Poor PowerPoint use makes good speakers bad, and bad speakers worse. Last week, I expressed my concern with the use of a comic book as a management text. This week, I further my thesis on pedagogical advances that have detrimental effects in the classroom.  

The beginning of the fall semester can be a fun and exciting time – new students, new classes, new classrooms, and new colleagues. Yet, with all that may be new, there is one thing that is not changing – most of these new classes will involve a song and dance through a sequence of PowerPoint slides.

PowerPoint can enhance a presentation if integrated properly. Compared to the old slide carousels, PowerPoint is much more efficient for adding images to enhance a presentation. Speakers no longer have to struggle with sequencing tiny, fragile slides in order and lugging around cumbersome projectors. A simple upload from portable storage now produces an endless stream of images. However, as most of us can attest, the majority of PowerPoint presentations across classrooms project much more than pictures. That practice does more harm than good in most cases.

I remember the first time I used PowerPoint in class. The minute my first slide went up, the students’ heads went down and the pens started moving. Pavlov would have been proud, but I was not. Regardless of how many different animations and builds that I tried, the result was the same. As I proceeded to talk, students were more focused on copying down the slides than listening to me speak. If students were so focused on writing down slide contents, why did I have to open my mouth? It would be much easier to walk into the room, play some elevator music in the background, and click through a series of slides.

How to keep students from getting fixated on slide content? Some have suggested that a professor should provide slides beforehand, or that lectures should cover additional information not included on slides. But those are just band-aids to a larger presentation problem: presenters use PowerPoint slides as speaking notes. 

Unfortunately, the institutionalized norm across colleges is the projection of the professor’s speaking notes, rather than well-planned visual aids. This manifests itself in several different presentation faux pas:

  • Facing the slides for the majority of the time, while occasionally stopping to look at the audience
  • The slides driving, rather than the professor. When a lesson takes longer than expected, the professor will feel rushed to get through the next 45 slides in the remaining 5 minutes, thus ensuring that the class will retain neither the rushed content nor the slides that flash through so quickly that there is no chance to make notes.
  • (My personal favorite) The projection of a chart that contains either numbers or text in such small font that the speaker resorts to stating, “I know you can’t see this, but….”

The “no speaking notes” point is normally untouched during PowerPoint training, which typically focuses on rules of thumb for content and instructions for animations. These should be secondary to the plan for the slide use in a given presentation. If a professor desires to utilize PowerPoint effectively, he has to take the time to map out the presentation and to determine what visual aids are needed at given points of the lecture. This takes more thought than simply dumping notes into slides and “winging it” in front of class.

In addition to weakening the professor’s lecture, PowerPoint accustoms students to lazy thinking. As I noted last week, electronic media has depleted this generation’s ability to read. Feeding students slides only encourages them to read less than they already do. A colleague of mine best described this practice of providing slides and other dumbed-down material (such as comic book textbooks) to students as supplying them with “pre-chewed” material. 

Without learning to “chew” material themselves, students can never develop effective reading comprehension skills or critically analyze what they read because their minds simply race through assigned reading. Imagine what Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech would have looked like with PowerPoint projecting on the Lincoln Memorial:

I Have a Dream

       --- One Day

  • This nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed
  •  My four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character
  • On the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood

 --- These Truths  

  • Self-evident
  • All men are created equal


I witness poor comprehension skills each semester. Over time, I’ve become one of those professors who insist on using original sources rather than texts that spoon-feed pointless terminology (as is often done in qualitative business school classes). Hence, students quickly realize that there are no summary slides or shortcuts for “gaming” my class. In turn, through my assessments (which contain many questions that do not “prime” students with multiple-choice cues), I consistently witness that the biggest difference between my A’s and my F’s is the ability to retain and apply material that was not supplied in bulleted form. 

I urge colleagues to replace students’ current academic diet of baby food with a Bit-O-Honey to chomp on for several hours. Provide a discursive essay to read and ask students to draw connections to assigned readings; it will be either sink or swim. 

Notorious PowerPoint critic Edward Tufte notes that: “Replacing PowerPoint with [strategically planned handouts] will make presentations and their audiences smarter. Of course full-screen projected images and videos are necessary; that is the one harmless use of PP.” I concur wholeheartedly – PowerPoint has its place in the classroom, but that place is behind the professor, not in front. 

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