Most advice about using Microsoft PowerPoint is geared toward business users. Experts speak of creating presentations that entertain and motivate, while acknowledging that listeners can only absorb a small amount of information in one sitting.
But if you’re a teacher, let’s say in high school or college, your goals are different. Rather than motivating students to act or make a decision, you want them to learn. Ultimately they will be tested on content. You want to grab your students intellectually, not necessarily emotionally.
Patrick Douglas Crispen, a faculty training and support coordinator for the California State University at Long Beach, has written about the use of PowerPoint in education. He points out that there is quite a difference between a business PowerPoint presentation and a classroom PowerPoint presentation. Notes Crispen, “The primary goal of any classroom PowerPoint presentation isn’t to entertain, but rather to teach.”
Should you use PowerPoint at all? If so, when and how? Teachers want to know whether PowerPoint slideshows will help their students to learn, or hinder them. And because the education presentation and those used in business are different animals, teachers at all levels need to reconsider the standard business use of text and images, how best to organize their slides, and how to take advantage of PowerPoint’s Notes feature.
The Mayer multimedia principles
A psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Richard E. Mayer has studied the way students learn from visuals and lectures. In his book, Multimedia Learning (Cambridge University Press, 2001), Mayer summarizes his research on how people learn when they see and hear multimedia content, taking into account the various combinations of words and pictures.
Mayer’s work outlines several multimedia principles, the main one stating that people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone. He also notes that not all educational material lends itself to a visual representation, but when appropriate, visuals can help students learn. In addition, people learn better when words are near corresponding pictures and there is no extraneous information nearby to distract attention.
What should a PowerPoint-using educator take from this? And how do you know when an image is extraneous? Some teachers suggest not using images at all, not even logos or templates, unless it is necessary for explaining the content, the material is very difficult, or students need help understanding the topic. Remember, students are tested on facts and processes, not on the images.
So before you place an image on a lecture slide, consider the following:
- Is it specifically related to the text on the slide?
- Would leaving out the image remove crucial information?
While scholarly arguments on the usefulness of visuals in teaching may not be final, one thing is certain — you don’t use images in an educational setting the way you do in a business setting. “When in doubt, leave it out” is a good motto for educators.
Keep slides organized
According to Mayer’s redundancy principle, people understand more when they hear the text, compared with when they both hear and see the text. This in itself is surprising, because it seems to contradict the most common way PowerPoint is used in business and in education — to display text onscreen as the presenter reads it aloud. Exceptions to this education principle are when technical terms are taught or when content must be repeated for novices to the topic at hand.
To put this principle into practice, make sure only your main topics are included on the slide, but not all of your individual points. Then elaborate on your main points orally in your lecture. Keep in mind that the PowerPoint file is not your presentation; what you say is your presentation.
The main advantage of this technique for teaching is that students must listen to take notes. When you put all of your points on the slides, students naturally will only write down the text they see on the slide, assuming that’s what you’ll test them on. When you elaborate on any of the points, students will assume this verbal content isn’t important, because you didn’t put it on the slides.
Best note-taking practices
Should you encourage students to take notes while you speak, should you give them your notes, or both? And how can you use your PowerPoint presentation o help students study later?
Asking students to listen without taking notes works best when your lecture covers basic concepts. But if the lecture consists mostly of facts students will need to recall later, having them take notes is the better strategy.
There are three options within PowerPoint to consider.
Option 1 – Have students take notes as you speak, and provide them with lecture notes afterward. This is easy if the teacher has used the Notes pane in PowerPoint to print out Notes Pages.
The main advantage of this approach is that within Word, you can modify the handout’s layout easily. For example, you can insert a page break at the end of the last line of each slide so each slide will print on a separate page. (You can also add more lines.)
Good teaching is paramount
While all of these principles should be helpful, you might want to do additional research on your own. For instance, if you have two lectures that are similar in set up, try delivering one with a PowerPoint presentation and one without. Give a quiz at the end of each class and compare the results. You can easily compare other types of PowerPoint presentations side by side. Try teaching with a slideshow that incorporates graphics and images, then use a slideshow without such visual elements. See whether providing students with an outline (and space to take notes) at the beginning of a lecture has a different effect or result than handing out the notes at the end. By experimenting with these and other variations you’ll come up with a system that is more effective for you and your students.
Of course, there are plenty of other factors outside of multimedia presentations that affect student learning. It’s safe to say a teacher’s skills are still more important than the visual method used to deliver the course’s curriculum. Nevertheless, we can all use a little help with our teaching, and a PowerPoint slideshow that enhances, rather than detracts from or slows down, the learning process is all to the good.