Text = Death, But Text Is Essential

The always interesting Timothy Burke has a good post about PowerPoint in classes, spinning off a student complaint. I’ve been lecturing with PowerPoint– my own slides, not something sent to me by a textbook company– since day one, so of course I have opinions on the topic.

For the most part, Burke’s points on the pros and cons of PowerPoint are excellent. There’s one motive for using PowerPoint that he leaves out, though, and it’s slightly at odds with the rest of the advice.

One of the nice things about PowerPoint is that it can be used to provide a record of the lecture, for the sake of students who missed class for some valid reason (the current wave of “Influenza Like Illness,” for example), or for those who missed something in the notes. For this to work, though, there has to be enough information in the slides for them to stand on their own, without the professor explaining them. But, as Burke notes, the best slides rely more on images or other media than on explanatory text. Making slides that can be read later that aren’t stultifying when used in class is a difficult balancing act.

I struggle with this myself, so I don’t have any brilliant advice to offer. My ideas of what makes a good PowerPoint lecture have definitely evolved over time, though, as I found when I taught our first-year seminar this term for the first time in three years, using slides that I initially made eight years ago (I used a lot more text back then than I do now).

It’s a hard problem, and there’s no single solution. But it’s something to keep in mind when thinking about the proper role of presentation tools in academia.


  1. #1 Dr. Kate
    November 12, 2009

    What about using the Notes feature in PPT? You can include more detail there for students who miss the lecture (or as a memory jog in case you forget what you were going to say), but it doesn’t show up on the slides. As long as you’re distributing the actual PPT file and not a PDF of it, the notes are included. Or, if you do distribute a PDF (or don’t think students will be able to figure out how to access the notes), you can create a new version of the file with an extra slide after each slide that includes the notes for that slide.

  2. #2 cisko
    November 12, 2009

    Notes are great, but they’re usually time-consuming, which means they don’t get done. It’s worth doing though if it’s something that will be around for a while. As an alternative, you could add “see pp 83-85″, or a short list of any talking points that aren’t in the slide text. The idea is to give a bit more context, when the slide might be ambiguous otherwise.

    You can also distribute as PDF by saving (or printing to PDF) as “Notes Pages” — maybe easier than adding extra slides.

  3. #3 Josh
    November 12, 2009

    As a student I can’t stand 99% of powerpoint lectures. For one thing, most are terrible—sometimes horrible slides, sometimes the professor just reads from the slides, but most often all of the above. Secondly, I really feel like it ruins the pace of a course. One of the worst experiences I’ve ever had was a mathematical (specifically population genetics) course taught mostly with powerpoint. It was abysmal, because the prof just zoomed through derivations and in general I didn’t get too much out of the lectures for that course. Moreover, it’s incredibly hard to keep up. I had another professor who always wrote on the blackboard (despite his horrendous handwriting) mostly so that he would keep a good pace with those of us taking notes.

    Don’t get me wrong, powerpoint has potential to be very effective. But my experience has been pretty much utter trash.

  4. #4 Josh
    November 12, 2009

    As a quick follow up, I happen to think one of the best ways to make sure there are notes for students who were absent is to get students to scribe the notes. Not only does it provide an extra copy of the notes, but, in my opinion, it can really help to understand a lecture when you’re forced to type it up in latex ;-)

  5. #5 reesei
    November 12, 2009

    Students love powerpoint – if you don’t use powerpoint in class, you are setting yourself up for class rebellion.

    That said, in my powerpoint:
    1) I’m image-heavy. And I use images not just from the textbook, but from relevant primary literature (yes, in an undergrad class), from other books that illustrate a point in a better way, from websites… all with proper attribution, of course.

    2) I use only bullet-point text with the figures, and tell students they need to take notes on the details that I incorporate in the lecture

    3) I include several subject areas that are not in the textbook; having powerpoint lets students have the figures to illustrate this material on hand when studying.

    4) I don’t let the powerpoint rule the lecture – if I need to elaborate on something, or students are asking several questions anticipating a future part of the lecture, I adjust as required. And if required, I’ll use the board (although I try to avoid that when possible due to my handwriting).

  6. #6 Neva
    November 12, 2009

    That’s a stupid argument. If you want sick kids to keep up then email out your lecture notes, otherwise let them be responsible for catching up. If they’re old enough to be in college then they’re old enough to figure out how to get information they missed when they were sick. The point of lectures is to teach – not write a text book for everyone to review later. I’m on team Josh – it’s very difficult to learn when you can’t read the slide because so much info is packed on there and/or the professor is verbatim reading the text on the slides. Lectures are supposed to be a supplement to the readings, not a substitute. The slides should serve as on overview of what the professor is talking about in class.

    At UC Berkeley (and I’m sure other Universities), many of the courses are podcast. That works out great for students who miss class because they can listen to the lecture online while looking at the slides on a computer.

  7. #7 Paula
    November 12, 2009

    Another student here. I like powerpoint lectures a lot. I know a lot of people complain that the professors “just read off the slides” or “go too fast”, but I think that kind of misses the point. I think most students have the mistaken view that they are actually supposed to learn everything in lecture. Lecture isn’t for studying, it is for presenting information that students can study on their own later. Powerpoints are one of the best ways, in my opinion to present information visually to complement the auditory component of lecture. This makes for an efficient lecture.

  8. #8 uqbar
    November 12, 2009

    First this:


    Have you read Tufte on “The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint?”


    For anyone discussing PowerPoint, Tufte is a “must read;” and if you can manage to attend one of his seminars, it is well worth it.

    I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse – I’ll buy you a copy of the essay if you will blog about it – just email me if interested.

  9. #9 cm
    November 12, 2009

    I’ve tried the following in my lectures:

    1 Written on a white board (rarely do I see chalkboards now)
    2 Used a book’s (or another prof’s) pre-made PowerPoints.
    3 Created my own PowerPoints.

    Of the three, I think I like #3 the best. It is great to be able to post them on something like Blackboard the day before so students can print them out and annotate them right in lecture, and it is nice to have a “record” we can all agree on for the exams.

    They key for me to addressing the “Making slides that can be read later that aren’t stultifying when used in class” problem is this: You do about 60% image slides, about 40% explanatory slides. Before you get to the explanatory slides (you may have to peek ahead and then go back a slide), you verbally introduce the ideas that will be on it, in a conversational way. You then “work with” the students on that for a minute or so, kneading the idea into them. Only then do you reveal the explanatory slide, saying, “And as you can see, all that I just said is here on this slide for you to study from for the exam.”

    It works well for me.

  10. #10 Martin
    November 12, 2009

    Completely support uqbar; read Tufte. He’s a bit ranty but he’s also mostly right. Powerpoint is fine for what is essentially a sales pitch but is mostly completely inadequate for any academic subject.

    Yes it’s *hard* to write more stuff down but that’s why powerpoint is bad; it encourages you (and me!) to be lazy, and just hand the slides around afterwards as if they’re useful.

  11. #11 cm
    November 12, 2009

    mostly completely inadequate for any academic subject.

    “mostly completely inadequate”, huh?

    Bahh–it’s fine.

  12. #12 Tony P
    November 12, 2009

    When I went to college they used to put the powerpoint slides in a shared folder so students could download them if they missed class, or misplaced the printed versions.

    Thing was, if you read the book, and reviewed the slides you could ace the class no problems.

    I am one who has a strong objection to what I term “seat time”. In other words that you have to park your butt in a chair for a period of time when the instructor isn’t really providing any more information than the book and slides already do.

  13. #13 Eric Lund
    November 12, 2009

    Like any other tool, PowerPoint can be misused, and often is. The biggest problem with PowerPoint is that it becomes too easy to try to cram too much material into a talk/lecture, because it is so easy to add one more slide. Overhead transparencies were a finite resource (often in short supply just before a major conference), so my practice in those days was always to plan what my slides would be before I started making them.

    One thing I miss about the “good old days”: You could often use two blackboard panels, or two projectors, or one of each, to leave one thing displayed while simultaneously displaying something else. That capability may still exist in classrooms, but it has disappeared from conferences. My subfield is very heavily data driven, so having the ability to compare and contrast, or devote a full slide to your figure and another to your bullet points, was a major asset that we lost in the transition to PowerPoint.

  14. #14 Carolyn
    November 12, 2009

    Hi, I’m the original student complainant. Thanks for the link and for the remarks. :)

    I’d just like to say that even though posting ppt’s online is helpful for students who missed lectures due to illness, it can also encourage missing class altogether. I’ve had close friends go down this road; they think they don’t have to go to class because all the material is available online, but then they never read the online material. It also devalues the lectures and the lecturers. When I reach the point where I don’t think I have to attend class, I’ve lost respect for that professor.

    I’d suggest that sick students take the old fashioned approach and ask to borrow notes from friends, read the course textbook, and go to the professor if additional explanation is needed. As Neva said above, college students should old enough to handle this kind of thing on their own.

  15. #15 katydid13
    November 12, 2009

    Powerpoint became popular between the time I was an undergrad and a grad student. As someone with mild dyslexia and fairly serious dysgraphia, PowerPoint slides that I could take notes on where a god send. I could spend more time focusing on what was being said and not frantically copying formulas, example problems and graphs off the board.

    I think holding these things hostage because some students aren’t adult enough to figure out that reading the slides and the textbook is not actually the same as going to class is absurd. If they can do well in the class without going to class based on powerpoint slides and the textbook then let them. A well taught class will mean that there is stuff happening that it isn’t on the slides or in the book. Why else would we bother with lectures?

    Carolyn, if your classmates can’t figure out that getting the powerpoints is not the same as going to class they deserve to fail. They are grown-ups and need to act like it. One part of being an adult is learning that lecture notes are not the same as being at the lecture. If they are then you have a bad teacher.

  16. #16 cm
    November 12, 2009


    [Powerpoints posted online] also devalues the lectures and the lecturers. When I reach the point where I don’t think I have to attend class, I’ve lost respect for that professor.

    Where is the necessary connection? That’s absurd. I think you have narrow and yet strong opinions on the very wide parameter space of teaching and learning.

  17. #17 Onkel Bob
    November 12, 2009

    One quibble – never ever read the text? When I taught (as a TA in Art History and Geography) My second slide and was “Four things you should know after this lecture,” and my last slide, “Four things you should take away from this lecture.” I read those 4 things every time. Even the veteran professors said – that’s a good idea. Oh and my quiz/test questions were always taken directly from those four things.
    One good book – Clear and to the Point by Steve Kosslyn

  18. #18 IanR
    November 12, 2009

    There have been educators who have studied this and come up with a format that works better, found here. They call them the assertion-evidence slides. It’s been a while since I’ve read about this…

  19. #19 agm
    November 12, 2009

    I love having whiteboards in addition to projector space. You can leave a slide up, do a “visual mute” (black out projection without power cycling projector), and if it’s a really great arrangement, you can project, combine with annotations. There’s all sorts of ways, and sometimes a slide was just a link to hyperphysics.

    By my third semester teaching I was doing something similar to Onkel Bob’s suggestion, except I wrote it out right before class on a whiteboard and checked topics off as we went. Bonus: the stuff important enough to list but not checked off since I had some good interactive classes gave me a starting point for planning the next lecture or seeing where troubles lay for the class.

  20. #20 John Novak
    November 13, 2009

    I see lots of people blaming PowerPoint and the slides for human failings.

    PowerPoint slides do not, for instance, cause students to skip class. Students cause students to skip class. Students have been skipping class since the 70’s. The 1770’s. PowerPoint has nothing to do with that.

    PowerPoint slides do not cause students to have poor note taking skills, poor reading comprehension, or poor study habits, either. Those have been around since before Microsoft, too.

    PowerPoint slides do not cause professors to lecture too quickly and zoom through the material. I’ve been in the front row of lectures choking on chalk dust (yes, real chalk dust) because the professor was writing so fast.

    PowerPoint slides do not cause professors to write too little. I’ve been in lectures where the professor wrote almost nothing down.

    PowerPoint slides do not cause professors to read directly from their notes or a text. I’ve had professors in a grad level engineering class make transparencies of the book and have the students read aloud.

    All of these things existed before PowerPoint, and they are the faults of individual students and lecturers.

    As a side note, am I the only person who got used to downloading and printing out the slides before the lecture, and taking notes directly on them?

  21. #21 Thinker
    November 13, 2009

    Although I realize it is probably shorthand, I object to calling something a “PowerPoint lecture”.

    It is a lecture, and its purpose* may, or may not, be well served by being supported by visuals. In those cases when it is, PowerPoint may or may not be the appropriate choice of visual support tool. Some of the best lectures I have attended had no visual support at all, and certainly would not have benefitted from it.

    That said, when using PowerPoint, I agree with the Assertion – Evidence model IanR links to. (One of the advantages it has is that it actually supports me in preparing a lecture. If I am not clear in my thinking, it is ruthlessly revealed to me when preparing the slides, which is a whole lot better than having it happen when I present…)

    * Of course, this whole topic reminds me of the old cynical definition of a lecture: “The process whereby information is transferred from the notes of the professor to the notes of the students, without passing the brain of either.”

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