Volume 12, Number 9 January 7, 2005

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PowerPoint slammed as poor teaching tool

Lee says it leads to lazy teachers, lazy students and not much learning

By Colleen MacPherson

Professor Jeremy Lee

Professor Jeremy Lee

Photo by Colleen MacPherson

"Power Corrupts. PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely." - Wired magazine headline, September 2003

As PowerPoint mania continues to roll through boardrooms and classrooms everywhere, one professor here has planted himself squarely in the path of the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut.

Jeremy Lee, a U of S biochemistry professor and self-proclaimed chalk-and-blackboard kind of teacher, sees few redeeming qualities in Microsoft’s popular presentation software, particularly as a teaching tool. In fact, “if you turn your back on a (PowerPoint) presentation, you might actually do a lot better at getting the information.” It’s not a very popular stand to take, but Lee takes it anyway in the belief that PowerPoint inevitably leads to lazy profs, lazy students and lazy public speakers.

To make the case against the technology, Lee first points to the frustrating technical difficulties that regularly plague presenters. In the Department of Biochemistry, where PowerPoint first appeared a few years ago in presentations by senior students, “we as faculty just had to groan” at every technical problem. They now require the students to test equipment in advance.

“These problems are something I’ve observed around the world. One conference I was at was running two hours behind schedule because every speaker had a glitch.”

Even more frustrating for Lee is seeing reams of information compressed onto PowerPoint slides that have a limit of about 40 words. That means “leaving out an awful lot of useful and interesting data”, and what information is there is usually reduced to bullet points that lack verbs.

Arrows are too often used in place of verbs he said, leading to “tremendous confusion on the part of the audience” because the meaning of an arrow is ambiguous. It could mean, for example, leads to, or increases, or links with. And while the presenter may verbally explain the bullet, “the audience is fixed on the slide, not the speaker, so they often don’t hear what’s said.”

In a 2003 New York Times story, Edward Tufte, an information presentation theorist from Yale, describes bulleted PowerPoint lists as a "faux analytical technique that sidesteps the presenter's responsibility to link the information together in a cohesive argument."

That same New York Times story notes that the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board investigating the February 2003 loss of the space shuttle states the NASA engineers looking at possible wing damage on the shuttle "presented their findings in a confusing PowerPoint slide so crammed with bulleted items that it was almost impossible to analyze". According to the report, senior NASA managers could well have read the confusing slide but not realized "that it addresses a life-threatening situation".

And, according to Lee, it is very difficult to carry an idea from one slide to another. It's a matter of what Lee calls information density. "Most people speak at between 100 and 160 words per minute. If you're giving a talk, you can speak at that rate and that's the information density you can present. With PowerPoint, the information density is much less, about 40 words per slide. The information content is way too low, about a third of what it would be if you were speaking, and that's what we're teaching our kids."

Powerpoint cartoon

The PowerPoint “trap” of reducing everything to titles and bullets is almost as frustrating as the opposite but still “extremely irritating” practice of putting too much information on a slide. The result is that charts, graphs, illustrations and diagrams are flashed, he said, but not taught.

“In biochemistry, structures are extremely important. I require students to know those structures and reproduce them on a piece of paper. You will never learn biochemistry if you can’t reproduce them and with a PowerPoint slide or on the web, you can stare at them until you are blue in the face but you won’t be able to draw them. You need somebody to teach you those structures.”

Lee teaches them by drawing them on the board. He does also use overheads but only because he can draw on those too. For Lee, his few attempts at using PowerPoint in the classroom just haven’t worked: “I inevitably walk away from it and draw something on the board. I can’t help myself.”

Pre-PowerPoint, Lee said he would have provided his audience with a handout of structures or graphs to refer to during his lectures, “but the attitude now is that you can’t possibly use paper”. Instead, today’s students expect lecture notes and what would have been handouts to simply be transferred from PowerPoint to websites for them to access at their leisure, something this professor refuses to do.

It’s a popular but “very destructive practice,” he said. “The result is that students don’t come to class, and they can’t get as much information on the web as they can from a lecture. I know it makes me very unpopular and it takes students a little while to get used to my style but in the end, I get very good ratings as a professor.”

Many professors see PowerPoint as an easy way to teach, he said. What it is, in fact, is “an easy way to give what appears on the surface to be a very good presentation but it’s not an effective teaching tool.” Speaking in front of a group, whether in the classroom or the boardroom, is hard work, he said, and very few people can capture an audience’s attention away from a PowerPoint slide long enough to ensure they get their real message across.

As if that weren’t condemnation enough, Lee named a couple of other things that “drive me nuts” about PowerPoint: speakers who read to the audience directly from slides; and that special effect that allows slides to be revealed line-by-line: “It’s like a strip tease and you’re forced to read at the speed the presenter can click the button.”

Asked about students being encouraged or expected to use PowerPoint in elementary and high schools, Lee said he finds the thought of it “abhorrent”.

"Elementary school PowerPoint exercises…typically consist of 10-20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of three to six slides - a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something." - Edward Tufte, "PowerPoint is Evil", Wired magazine, September 2003.

As he's watched the use of PowerPoint grow in academia, Lee admits the younger professors "hopped on the bandwagon much faster than us old fuddy-duddies" but now, he's seeing some hopping off again. "Many of the younger faculty I work with are realizing that it's not a good way to teach", and even senior students, in their twice yearly presentations designed to improve their speaking skills, are using fewer and fewer slides. Simply summarizing data and flashing it on a screen indicates to Lee that "people aren't thinking about the message they're getting across."

Despite knowing he's in the minority on the PowerPoint issue, Lee has no intention of caving in to the 'have technology so must use technology' attitude.

I know it's like a steamroller. You can't stop it, but I do my best."

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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