Making Peace with PowerPoint

by: Douglas R. Harrison

It’s the Sunday afternoon before classes begin for the new academic year and, having reviewed and revised my lesson plans for the week, I realized that I’ve finally made my peace with PowerPoint.

This has taken more than a little time. For nearly 15 years as a college teacher, I have rarely and always reluctantly used PPT presentations in my classes.

There are two main sources for my reluctance, and they’re related. The first is biographical. For several years before I was an academic, I was a newspaper designer and editor who came of age professionally in the mid-1990s. This was a time when Edward Tufte’s work on data visualization was exerting an enormous influence on the philosophy and design principles of an entire generation of designers and editors.

Specifically (and this is the second point), Tufte has written at length and with surgical precision about the epistemological dangers of surrendering to the facile representational logic of PowerPoint templates. In his famous case study of the corrosive effects of over-reliance on PPT among NASA administrators and managers, Tufte concludes that “slideware often reduces the analytic quality of presentations. In particular, the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis.”

During the first-wave years of PPT adoption, Tufte’s conclusions seemed to be confirmed almost every time someone hit that little slide-deck launch button in the lower left corner of the screen and started a PPT presentation … even and especially in the classroom. PowerPoint too often seemed synonymous with “teacher’s giant teleprompter.”

For me, I vowed never to be the teacher who read from PowerPoint slides in the classroom, and so I effectively swore off PPT when I first started teaching in graduate school.

And that’s more or less where I stayed until a three or four years ago when some leadership and administrative responsibilities required me to use PowerPoint on a regular basis. But even though I’ve been working with PPT regularly for a while now, it’s only recently that my use of PPT stopped being shot through with ambivalence and misgivings.

What changed? First, I started getting to know people who knew how to really use PPT, as opposed to letting PPT call the heuristic shots of a presentation. Second, and more important, I realized that I had effectively overlearned the lessons of Tufte’s work.

So for the record: PowerPoint isn’t evil. Or rather, it’s no more or less effective than the PPT skills of the person using it. This means we all have to take responsibility for how we do – and don’t – use PPT (this was the underlying ethos of a CFI workshop a while back titled “Bullets Kill” … Tufte would have loved that, I think).

In that spirit, here are a few strategies to consider if you want or need to recalibrate the balance of power between PPT and your own thoughts, ideas, and pedagogical practices.

-Less is more and sometimes nothing is even better. Just because you can project something on the screen doesn’t mean it’s necessary or even a good idea. If students can get everything you want them to know off a PPT slide posted on Blackboard (or Canvas or a webpage), why should they come to (or pay attention in) class?

-When people hear hoofbeats, they usually don’t think zebras. A corollary to “less is more,” the point here (and really, this shouldn’t surprise us) is that the biggest stuff in the room gets all the attention. Overhead digital projection in the classroom can too easily create the pedagogical equivalent of a movie theater: it often turns active learners into audiences or transcriptionists, either passively spectating or frantically trying to write down every word on the screen. Either way, the overheard dwarfs everything else going on around it. Even if teachers intend for PPT to be a supplement to other approaches and strategies, even if we say this over and over in class, most of the eyes and energy in the room are going to gravitate to the giant, brightly lit screen in the front of the room.

-It’s often the notes you don’t play that make the best music. One good strategy for preventing PPT from hijacking our classes is for teachers to think about and use PPT slide decks as visual grace notes to in-class lectures, discussions, and other learning activities. Rather than putting the prose definition of a key term on a PPT slide and reading it off the screen, find a helpful visual representation of a complex idea to supplement the discussion of the concept. For multi-part group work, keep a slide up overhead with the sequence of activities and a timer. Get a handheld presentation clicker that allows you to unobtrusively black out the screen without having to walk to the podium while meaningful discussions are developing.

-Know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em. “How is it,” Tufte asks rhetorically in one of his most cogent critiques of PPT as it’s commonly used, “that the elaborate architecture of thought always fits exactly on one slide?” Our classrooms are – because they must be – places where the level of complexity and difficulty regularly exceeds the representational capacity of any mass-market slideware program. Or, to borrow from the Madison Collaborative, “it’s complicated,” and the best pedagogies are the ones that let it be so, that don’t use PPT slides to prematurely summarize, synthesize, or otherwise impose exploration-stunting resolution on productive tensions.

There are ways to make PowerPoint slides that are as visually dazzling as they are intellectually sophisticated. But this takes considerable time and talent. So just as it’s important to admit the limits of our knowledge in the classroom, it’s important to recognize those pedagogical moments when the best use of PowerPoint may be not to use it at all. That way, when PPT makes an appearance, you and your students can be sure it’s worth everyone’s time.

More teaching tips: Check out the CFI Teaching Programs for opportunities to expand your pedagogical reach.

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