Why learning from PowerPoint lectures is frustrating

I’m in my third year of college now, and by this point I have the hang of determining what constitutes a good class and a bad class. In a good class, I have fun and learn a lot; in a bad class, I don’t have a good time and don’t learn very much. For me, receiving a good grade has nothing to do with whether the class is good or not. My first instinct is to judge a class’s quality on the material: my freshman year, I enjoyed my Japanese classes much more than my English classes, because reading literature and writing papers about it doesn’t excite me nearly as much as learning about Japanese pop culture does. However, subject matter being equal, the biggest influence on the quality of the class, and sometimes the most frustrating, is the teaching style of the professor. Some students just learn better from different styles of teaching than others. Recently I came to the conclusion that I do not learn well from classes in which the lectures are based on PowerPoint presentations.

Professors who use PowerPoint tend to present topics very quickly when they don’t have to do anything but talk. If every example and every diagram is on the screen, there isn’t much time for me to take notes on the subject of each slide. Lectures aided by chalkboard visuals are easier to take notes from because I can write what the professor writes on the board at the same time. Also, because there is usually more chalkboard space than screen space, if I am behind on note-taking, the visual will probably still be on the board for me to copy a few minutes later. A lot of professors try to solve this problem by handing out the lecture slides before class, or by posting them online. While this is great for a lot of students, it doesn’t work for me because I learn best and am most engaged if I have to take notes as if my grade depended on having a great record of the class and I would never see the material again. In classes with handouts, I tend to zone out and have to work harder to pay attention. Studies have shown[pdf] that taking high-quality notes improves organic memory: I rarely use my notes after the lecture because the act of physically writing information down helps me remember more of what goes on in class.

Another problem with PowerPoint in class is that many textbooks now come with ready-made PowerPoint lectures for each chapter. The problem is that when the professor does not make the presentation, they run the risk of sounding like they don’t know what they’re talking about. My current Operating Systems professor suffers from this. As each new slide comes up, he takes a second to read it and then starts with, “Okay, what this slide is talking about is …” or “What they mean by this is …” As opposed to explaining the material himself, it sounds like he just expects us to read the slides, and then let him elaborate. The primary instruction comes from the slides, and he just backs it up. The best professors, in my opinion, give primary instruction themselves, and let the screen be the backup. At first I thought this man was just a lame professor, but it wasn’t until he decided to lecture on a topic outside the textbook that I realized he really did know what he was talking about; it was just that the slides were holding him back.

I understand that there are times when having PowerPoint slides are appropriate, and even absolutely necessary. I can’t imagine taking an art history class, for example, without works of art being presented on a screen to the class. However, there are cases that could go either way. In quantitative classes where half the lecture might consist of doing example problems, the temptation exists for professors to put entire problems in the slides. This makes the presentation easy for the professor, because he or she doesn’t have to take extra time to draw the problem on the board. Also, by taking extra time to prep the slides, it’s less likely that there might be mistakes made in class by students or professors (I’m sure we’ve all spent hours wondering what happened with that example problem that just went awry.) What helps me most, though, is doing problems step by step as a class. When it’s all finished for you, the steps taken to find the solution are harder to follow. When I’m taking notes, I can make step-by-step instructions I can use for homework later.

This is to say nothing of professors who just don’t know how to use PowerPoint well, a problem that is by no means limited to college classes. So for you professors out there tempted to lessen your workload by making one presentation you can use for the rest of your tenure, please reconsider. I will thank you for it.

Update (2/6/10): If you liked this article, you may wish to read my follow up on what kind of lecture I do prefer.

  • Kevin Schultz

    Hear hear! Well said. Thank you.

  • http://yesterdaywasnotdull.wordpress.com Cordelia

    I completely agree with everything you said. In classes with Powerpoint presentations, I find myself frantically copying down all the points from the slides before they evaporate from the screen (even though I know full well that I can view them later on the course website). As a result, I often don’t pay enough attention to what I’m writing.

  • commenter

    “Lectures aided by chalkboard visuals are easier to take notes from because I can write what the professor writes on the board at the same time.”

    I always thought lectures where you spent the whole time taking down what the lecturer was writing on the blackboard were a crazy waste of time. When you’re trying to capture what’s being said onto paper you don’t have time to actually listen to the lecture.

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  • http://www.propr.ca Joseph Thornley

    Over the years, PowerPoint has masked sloppy thinking. The problem is that PowerPoint bullets mask over the ambiguities in the way that is impossible in well written prose. So, the thinking in many PowerPoint presentations has holes built right into it.

    I graduated from university in the 70s. Back then, lectures needed to stand fully on what the professor could convey with her spoken words and what the student pulled from the readings.

    In my business, I suggest to everyone that they read Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds and develop PowerPoint slides that are bullet-free and present images that embody the point the speaker is making. We then produce well-written leave behinds for those that want to read more later.

    If I as a speaker can’t make my point with the spoken word, eye contact, and some evocative images, I simply shouldn’t be in front of an audience.

  • Eric G

    I have been a Computer Engineering student for 3 years at 2 universities and in every engineering class I have ever taken the primary form of instruction was power point. I agree that power point is a good tool for instructors to use, but when power point presentations replace the professor, there is a problem. Several of the professors that I have had speak very poor English, and use power point as a crutch. They can read what is on the slide, but when someone asks a question that requires a non trivial explanation, the professor’s poor mastery of English prevents him (or her) from articulating the response properly. I would be so relieved to take a class where the instructor actually instructed the class, instead of just narrating the power point presentations.

  • Dude

    Thanks for the insight. I am starting as an Adjunct Professor in Jan teaching network security in the evening. I am glad that I read your blog as I am presently developing my coursework and will keep in mind all the comments presented – BTW – I too hate powerpoint centered classes.

  • Jon B

    Well, here’s a point of view from the other side of the table… I’m a CS professor, and I have a horrible memory, so to make sure I don’t forget anything, I use powerpoint presentations on a regular basis. Now, I create all the PPT slides that I use, so I do have an actual mastery of the material. I also can’t stand the instructors that use the PPT provided by the book publishers…

    I put everything that I want to cover on the slides, and they are way too verbose. I post the slides online later so no one needs to write anything complicated down if they don’t have time. I usually tweak the PPT every semester to make sure its fresh and fix the parts I didn’t like from the previous semester.

    In a typical lecture, I’ll cover the PPT information in about 45 minutes, and then after that I show code samples that the students and I work through from start to finish so the concepts can be seen in real-world examples.

    I’m trying to move away from using PPT so much, but for many of my classes, there isn’t enough information in the book and there aren’t any books that I’ve found that properly cover everything the students need to know. Thanks for the comments!

  • http://www.espressosoft.com John

    Thank you! I’ve been railing against this to any prof that will listen to me. I was a dual CS-Math major as an undergraduate and there was a remarkable difference in the quality of lectures given by math profs who use the old chalktalk method, and CS profs. Most of this, in my opinion, was not due to the skill of the lecturer but in his/her choice of lecturing medium. I hope some professors out there will take note.

    Good supporting article I remember reading a couple of years back:

  • Winch

    I recently graduated from a university with a BS in Geology. For the most part, every class that was primarily taught using power point, I did poorly in and/or struggled in the class. To complicate this, I also found these classes to be taught by foreign professors that struggled to explain things to us due to their various accents and difficulties speaking English (This happened to the worst extent with my Chemistry courses). Fortunately, my geology professors were of the old-school variety and wrote out everything on the board and were born and raised in the US.

    In short, professors should teach from their knowledge, not second-hand via a power point presentation.

  • Jim P

    I’m a graduate mechanical engineer, and I experienced very much the same as what Eric G had to say about poor English skills. My very worst classes were with professors who could barely speak English, which is inexcusable for someone whose job hinges on being able to communicate complex topics.

    That said, I fully realize that producing quality lectures is tough, and you’re generally dealing with an even tougher crowd. I don’t know which is worse: having to scribble notes down frantically with no time to understand the content, or taking home pre-made notes that allow you to not pay attention or skip lectures entirely. I think the classes where I learned the most were ones where there was some interactive component, and the notes were a natural by-product of the activities, or given as a reminder of what happened, but you’d have to be dreaming to expect that of every class.

    Taking these out of the equation, the quality of lectures for me ultimately correlated with the enthusiasm of the professor. If a lecturer was able to convey their love of the subject, it was far easier to pay attention to what they were saying. The droners and narrators were the worst by far; you could tell they were there because it was a requirement for their placement, and all they cared about was getting back to their research. It’s pretty tough to get drummed up for a subject if it appears as though the expert hates it more than you!

  • A.

    I am a college lecturer and I absolutely refuse to use PowerPoint. A good class (of any kind) that is well-taught should be a conversation. I don’t care if we’re talking Calculus or Anthropology or Literature.

    Important parts of the conversation are written on the board. That indicates importance and tells my students to write as well, and it illuminates the relationships between things that I write, because they see the order that I choose, the position (on the board) that I choose, and the lines that a draw between things as I write them.

    Conversation is important simply because no two classes are the same; different groups of students have trouble with different parts of the material; a good instructor is willing to talk through this, shift the focus of the lecture or the balance of time split between points so that the trouble areas are given more time, the areas the class understood easily less time.

    PowerPoint doesn’t allow for either of these things. The information appears on the slide ready-made; there is no indication of what the most important points are, how they all connect together as a thread of thought, or how we “got there” (how we arrived at these important points as a matter of thought process and context). There is also no room to adapt; what is on the slide is what the class is about, in those proportions, take it or leave it. Slide 6 that was difficult gets as much time as slides 1-5 and 7-10, which the class had no trouble with. Nine slides of boredom, one slide of frustration in which everybody feels as though the concept wasn’t clearly illuminated.

    Beyond this, lecturers that use PowerPoint tend to do so simply because they have stage fright. It’s basically an indication that they won’t be talking to, engaging with, or making eye contact with any students today. Naturally, that means that students will feel more as though they’re watching a tremendously boring program on TV than attending a class they’ve paid rather a lot of money for.

    Not good, for all of these reasons.

  • Matthwe

    The problem is not Powerpoint. Before there was Powerpoint, there were overheads. I had the same issues in college. The prof went over the overheads too fast, or they were another prof’s overheads from a previous semester.

    The real problem is that less people take notes so profs don’t have to wait for people to finish. We couldn’t print out overhead notes that were barely legible in class. Also nobody asks questions so the prof doesn’t need to know the material.

    Lastly, none of us were ever trained how to make/present slides or take notes off said media. If we did learn something about Powerpoint 10 years ago, then it is probably considered wrong now. I’m talking about us old folk. I’m sure that there is some sort of education now.

  • Phil

    I couldn’t disagree more. Sloppy lecturers are sloppy lecturers and powerpoint, if anything improves them a bit!

    I went to uni right at the cust of the first profs using PowerPoint (or similar), 1996-2000. My first degree was taught all in chalk, my second degree and all subsequent courses I’ve done in PowerPoint.

    Back in the old days I used to spend all my time copying down what was on the board instead of listening to the lecturer. Have you tried to read maths in chalk from the back of a 200 person lecture hall? Not easy! If you have PowerPoint slide you should be making occasional notes in the margin, nothing else – that’s the whole point! The rest of time is spent listening, not copying. I might write 10 sentences/equations an hour when using PowerPoint.

    For mathematical subjects I can’t tell you how important it is in ironing mistakes out of proofs and examples too.

    Long live PowerPoint (well, in this context at least!).

  • HikingStick

    I served as an adjunct professor of technology, and I couldn’t agree more. I believe the problem can be summed up as an over-reliance on PowerPoint. I through most of my years of teaching, I minimized the use of the canned presentations that came with the books (my final year forced me to use them more due to a change in available technologies and the student group, but that is a different story). I taught mostly adult students, so we would typically start with discussions of the general field brought to the table by the students themselves. I’d connect these back to the reading (or, as we progressed, the students would do this more and more). Then we’d examine aspects of the topics that were not covered in the textbooks. I typically would pull out those canned slides from time to time and would “fly” through them, mostly because we had covered all of the materials already. If I saw something of note in the slides that we had not covered in our other activities, I would stop, switch back to the whiteboard, and go from there.

    The key to using PowerPoint is that it was intended to be a supporting tool for a spoken presentation. It was never intended to take the place of a lecture, to become a handout with all of the information, or to be some avenue to show off an insturctors skills at adding sound effects and clipart. A good slide should serve as a memory aide to help students recall the content of the lecture. Many have already written boatloads of information with tips and tricks for making PowerPoint and similar multimedia tools useful. I’ll present a few that bear repeating here:

    1) Slides should have no more than 4-6 bullet items, or a short blockquote (of equivalent length). If you need to decrease the font size to fit things on the slide, you have too much information.

    2) Unless emphasizing a key term, never use the exact wording of your lecture as your slide content. It also could be said as “Don’t read directly from your slides.”

    3) If including graphs or charts, zoom in only on the important areas. Better yet, re-create the graph or chart to fit the slide. If you ever have to say “Those of you in the front can see…” or “Those of you in the back might have trouble seeing…”, then the graphic is not suitable for your presentation.

    4) Use transitions and effects sparingly. Otherwise, they can become a distraction. Pick one transition style (other than “Random”) and use it for all slide transitions.

    5) Whenever possible, engage the audience in the discussion–show them, ask them, or do something unexpected–keep their attention on you, and not on the screen

    If I were placing these on a slide, they might appear like this:

    – Only 4-6 bullets per slide

    – Slides are reminders – Don’t read directly from the screen!

    – Visual elements must fit – focus on what matters

    – Limit transitions and effects

    – Keep their focus on you, not on the screen!

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  • Revenant

    I think the problem is that no one requires professors to continue their education and training. When PowerPoint became a mainstream teaching tool college professors should have been required to become certified on PowerPoint’s advanced functions/operation and appropriate use/design. I am a full time student and work full time. I use PowerPoint in my job everyday and wish so much that I could spend one class teaching my instructors how PowerPoint is supposed to be used.

    Great post!

  • http://imalloverthemap.com Sam

    You’ve been linked to on /. Welcome to your 15 minutes of interweb fame. : )

    I’ve also passed the /. link on to everyone in my department, with the hope that some will take time to read and heed what you’re saying, as I see canned PPT in the same light that you do.

    Good blog post. Thanks. : )

  • Richard

    While it is important that there are opportunities for you to use your different learning styles, you have to realise that there are others that learn differently to you.
    You may find it best to take notes on everything that the professor is saying – there are others for whom it will be most productive to sit and listen intently and not taking any notes at all.
    The problem seems to be then, not the PowerPoint itself, but the pacing that the professors use. If they are to do problems on PowerPoint, they should have the steps appear gradually as they are working through the problem, and use the appropriate pacing, to ensure that students have the opportunity to follow the problem.
    As for not having handouts of the PowerPoint slide, or their availability being in some way a disadvantage for you – I would say it’s time to grow up. You are an adult and responsible for your own learning. If you know that you learn best by taking notes, then take notes anyway. The availability of the notes after the class will be something very positive for many others, and to request that they not be available for your sake is to fail to recognize the learning needs of others.

  • Greg

    I’ve been a computer science professor for many years at a very good university, and in most of my classes I try to *only* use slides for images or diagrams that are so complicated or precise that I would not want to reproduce them by hand. Everything else is either me talking or writing on the whiteboard. Sometimes I have handwritten notes to remind me what topics I wanted to cover.

    My students, for the most part, HATE this. It completely turns their expectations of a class upside down. After a few weeks, I start getting a deluge of “when are the slides going to be online” from the students who never attend class and don’t realize that there aren’t slides. Even students who *are* in class complain bitterly that they don’t have “anything to study from”. I’ve had students complain (in groups, sometimes with signed petitions) to my department chair and to my dean, saying that not providing slides creates (and I quote from one recent complaint) an “unreasonable expectation of attendance and/or note-taking”. I have fielded angry phone calls from PARENTS saying that their student isn’t doing well in my course because I’m not providing him/her with the “expected study aids”. None of this is made up.

    I’ve seen identical behavior from freshmen in a required core course, seniors in a high-level elective, and graduate students in an automata-theory course. At least in the automata course they have a textbook so wonderfully clear that they really *can* learn the material from it (Sipser, and no I didn’t write it). They all crave powerpoint and suffer withdrawal when they don’t have it, because it means they have to engage in (and go to!) the lecture and not just try to cram from the slides at the last minute.

    When I receive these complaints, I explain as patiently as I can that these are precisely the reasons I eschew slides, and why I value the attention and dialogue that writing and extemporaneous speaking facilitate. I think students get the point, but they didn’t come to college to think, try, and learn. They came to college so they could get a degree so they can get a job, and anything that stands in their way must be stopped.

  • Benjamin

    I am taking a C# class at my local community college. I get nothing out of the class. The instructor uses Web CT for grading, submissions, and announcements.
    His lectures are all Powerpoint Presentations. He didn’t write the presentations. He downloaded them from the same place I did, the textbook publisher’s website. No new material that is not in the book or on the powerpoints is introduced. The only reason I go to class is because he will display a screen shot of what he wants done in the programming assignments.

    As a tuition paying student I should get more out of class than what I would get if I just phoned in (well I am not using a dial-up connection, but you get the idea.) my assignments.

  • Shannon Francis

    One issue I have with power point, specifically related to CS-type classes, is the fact that much of what we do doesn’t always lend itself to ascii and there isn’t really a decent set of symbols for it. Explaining recursive grammars or processor pipelining isn’t so tough to do if you can draw out lots of examples and work some proofs on the board, but becomes difficult when you have to use a keyboard to do so. I’ve never been a fan of “Wall O’ Text”-style teaching using power points, I generally put significantly less emphasis on attending classes where I know the teacher just reads his or her presentation. Even if they explain it some I can get the gist from the slides and pick up the rest from the Internet and other classmates. What happened to 3 10ish word lines of text per slide? Is it too much to ask for the people we pay so much for an education to actually explain these things to us verbally, to PROFESS them to us? Sorry this has been a pet-peeve of mine for years….

  • Brian

    Congrats. you made it on slashdot.org!!

    You are right on. As a former science teacher and a current engineering grad student, powerpoint has made a mess of education. Having used it, I can say it makes things so much easier, but you don’t get the results of a chalk board lecture.

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  • Mike

    Hi, while this is a well written post…. I was wondering if you could present it in PowerPoint for us?

  • Scotland Tom

    PowerPoint, to me, simply represents some of the undercurrent laziness that runs through the American educational system. Why am I paying hundreds of dollars to take a class that’s nothing but a series of PowerPoint presentations backed up by a textbook? I can find the same (or similar) presentations for free using nothing more than a Google search, and there is nothing stopping me from buying a used textbook and reading it on my own.

    I recently decided that it might be interesting to learn a programming language. Guess what? Instead of spending thousands of dollars on Computer Science classes at a university and grad school (like a good friend of mine did) I found libraries of information, lessons and examples that I can educate myself with online. I have to say the experience of self-education, at home, at my own pace and on my own time has been extremely refreshing and surprisingly enjoyable.

    If the educational system wants to win me and my tuition money back then they’d better be able to offer a richer, more nuanced educational experience, complete with instructors who know how to make individual lessons compelling and classes in general worth remembering. In order to do so I suggest PowerPoint presentations be used situationally, like any other tool. You don’t use only a screwdriver to build an entire house and you shouldn’t use PowerPoint to teach an entire class.

  • http://www.decconsultores.com Néstor

    Hi, thanks for your post, I’m a Lawyer professor and consultant in Colombia – South America, and I recently had the most difficult group of postgraduate students (over 25 years old), with your post I understand that was because I augmented the use of PP Slides hopping to provide more information for my students, but it was a failure, now I’m going to go back to my old method TYJC “talking, yelling, jumping and chalkboard”.

  • Chris

    Powerpoint Presentations are passive learning. Unless the professor makes the PPT available for later access, it’s a total waste of time for everyone.

    I feel the same way when I attend conferences. My first reaction is to make sure the PPT will be available on a website, so that I can relax and follow the presentation, at least for the first 15 minutes!

  • Paul

    I’m a University of Illinois professor who started out using Powerpoint slides seven years ago and have moved back to using the blackboard for most things for precisely the reasons you mention. I still use Powerpoint to show certain images and plots that are too complicated to draw in a reasonable amount of time, or for short movies. But mathematical derivations, sketches of conceptual relationships, simple drawings, and lists of categories or topics seem to go over much better when I have to take the time to write them (thus slowing me down) and the students have to write them down (which helps at least some of them remember). I put my notes on our class web page, so students who miss something can find it there.

  • CS

    /. thanks you for your great post :)

  • Pedro

    I completely disagree. On regular chalkboards presentation, it is really hard to make the diagrams in a way easy to read. However in Power Point there are there, they have colours that fully help me to read them. And I do not need to worry to try to understand professor hand-writting, because they should be using an standar font.

    You have a learning-style that requires you to write-down. However, banning the use of Powerpoint just to suit your learning style is really a selfish approach. Perhaps you could record the proffessor lecture and then at your home you can write it down.

    Having the slides previously printed save me a lot of time of hand writting, and avoid me to have problems on my wrist.

  • Mathias Ricken

    I like chalkboard lectures much more than PowerPoint presentations. I actually like the fact that teachers sometimes make mistakes when they write on the chalkboard. It actually shows problem solving. Also, to be able to work through problems on the chalkboard actually requires teachers to be very familiar with the material.

    That said, I’ve done a decent amount of teaching myself, and for many short lectures, it is just easier to do PowerPoint. PowerPoint lectures usually aren’t great, but they are safe. I wish I had the guts to work without safety net on the board more often.

  • Jason

    Maybe a different way to think about it would be get the slides beforehand, spend a few minutes thinking about them and then when you go to class you could concentrate more on what the professor was saying? Not trying to be argumentative, but just trying to give another way to work with this current trend.

  • Jack

    It depends on what subject you are teaching. I teach intro to tech courses and most of my students have very limited background in technology. There are many new terms and concepts that they need to learn. So I select the best book I can and make sure that students with main different language can read the book as well. I depend on them to read read and read their primary book and PP is just to help them to review their materials. They usually take an outside independent test and do very well. It is working as long as they are motivated to read.

  • Katherine

    I agree with what Greg said (10:05). I recently taught a course for the first time, so I used someone else’s powerpoints only slightly modified. They were not my style — too many words. But, the professor had won many teaching awards and the content / logic of the slides was excellent.

    One student (of 100) gave the feedback you are giving, which is also the feedback I would have given myself. Too much powerpoint, too many text-only slides (even though I never had paragraphs of text). Meanwhile, a lot of students complained the times I had very sparing text on the slides, or I included some slides in the presentation that were not in the version they got online. These were, in my opinion, the better points of the course. Because of the course content, they sometimes needed a surprise in lecture. The print-out gave too much away. But all of the students wanted it. Through crappy powerpoints, we have conditioned students to expect a certain type of class that is NOT as good pedagogically. Frankly I’m not exactly sure what to do about it, other than continuing to go against students’ wishes at my own peril.

  • David
  • Em

    Well said. You are 100% on the mark. Enjoy your 15 minutes of fame from being slashdotted!

  • hn

    well, the positive effect of powerpoint is: you don’t have to actually go to the class. I have two classes with slides available online, and have never been there after the first lecture.

  • John Smith

    I love it. And I bet I know which O/S PP notes you are talking about too. The ones that are provided with the ‘industry standard’ text on O/S that is delivered in 9/10 of colleges world wide are shocking. They leave very little room to improvise or talk around the subject, and either contain a single graph without axes labels (in many cases) or a mass of seemingly unconnected bullet points in many others.

    How do I know this? Well I am a young Professor that has been given the job of delivering O/S to my students. I would love to redesign the course in my own way and using my own experiences, but the problem is that I am delivering 4 other modules this semester. There are simply not enough hours in the day for some of us my friend! I come up with current examples and provide a minimum of 3 pieces of additional reading per week, e.g. iPhone and the SDK this week. But I can do no more… It takes hundreds of hours to write a 40 hour lecture session/ projects/ midterms/ finals/ continuous assessment and the associated paperwork for the sept. admin. Don’t mean to whine and I am not that far from my own Uni that I have forgotten my student experience, but now I have been on the other side of the dry wipe marker I am a little more forgiving.

  • Mike

    PowerPoint or not, copying down on paper what is said in lecture is itself an important part of the learning process: it ensures that you actually pay attention to the lecture. It also makes sure that the lectures are actually at a pace where you can absorb them.

    That the notes also serve as a record of the lecture is nice, but it’s actually secondary.

  • http://www.joegaudet.com Joe

    I couldn’t agree more, my worst experience was a prof that taught Control Systems entirely in powerpoint. This class has an unholy amount of high(ish) level calculus going on in it, and the prof in question did the formula derivations in powerpoint… “And you can see we easily move from this equation, click click click, to this equation.”


  • Jon

    Your prof is most likely being paid and evaulated on his skill as a researcher and grant-getter, with teaching coming third and service ot the university last. He’s to busy writing grant proposals and papers to prepare your class properly. This is why canned powerpoints and poorly prepared lecturers are so common. If you get a prof who is truly engaged knows what every slide is because he wrote every slide, and connects directly to students with innovative and exciting teaching, that’s a prof who will either a) never get tenure or b) is not on tenure track, and therefore doesn’t know if he will have a job next semester, and will never get tenure.

    That’s not an indictment of the tenure system, grant-grubbing, etc. Compared to other systems that are more humane (Europe for example) the product (that is, you) is better here, in the end. The tenure system also produces better research. You my disagree, but the long-term effect of all that research is to keep your prof close to the cutting edge of his field, which keeps you there too. That IMO is the #1 reason why, when you see the bigger picture, the crappy lectures by tenure-track profs (like me) benefit you in the end.

  • David G.

    I really enjoyed many of the posts and discussion. Having spent several years as a professor, I am glad to see that my aversion to canned lectures was actually valuable insight.

    I want to bring attention to the fact that the Powerpoint problem extends WELL beyond academia. I find that overly complicated Powerpoint slides are COMMON in business and the government. I concur with one of the posters that they represent lazy thought.

    Here’s a challenge to this community–What are some of the worst things you have heard in reference to a presenter’s Powerpoint slides?

    My examples:
    1. I know that this is an eyesore chart, BUT… (I total disrespect you as an audience and will use it anyway!)

    2. I prepared this presentation for a different audience, SO… (I will have to skip slides, etc.)


    Cheers! :)

  • G

    It definitely sounds like your issue here is purely an issue with your professor’s pacing of his lecture. I have almost 100% powerpoint lectures and have had no problems due to the fact that most of my professors cover each slide in depth and used examples outside the PPT.

    PPT presentations in College have been invaluable to me as I have a hard time keeping up with professors when they are writing notes on the board and it cuts down on the time I have to actually listen to the lecture itself.

    As long as the professor is pacing himself properly and is interacting with the class I see no problem with having all your presentations in PPT.

  • http://www.whyhire.me Patti Church

    So glad that my colleague forward this post to me.

    I am a part-time prof at a local community college. Like many profs, I have been handed decks of powerpoint slides to use in class. As a part-timer, this makes life easy for me. Many part-timers have other jobs and businesses on the side. Time is a huge consideration for the little money we get paid to teach. BUT…..

    Powerful learning experiences come from engaging your audience (can you tell I’m a marketing prof). With so many different learners in a room you have to mix things up. To get my classes attention I have to look at my classroom as a stage. The experience has to include many elements including text on screen and off (blackboard), videos & websites, small group interactions, large group interactions, interactive assignments using new social media technologies and more.

    There are days when I don’t have the time or energy to put on ‘the show’ but I can tell you that when I do, the experience is much richer for both me and my students.

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  • Matthew

    I saw the same problem in 1997 when I was in my 4th year at Ohio State, of .ppt lectures being harder to learn from, mostly due to the act of note-taking being a learning experience. (I also hated the waste of paper that was printing the slides, especially when they weren’t 4 to a page and double-sided).

    At least things haven’t gotten much worse in 12 years. :-)

  • Janelle

    As a recent college graduate, I’ve had both good and not-so-good PP using professors. One of the best classes I took, the prof used the “canned” PP presentations, _but_ REQUIRED us to do the reading prior to class. She would not give us copies of the slides, went through them pretty fast (too fast for note-taking) but would refer to where the material was in the book and say “you should have read this already” …her lectures were an elaboration of the book material, and she used the PP as a jumping off point for real-life situations. I feel I learned a lot in that class, and, she expected us to! That said, we had a newer edition of the book than the slides were for, so we sometimes encountered difficulties with page numbers and such.

    I took a statistics class where the prof wrote her notes on an overhead for us, so we were sure to have time to copy them. I don’t believe they were available expect via office hours otherwise.

  • Frater Plotter

    Have you read Edward Tufte’s essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”? Tufte is a statistician and graphic designer who specializes in the visual presentation of data. His criticisms of PowerPoint mirror many of yours, but he goes into greater detail with abundant examples. Tufte’s argument is that PowerPoint constrains presenters to a specific “cognitive style”, or way of structuring information, that is “contrary to serious thinking.”

    One of his points is that PowerPoint as a tool is designed for sales presentations, not for academic or professional work. As such, it does not allow for the presentation of anything but the simplest propositions or visualizations of data: sales presentations are intended to sway the audience, not to inform. The low resolution of projector screens prevents the display of detailed visualizations. The low number of words that can fit on a slide limits the writing-style to the bullet-outline format, a spare and disconnected style which makes it near-impossible to present complex ideas, chains of causality, or subtle reasoning. As a statistician, Tufte specifically attacks “chartjunk” — the use of low-resolution, distorted charts and graphs, which conceal rather than elucidating information.

    As an alternative to PowerPoint, Tufte recommends that presenters prepare printed handouts — which can be composed with actual sentences and arguments, citations, and high-resolution graphics — and distribute them to the audience at the beginning of a talk. This is similar to the academic practice of distributing lecture notes, but need not be constrained to the restrictive format of the slide deck and bullet points.

  • http://www.cs.otago.ac.nz/cosc345 Richard O’Keefe

    I’m a CS lecturer. I have my own SGML markup for slides and a tool chain for producing PDF or HTML slides and separate notes. See http://www.cs.otago.ac.nz/cosc345/ for details. Many other people use PowerPoint. When I talk about things that are not on the slides, and stop to write
    things on the whiteboards, I get bad evaluations for “digressions”. In papers where I don’t
    produce slides at all, but do provide notes, examples, copies of papers &c, and write on
    the whiteboad, again I get bad evalulations for “not being organised” (defined as having
    PowerPoint slides with bullet points.) Tell me how to do
    chalk-and-talk without being punished for violating student expectations and I’ll be all ears.