Why learning from PowerPoint lectures is frustratingNovember 7th, 2009
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.