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.

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  • http://www.nrzee.com ali0482

    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.

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  • Hydra5

    Thank you so much for your comments. I totally agree with you!! I teach AP Bio which comes with a set of power point lectures for each of the chapters, and when I meet with students,many tell me how bad it is when their teachers let the powet points run the lesson. The power points do not nearly present the information, just copies of charts and diagrams that appear in the book. I just wish my colleagues would TEACH the material and let the power points SUMMARIZE their lectures at its conclusion.

  • Hydra5

    The issue as presented, is that teachers are NOT teaching, they are simply reading off the content of the power points and not really explaining what is going on.

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  • franzhansi

    # David Hardman

    Monkey see, monkey do…

    You can use a model for education, where you talk about personas/roles (not in a psychological manner): The Matter Expert, the Facilitator, the Leader, the Host and finally the Moderator.

    Most problems with PP and especially in higher education, is when the educator is not aware of these roles and tends to over emphasize their Matter Expert dimension. This can be, because they don’t feel comfortable with the other roles, and therefor stick to their known primary role. However, as a student all of the aspects are importent for a good learning experience.

  • diamondheart

    yeah but students if they do the reading should have known what is going on. I agree though that because teachers don’t teach , students have to spend more studying hours OUTSIDE of the classroom to catch up and pass the class.

  • Arun

    I could not agree with you more. Unfortunately, I too suffer in classes where I have to look at Powerpoints. I like being engaged in a class. The problem is, I love science but every lecture I have has powerpoints with about 50 slides per lecture and almost every diagram on the slide. On top, these lectures are only 50 minutes long. So no more than one minute is spent on a slide with so much information. As an international student, I feel very bad for those who experienced this very boring approach to learning for most of their lives.

  • Hannah

    I completely agree with this! I’m currently very frustrated with one of my professors teaching totally off powerpoint. And to make matters even worse, she has us print out our own outlines to go along with it and fill in the blanks. I’m spending all my time just writing down the random words before she switches slides and can’t focus on anything she’s saying! I have to re-learn absolutely everything at home because class time is wasted in my opinion.

  • Joey

    If you tend to zone out when profs hand out copies of slides, why don’t you just set them aside and take notes since you know that works for you?

  • Spencer

    Thank you! It is so good to hear this from a student’s perspective.

    As one who’s done a pretty good job w/ PowerPoint in appropriate other contexts, I’m just coming off my rookie year teaching intermediate microeconomics to 200+ students and made the rookie mistake of relying on slide decks, both my own and (worse) those created by my textbook’s publisher. Ugh. (A sentiment echoed in more than a few course evaluations.) Wish I had trusted instinct and Tufte kicked the PowerPoint crutch to the curb a year ago. Swearing off it for all future lectures (I hadn’t used it much at all in other, smaller classes). As others have said, I can always post the publisher’s slide decks and students can use those for review — then it’s up to me to add value through the lectures.

  • How do I economics?

    You (like so many of the students I TA for) are blaming your own poor note-taking skills on your teachers’ use of Power Point. Whining like this (directed at the professors I TA for) is the primary reason I intentionally avoid Power Points. Unfortunately, the students – like you – fail to learn the lesson I intend to convey. I inevitably get a new chorus of whining that my presentations are 1. unorganized (they are not, my lesson plans are fixed), 2. don’t get through all the content (duh, I have to write/draw everything live), and 3. difficult to keep up with (that’s your failure at note-taking, not mine). The slides are a digital file; quit whining, you’ll get them later, and you need to improve your note-taking skills to work around this concept.

  • MN

    Just like you, I’ve found I have trouble learning from Powerpoint slides, too. Unfortunately, almost every single professor in university I’ve had classes with used Powerpoint slides. Now I don’t mind it in certain aspects, like if a professor uses it to supplement their lecture, but I absolutely hate when they fill the slides with content and then go through them too quickly. In one of my summer study abroad class, my professor goes through the slides (which covers what he says verbally in-depth) way too fast and doesn’t give time for people to copy what’s important down (he doesn’t upload PPT slides, either, which makes it frustrating).

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    I realize that I am extremely late to this conversation, but I have the same problem! I can’t learn “Computer Logic and Organization” from PowerPoint slides, and I’m dying in my “Security in Computing” class because of these slides. However, I am handling my programming classes (I’ve had 4 of them) well and I also understood “Computer Architecture” because my professor wrote out his notes on the whiteboard.

    I don’t know if you guys will receive notifications, but does anyone have any tips for digesting information from PowerPoint slides?

  • julie kwen

    All of my professors this semester just read from ppts and I can confirm that this is the most horribly atrocious learning experience that I have ever had. I don’t have to take notes, but now I have to memorize pages and pages of detailed information. There’s no interaction with the text or engaging conversations, they’re just very dry classes…but then again these are science courses so I guess we are suppose to “just memorize huge bulks of info.” I’m just sad for my parents who are paying the overpriced tuition thinking that I’m learning something….