PowerPoint: In Memorium?

pptLast weekend, a world-renowned University of Oxford professor stunned me when he told me he had never used PowerPoint. Realizing that small group teaching is at the heart of Oxford University’s pedagogical approach, I could see that it might not be necessary here – but not to have used it ever? What about conference presentations? Open days? In stark contrast, a quick straw poll of our MSc in Psychology cohort for this year has just revealed that they have never had a teaching session without  PowerPoint or Prezi. I know that all of the seminar speakers visiting our Department this year have also used this technology in their talks. In light of this dichotomy, I am dedicating this blog post to thinking about the use of PowerPoint* in teaching at university.

Initially, the emerging literature on PowerPoint was glowing. Researchers noted that when there was variety in the slides presented (Clark, 2010) and relevant text and images were presented (Bartsch & Cobern, 2003) PowerPoint could be an effective learning tool. With regards to Psychology, Erwin and Rieppi (1999) compared the effectiveness of multimedia and traditional classes. It was found that students in the larger multimedia class averaged higher grades than those in the traditional classes.

However, other research showed that the relative benefits of PowerPoint over the more traditional “chalk and talk” lecture might be illusory. For example, Savoy et al. (2009) showed that students preferred PowerPoint presentations, but retained 15% less information from such lectures. Relatedly, Amare (2006) assessed students’ written performance, after delivery  using PowerPoint versus traditional lecture, and found better performance with traditional lectures.

Of course, when it comes to such research it can get quite messy. Neither the assignment of students to lectures versus seminars, nor the group size were controlled for in Erwin and Rieppi’s paper and in Amare’s study traditional lectures were accompanied with handouts, whereas the PowerPoint lecture was not. The controls in each study (and many others) were wildly different from one another. Thus the jury is out when it comes to the effectiveness of PowerPoint over other teaching methods.

That aside, it remained troubling to my mind  that while some lecturers did not use PowerPoint at all, some cohorts of students apparently receive very little but instruction by PowerPoint, at least as far as group teaching sessions are concerned. So, it was a surprise when I attended the Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference 2015 #bltc15 yesterday, and was met with – almost no PowerPoint. The closest I got was an image of an umbrella – and a list of discussion questions.


So what happened instead? Well, the first session was led by @georgeroberts as a “walk and talk”. We took to a lane behind the university campus as a group, and ambled along it, taking it in turns to talk to the topic of inclusivity in education. In other words, we thought about inclusion in the classroom, outside the classroom – and perhaps, as a result, outside the box. For what it is worth, participants felt that their ideas flowed more freely in this setting, and it’s certainly one I would like to add to my arsenal for my next seminar (British weather permitting….).

Next was Isis Brook’s keynote, also delivered without PowerPoint. One of my colleagues admitted to being perturbed by this. I will admit to finding it more difficult to concentrate on what was said, without visual clues if my mind wandered. But – the session was far from dydadic –  questions were asked about our own experiences for intermittent discussion with colleagues.

cliffordThe afternoon gave way to further discussion about culture shock and mental health in international students, and included a guest appearance from Clifford the Elephant (the elephant in the room who visits events to open up conversations about mental health). To be more specific then, the afternoon was spent listening to students’ experiences (sans computer), to playing a game of human diversity bingo and to (re-) meeting Clifford and the issues he represents. Barely a slide was in sight.

So we come to today. Which must be these MSc students’ first experience of a large class teaching session without PowerPoint. We’re running a “shut up and write” group, to help them with their assignment motivation. On balance, as a participant and a teacher, I think I prefer teaching methods that don’t involve PowerPoint …I’m about to find out what my students think of it all. …

*Other presentation software is available.


One thought on “PowerPoint: In Memorium?

  1. This is an interesting blog post. I am not surprised that the benefits of PowerPoint over ‘Talk and Chalk’ are illusory as ‘Talk and Chalk’ is just a low tech version of PowerPoint. As tutorials are usually for a small number of students and do not use presentations, at what quantity of students does it become necessary to start to use presentation software. ie at what quantity of students does a tutorial become a lecture/seminar? Perhaps it depends upon the topic or subject. For Philosophy or Social psychology, presentation software is not needed. If the topic is mathematical in nature, then some form of presentation media is needed otherwise it may not be fully understood by the students.

    To answer the question you posed, I would say that it depends on the topic being taught. It will also be worth considering if lecturers can deliver a lecture without the aid of a PowerPoint presentation. or would it be better to see what is the minimum number of slides that are needed to deliver a lecture? Is one slide too many?

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