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February 6, 2014

Teaching at Pitt: Make better use of PowerPoint


Who hasn’t struggled to stay alert through a mind-numbing PowerPoint presentation as the presenter reads from lines of bulleted text?

The strain of deciphering text and interpreting graphics while listening to a speaker has led many to equate the word “PowerPoint” with boredom.  In fact, multimedia researcher Richard E. Mayer, who presented at a CIDDE workshop last year, has used the term “PowerPoint overload,” which he defines as “a condition in which the mind shuts down because it is overwhelmed.”

Many faculty members rely on PowerPoint to deliver their lectures, typically using PowerPoint’s built-in templates and cramming as much information as possible onto each slide.  However, many  faculty know that PowerPoint detracts from their lectures and question how best to leverage the program to enhance their students’ learning.

In fact, PowerPoint can serve as a useful tool to help structure a class session and deliver information. Research shows that, when created based on guidelines from cognitive processing research, it can enhance student learning.

Here are some guidelines for ensuring the effectiveness of your PowerPoint presentations.

  • Before creating your presentation, make sure your content for the class session is organized clearly and you have identified the key elements you want to introduce and the objectives you want to achieve. Having a clear purpose for your lesson will set you on a solid track for creating an effective presentation.
  • Use your organizational plan to break the lesson up into digestible bites. The slide sorter view can help you assess how your lesson flows.
  • Write clear headlines, rather than titles, at the top of each slide to orient your viewers to the main point.
  • Avoid text-dense slides. Limit each slide to six lines of text with no more than six words per line.
  • Eliminate everything from the slide that does not support a main idea stated in the heading. Remove text from the slide and, instead, narrate the content.  Research shows that people understand better when words are narrated rather than presented as on-screen text.
  • Use simple textual animations (appear, fade, fly in) to help students focus on the content. Presenting a text-heavy slide without any animation means that students will spend time reading the slide rather than listening to you. They will be reading the third point on your slide while you are still talking about your first point. Use the textual animations to have each point appear when you start to talk about it. This way you and your students will be on the same page.
  • Use brief points rather than long sentences. Research shows students learn more when material is presented in short phrases.
  • When deciding on font type and size, choose a sans serif typeface and confirm that the text size is big enough to be seen anywhere in the room. Headings should be at least 36-40 points; subtext should be at least 28-32 points.
  • Use clip art and graphics sparingly and only when the graphic supports the content. An image that illustrates your main point can help people learn.  However, research shows that unrelated graphics detract from the lecture content.

Creating the PowerPoint presentation is only the first step; delivery is equally important. Make sure that the main event of your lesson is you, not your slides. Your slides should serve as an accessory to your class, not the main attraction. Here are some ways to achieve this:

  • Avoid reading from your slides. If you find that you must read the material, it is usually a good indication the information would be better presented in a handout. Remember, 99 percent of the time you should be looking at your students, not the projection or computer screen.
  • Each slide should take approximately two minutes to talk through, so plan your presentation accordingly. It has been shown that students’ attention fades around the 10-15 minute mark of a presentation. Try to pause every five-to-seven slides for an engaging activity, discussion question or comprehension check.
  • Give students time to process the information. Use the “B” or “W” options in PowerPoint’s presentation mode to make the screen go black or white and use that time to change the energy in the room or refocus attention onto you.
  • Confirm that your talk complements information on the screen. Simultaneous narration and images can enhance learning, but unrelated images and narration require your students to split their attention between you and the content on the PowerPoint presentation. To resolve this problem, give students time to write down what is on the screen before you start talking, or use animation to focus attention on the text that directly mirrors the content you are speaking about.

PowerPoint presentations are easy to update and hand out to students. They allow for integration of various types of media and provide a helpful organizational structure for students to follow.  However, these presentations also can become a crutch, lead to information overload, and overtake a lecture, with students focusing more on the slides than on you. By attending to these strategies and tips, you can create PowerPoint slides that serve as an effective tool in enhancing student learning.

Carol DeArment is a senior instructional designer at CIDDE.