Viewpoints

The Promise and Pitfalls of PowerPoint

Michael W. Flamm, March 2008

PowerPoint is ubiquitous. The software program is virtually impossible to avoid, whether in classrooms or conference rooms, board rooms or briefing rooms. In a remarkably brief time, it has become a universal phenomenon (and even lent its name to many other presentation programs). Some advocates even hail it as a new form of cultural communication.
But criticism of PowerPoint is also ubiquitous. Detractors see it as an insidious force responsible for everything from the decline in educational achievement to the collapse of Western civilization. In academic circles, perhaps the most influential and respected critic is Yale Professor Edward Tufte. In The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, he offers a sophisticated and nuanced critique.1 His focus is mainly on the program's templates, which, he contends, erode verbal, visual, and statistical analysis.

Other criticism has been more strident. PowerPoint, we are told, is the "spawn of Satan."2 It encourages passivity and inhibits spontaneity. Students absorb information reflexively rather than think critically. Professors present complicated and controversial interpretations as simple and accepted facts, with no room for alternative ideas or outcomes. As the bullet points multiply and the text slides move to the inevitable conclusion, the speaker becomes disengaged and the audience becomes disconnected.3

PowerPoint no doubt can have negative effects. It can certainly inhibit rather than encourage critical thinking. Technological innovation can stifle rather than stimulate human interaction. But traditional lectures with chalkboard scrawl are often little better. What too many critics of PowerPoint too often fail to bear in mind is that it is simply a tool—nothing more and nothing less. Used well, the program can help motivate students, improve their retention, and organize their notes. Used poorly, it can distract or confuse them. But in the end, PowerPoint remains only a tool—and a good carpenter should never blame his or her tools.

PowerPoint Principles

So how can we use PowerPoint effectively? I have no magic answers or solutions. I can only share what has worked for me and might work for you, assuming that you have not already discovered these rather basic ideas yourself. Here are my three "Principles of PowerPoint":

  • Remember that it is a tool. Presentation programs like PowerPoint should supplement—not supplant—the lecture or lesson you already use. Do not substitute a slideshow for a lecture. Prepare the lesson first—then look for complementary images or graphics to display with it.
  • Remember that less is more. Fewer words will mean more note-taking and less copying. It will also mean more focus on you rather than the screen. Limit the text to the lecture outline and key terms, events, or names, illustrated if possible. Fewer images, carefully selected, will motivate rather than distract students.
  • Remember to keep it simple. Avoid the colorful graphics and "bells and whistles" that delight software designers but often clutter multimedia presentations and confuse the intended audience. Do not conflate education with entertainment.

In practice, I employ PowerPoint to accomplish four basic aims. My first is to enable students to follow me easily as I move through the lecture, which I outline at the start and end of class. At various points I use a slide to remind them of where we are and how the specific information I am providing fits into the general theme or topic. Since I began to use PowerPoint, I have noticed a significant improvement in the organization and quality of student notes, which I always ask to see when someone comes to me in need of assistance.
My second aim is to provide visual reinforcement of key events, figures, or terms, whether with a photograph, illustration, graph, chart, map, or cartoon. In fact, I make a point of telling students that the identification section of every exam will only feature items that I have presented and discussed in class. The students will, however, have to provide a full paragraph of information (who, what, where, when, and why) about the individual or event, which I provide orally. This has led, in my experience, to a significant improvement in student performance.

At the start of every semester, I also present a slideshow that I call a self-graded pre-test or sneak preview of "coming attractions." As the photographs of people and events unfold, without labels but with appropriate music (for example, I use "Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen for my course on "America and Vietnam"), I ask the students to identify the images in their notes. We then review how they have done and I tell them I will present the same slideshow on the last day of class, which I do as a form of review. The results are remarkable—students at every ability level display remarkable retention.

My third aim is to motivate students by displaying the exciting "stuff" of history—photos, cartoons, songs, speeches, radio broadcasts, and video clips. As a professor of modern U.S. history I have an advantage in terms of the materials available to me. But when I began my career as a high school teacher, I had to lug a slide projector, overhead projector, and portable stereo from classroom to classroom—not to mention maps, which I never seemed to have when I needed them. Now I only have to carry either a notebook computer or flash drive with me and I have at my disposal the audio-visual materials for an entire semester.

Why should we bother? Because it is my firm conviction that students become more engaged with, and enthusiastic about, history when we take them beyond the printed word in the textbook or the spoken word in the classroom. History becomes enjoyable and exciting. For example, a popular song from a particular era (such as "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier" in 1914) can often illustrate the public mood better than a verbal description. PowerPoint also makes it easy to accompany the music with lyrics, which facilitates both textual analysis and critical thinking as to how the song reflected and reinforced concerns of the time.

My final aim is to promote the critical analysis of visual sources, which often receive little scrutiny in comparison to textual sources. With PowerPoint I can, for instance, display a photo such as the celebrated "Migrant Mother" taken by Dorothea Lange and then ask why it became and remains an iconic image of the Great Depression. Time permitting, we can also discuss how it was framed and how the choice of what to include and exclude may represent artistic bias or license. In other photos, we can interpret body language, as in the famous image of Robert Kennedy slumped in a chair while Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. How better to illustrate for students the bitter rivalry between these two men that had such a large impact on the history of the 1960s?

Moreover, with PowerPoint it is easy to present images that, as historian Mark Hamilton Lytle recently noted, "problematize our sense of national identity" and contain "multiple narratives and meanings" embedded within them.4 It is also possible to present maps, charts, and graphs without requiring that students bring their textbooks to class. In short, the opportunities for critical analysis abound, limited for the most part only by the imagination of the instructor.

PowerPoint Abuse

Do students appreciate PowerPoint? I have used the program for eight years and have never received a negative comment. The anonymous comments I have received through course evaluations are overwhelmingly positive. Here is a small sample: "It enabled visual learners to get a better understanding of the material," wrote one student. Another reported that PowerPoint "facilitated note taking" and a third commented on how it made the lectures clear. "PowerPoint is a GREAT addition to the class," stated a fourth student. "The pictures help us understand so much better."

Of course, not all students feel that way. A senior at Connecticut College complained to the Chronicle of Higher Education that her professor simply put complete sentences on the screen and then read them. "It didn't really add anything to the lecture. It just made everything more complicated and convoluted," she said. "I call it ‘PowerPoint abuse.' It's pretty widespread." A sophomore at Suffolk County Community College noted that "Sometimes [professors] don't use it to make their points. They use it in lieu of their lesson plan." Another student observed that "the majority [of professors] are taking their lectures and just putting them on PowerPoint. … With a chalkboard, at least the lights were on and you didn't fall asleep."5

"PowerPoint abuse" is undoubtedly a serious problem. But let's place the blame where it properly belongs, on the user and not the program. What those instructors need is training in how to use PowerPoint appropriately. As Howard J. Strauss, the technology-outreach coordinator at Princeton University, correctly put it, "A lot of the stuff that people try to do in smart classrooms is done badly. What we really need instead of smart classrooms is smart teachers and smart learners."6

That's exactly right. Technology is not the solution to bad teaching. Nor is PowerPoint intrinsically the problem. It is merely an instrument to help make us better teachers. The program is by no means the best or only tool in our toolbox, but used intelligently it has the potential to facilitate better classes. If we instinctively reject PowerPoint, we will have done our students and ourselves a disservice.

—Michael W. Flamm is associate professor of history at Ohio Wesleyan University and recipient of the 2006 Bishop Francis Emner Kearns Award as Teacher of the Year. He is author of Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s (Columbia University Press, 2005). He is co-author of Debating the 1960s: Liberal, Conservative, and Radical Perspectives (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007) and The Chicago Handbook for Teachers (University of Chicago Press, 1999). He is currently writing a book on the Harlem Riot of 1964 titled In the Heat of the Summer.

Notes

1. Edward R. Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within (Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press, 2006).

2. John D. Arras, "It's a Simple Game," Chronicle of Higher Education, March 24, 2006, http://chronicle.com/weekly/v52/i29/29c00301.htm.

3. Kathy Johnson, "Is PowerPoint Crippling Our Students?" Learning and Leading with Technology (November 2005), 6–7.

4. Mark Hamilton Lytle, "Pictures that Changed Our Minds: Writing the History of the Sixties from Images," OAH Magazine of History (July 2006), 36.

5. Jeffrey R. Young, "When Good Technology Means Bad Teaching," Chronicle of Higher Education, November 12, 2004, 31.

6. Ibid.