Learning from PowerPoint: is it time for teachers to move on?

How well do students learn when a lesson is mainly in PowerPoint? Henrik Berger Jørgensen, CC BY-NC-ND

For a brief period in the history of teaching, using PowerPoint automatically qualified you as a tech-savvy professor – an innovator who wouldn’t settle for the usual combination of staticky black-and-white overhead films and hand-scrawled chalkboard notes.

Now, it’s hard to believe that PowerPoint was once considered innovative by anyone. Popular criticism includes everything from tongue-in-cheek comments about death by PowerPoint to serious claims that it fundamentally degrades how we think and communicate.

But much of today’s college instruction isn’t in face-to-face classrooms, a setting in which PowerPoint was traditionally used. It’s in the burgeoning field of online learning.

So if more learning is moving online, does that mean that teaching with PowerPoint is becoming a thing of the past?

Surprisingly, the answer is no.

Passive learning through PowerPoint?

Even though there’s little research that directly addresses whether PowerPoint affects learning in college students, critics have questioned its value in educational settings.

Some ask whether PowerPoint might indirectly undermine the quality of teaching by reinforcing a passive learning approach.

We know that lecturing is less effective than alternative methods. It therefore makes sense for teachers in face-to-face classrooms to question how much of their class time ought to be spent on slideshows.

But the fact is “slideshows” remain a popular method for presenting content in today’s online courses.

Technically, these are often not PowerPoints, but decks generated using other types of specialized programs.

And they may differ from standard in-class PowerPoint presentations in important ways.

For example, taking advantage of the increased flexibility of the online environment, they give students more control over how quickly to go through the material and when to backtrack. They can also have more interactive features, such as quizzes, that ask students to apply material while they are learning it.

Even so, the basic – and flawed – idea is the same: put the material in front of students, and learning will happen.

What’s wrong with slideshows in online courses

As a psychologist specializing in teaching techniques and course design, when I talk to faculty about teaching effectively with technology, I sometimes tell them to follow the ABS principle: anything but slideshows.

I’m only half-kidding with that blanket statement.

There are alternatives to using only PowerPoint for instruction. Derek Keats, CC BY

After all, we learn with the same brains in online environments as we do face-to-face; the principles of learning don’t change just because the medium changes. And today’s learning theorists agree: active involvement trumps passive viewing.

Students need to grapple with challenging problems, practice skills, discuss and defend viewpoints. But for this kind of active learning to happen, instructors need to ensure they do not rely too heavily on slides.

There are alternatives: simulations, problem-based learning, even educational games are all proven methods for drawing students in. They also transplant well into online learning.

Using slideshows the right way

So do slideshows have any place in a well-designed online course? Possibly.

They can be used strategically for things they are best at: giving students an overview of new material, or providing a refresher on concepts students will need for an upcoming activity.

Slides are also great for for integrating visual illustrations. This is important because visuals – diagrams, figures, photos and the like – have a powerful impact on learning.

Visual information is almost always more memorable than sound, text or other modalities.

This isn’t because of the now-debunked idea that some people are “visual learners,” but more likely stems from how the brain codes images. There are separate systems for representing verbal and visual information in the brain. When we save information in both places, it is easier to recall.

Teachers don’t have to stick with static images, either. Even basic animations can illuminate conceptual relationships – such as cause and effect, or the unfolding of a process over time – in ways that text can’t.

Furthermore, as University of California, Santa Barbara researcher Richard Mayer has discovered, visuals and the spoken word pair up in powerful ways, so that audio plus visuals produce better learning than either alone.

Research also tells teachers some things not to do with visuals. Instructors should avoid purely decorative graphics, as these can actually hamper learning.

They should also eschew reading text verbatim, instead using a conversational, natural speaking style for voiceovers and verbal explanations.

What this means in the larger context of online learning

In sum, slideshows can be a useful part of online instruction, when used for the right things and designed in the right way. But they shouldn’t be the main, or the only, method of instruction – any more than lectures should dominate face-to-face classes.

But it’s not just instructors who need to hear this message.

Publishing and educational technology companies, who provide many of the tools that educators rely on, can do more to develop products that push beyond familiar formulas and draw on the latest learning science.

We need tools that make it easy to create assignments that ask students to apply what they have learned, in scenarios that are as realistic and challenging as possible.

These learning tools also need to be adaptive, adjusting the material and pace to the individual learner. This kind of educational technology does exist, but far more can be done to expand the available options.

Teaching in the age of technology comes with its own set of opportunities as well as challenges. And online education presents educators and tech developers with a rare opportunity to fundamentally rethink what we do.

Will we use it to explore new avenues for learning, or will we fall back on the the same old techniques that don’t work well in face-to-face classrooms?