I banned PowerPoint – and I’m a better teacher for it

No more do my students sit passively taking notes as I progress through my deck

Going without PowerPoint has forced lecturer Paul O’Donovan to go “back to my tools”. Photograph: iStock

Going without PowerPoint has forced lecturer Paul O’Donovan to go “back to my tools”. Photograph: iStock

 

I banned PowerPoint in my undergraduate classes.

No longer do I enter my classrooms and crank up the giant projection system to show my slides. Not any more do my students look up to see those bullet lists and standard templates on the screen.

No more do my students sit passively taking notes as I progress through my deck, occasionally providing some light relief with an animation or clever reveal. All that is gone and good riddance. I rejected slides and I am a better teacher for it and, more importantly, my students are the better for it too.

PowerPoint has had a bad press, perhaps deservedly so. Why do so few people eagerly anticipate a slide presentation?

Edward Tufte, writing in The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, blames the default format of the tool for damaging effective communication.

In this brilliant work, he shows how the PowerPoint default style truncates evidence and thought, imposes a single-path hierarchical structure on all types of content, breaking up the narrative and data into fragments.

In addition, he suggests that its corporate origins and attitude of commercialism turn everything into a sales pitch.

Harvard Business Review is pithier, stating that the bullet list format makes us all dumb. But how does this seemingly innocent tool generate such offence?

Critical thinking

Marshall McLuhan observed that we shape our tools and then our tools shape us. Tools are rarely neutral. They silently change the way we live and work. The smart phone changes our dining, classroom and even commuting behaviour.

In a similar way, the default design of PowerPoint changes the lecture through its smooth facilitation of the bullet list.

In doing so, it subtly invites the lecturer to foreshorten what is to be learned into a list of points.

These points stand alone and must be joined up in class through the lecturer’s narrative so that the presentation make sense to the student. Accordingly, the narrative of the lecture is adjusted to fit the list. Much is lost in this contrivance.

Students, too, experience some negative consequences. Newman said universities should help students “to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyse”.

PowerPoint however, encourages students to see learning as points in the slide deck. These points are displayed in class, memorised by the student, and then regurgitated later at examination time. University ought to develop critical thinking in the learner. It must leave behind the memory test that is the Leaving Certificate and instead should prepare students for a world that requires them to think.

More preparation

In my classes, PowerPoint was getting in the way of better student education, so I banned it. Classes without PowerPoint are more effective, but they require more work. Now I spend more time designing sessions.

My classroom is “flipped”, meaning that more preparation by my students is essential. They can no longer sit passively during class; rather each session is replete with student activity through presentations, debate, and peer evaluation.

Lectures are short, punchy Socratic affairs supported only by whiteboard or chalkboard. Students perform role plays, mini dramas, game shows and even create videos to show in class. After each performance, students evaluate their peers in spoken and written formats. It is a busy space.

The results are gratifying. Students perform better in examinations being better able to contextualise the knowledge acquired in class. Some early grumbling at the loss of their PowerPoint “comfort blanket” was soon replaced by a wide acclaim for the changes.

In a post-course survey, students overwhelmingly agreed that this process engaged them much more than the slide deck approach used in the past.

Going “slide-free” has changed my classes, my students and me – for the better. I have more and better debates with students about the important issues that arise from the activities in class.

I get to know my students better, their names and how they are progressing during the module.

Going without slides has forced me to go “back to my tools”: the tools of the teacher. I can see the point in that.

Dr Paul Donovan is a lecturer at Maynooth University’s school of business