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Columns

They've Got the Power

Professors could benefit from better PowerPoint technique

By Adam R. Gold

Nearly everyone, from college students to corporate executives, has had to suffer through a tedious PowerPoint presentation, and Harvard is no safe haven. Too many teachers simply throw their bullet points onto a series of slides and read them aloud during lecture. Presentations can be riddled with unnecessary indenting, confusing abbreviations, and misplaced italics. Worst of all is when lecturers flip quickly through PowerPoint slides crammed with complex equations or lengthy passages from the reading.

By PowerPoint, I'm not referring specifically to the Microsoft brand but to the general category of slide software that includes Apple Keynote and various open-source solutions. The problem is not even unique to computerized presentations, although projector slides and overhead transparencies don't as easily lend themselves to reams of text.

The evils of bad PowerPoint presentations are already well understood. There have been many articles on PowerPoint topics, such as the military's overuse of the software. The scholarship thus far has concluded not that the format is inherently bad--well-designed PowerPoint presentations are essential for large classes—but rather that many practitioners make the same egregious missteps.

By far the most widespread misuse of PowerPoint is to put bullet points on the lecture slides. Since people can read faster than a presenter can speak, students will read ahead and then zone out once the slide has been read. The bullets also encourage the professor to read simply what is on the slide, rather than prepare a more fleshed-out speech, and leading students to wonder why they couldn't just read the slides to themselves in the comfort of their dorm.

Using PowerPoint simply for bullet points is downright lazy, and may stem from a more general problem of professors not putting enough effort into preparing for class. However, the solution isn’t hard to come by: rather than bullet points, PowerPoint slides should be intended primarily for images and visual concepts, and they should complement, not than replace, a well-rehearsed lecture.

Professors who post their lecture slides online after class have another reason to limit their presentations to visual, rather than verbal, information. If the slides simply consist of the lecturer's notes, many students will opt to skip lecture and cram from the slides before an exam or paper. Not only will the professor drive students away from class by giving boring, redundant lectures, but the lecture slides act as a complete, downloadable study guide that can be a perfect substitute for going to class. By contrast, if the slides are more like a list of provocative images that depend on the lecturer to provide meaning, students will be much more willing to attend class to get the information they need for exams.

Furthermore, a well-designed slide deck still needs a dynamic presenter to make the lecture effective. Far too often, lectures are conducted in darkness to help students see the slides, when ideally the lecturer should be well lit, as it is his or her body language and gestures which should help connect the slides to the speech contentcontent of their words.

Harvard has so many presenters who truly understand the strengths and limitations of PowerPoint that the few who get it wrong look especially bad by comparison. Law professor Lawrence Lessig is known for his ‘crackerjack’ technique, called the "Lessig Method", where he rifles quickly through hundreds of slides, each containing only one idea or phrase to punctuate his prepared speech. Sometimes the right choice is no PowerPoint at all. Many professors in upper-level math and science classes wisely stick to using the blackboard, since they realize that slides should be for visuals, not for complex equations that can be difficult to even read, much less understand.

Bad PowerPoint presentations are more than just tedious; they can directly impact learning. A class made up of poorly designed presentations may prevent a student from engaging with the material and may cause that student to switch majors.

Students should use the power of their enrollment choices and Q feedback to reward effective PowerPoint usage and punish those who abuse it. Professors who are particularly adept at designing presentations should advise others in their department. And anyone who thinks it is a good idea to use yellow text on a red background shouldn't be allowed 200 feet near a classroom.

Adam R. Gold ‘11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a physics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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