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PowerPoint Bad For Learning 439

cute-boy writes "This article in the Sydney Morning Herald reporting on research done at The University of NSW suggests the use of Microsoft PowerPoint (and similar products) in lectures and meetings actually makes it harder to absorb facts, rather than being a reinforcement of key points."
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PowerPoint Bad For Learning

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  • by toleraen ( 831634 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:02AM (#18605361)
    Is it PowerPoint's fault, or the fault of the Powerpoint creator? I always hate it when someone dumps all the information onto the slide, because it does make it hard to follow along. Whenever I do a presentation, the bullets on my slides are extremely brief, usually no more than 4-5 words. I want people to look at the bullet, see I'm going to be talking about Topic X, and then listen to what I have to say. This allows people to take notes as necessary and it allows them to pay attention to what I'm saying.

    I thought it was common knowledge that creating a presentation with brief bullets was the "proper" way to do it. There's no point in even doing a presentation if you're just going to read off the slides, you may as well email it out and not waste people's time.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:03AM (#18605391)
    I've been seeing crappy slideshow presentations longer than computers have been around. Don't get all anti-MS FUD crazy again and start blaming this on MS: the problem is with the presentation format, not the application.
  • Slides? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by locokamil ( 850008 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:03AM (#18605393) Homepage
    Where's the powerpoint displaying the findings?
  • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:05AM (#18605447)

    Power-point presentations can backfire if the information on the screen is the same as that which is verbalized, because the audience's attention will be split between the two.
    This is a bit more subtle than "PowerPoint bad"; it says you shouldn't simply verbalize the slides. Interesting to me, because my style is to do exactly that. I find if my slides are too broad, my extemporaneous speech tends to wander, so I try to put the sufficient detail in them, and stick to them. Uh oh!
  • by yoghurt ( 2090 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:10AM (#18605545)
    It's not powerpoint the software's fault (although I am not a big fan of it) that such briefings are so lousy. It's the format. Having bulleted slides as your format makes it very difficult to convey complicated information. Using a better piece of software than powerpoint won't help that.

    The problem, as I see it, is that you want to present two or three complicated parts and then explain their interrelation, but then you can't fit it all into one neat slide.

    A paper or article can discuss much more complicated things than a powerpoint presentation can simply because you can see more text and figures at one time in the article. This makes it useful to refer back and you can describe the complex interaction of parts.
  • by davek ( 18465 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:10AM (#18605565) Homepage Journal

    "It is effective to speak to a diagram, because it presents information in a different form. But it is not effective to speak the same words that are written, because it is putting too much load on the mind and decreases your ability to understand what is being presented." [Said John Sweller, from the university's faculty of education]
    I've noticed this a lot in my academic and professional life. The moment a person gets up with his shiny, animated powerpoint slides, and then proceeds to READ ALOUD the bullet points he's showing to me, I immediately mark him as an idiot. If you can't even rephrase yourself, then you don't have much of an idea of what you're talking about.

    However, this guy isn't decrying the effectiveness of visual aids. We can thank Dimitry Martin for that proof (observe his visual aids when explaining the google/viacom spat: http://www.jimmyr.com/blog/Google_Youtube_Viacom_L awsuit_89_2007.php [jimmyr.com]). The point is you must describe what people are seeing, not just "here's a picture of an apple!"

  • by bmac83 ( 869058 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:11AM (#18605591) Homepage
    Putting more words on your slides also keeps you from looking at your audience, which in an educational setting means probably ignoring when your students aren't well engaged, paying attention, or even comprehending what you're saying. I have had situations where it was as bad as the dusty math professor who writes on the board and never looks back to take questions.

    You also have the factor that presenters who feel their slides are self-contained may not be as motivated to prepare or practice their delivery and speech beforehand. In my experience, the most text-heavy presentations are prepared by the professors/presenters who wish to make a "golden set" of slides last them for 5+ years.
  • by vertinox ( 846076 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:17AM (#18605711)
    Is it PowerPoint's fault, or the fault of the Powerpoint creator?

    I can't remember where I heard it, but if you need Powerpoint to explain a point or to keep the audiences attention then you just aren't a very good presenter.

    Now I've given Powerpoint presentations myself, but usually to show screen shots of how an application works. Even if you are the greatest speaker in the world, you can't really describe menu structures to people and hope for them to remember it without seeing the application.

    But my bad habit was to just 'next' all through the bulleted text and tell the audience "Oh these points... Don't really matter..."
  • by qwijibo ( 101731 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:17AM (#18605713)
    7) Send out the presentation ahead of time.

    Some meetings seem like college classes where everyone is copying down pages of notes about what is being displayed instead of listening to what is being said or actually trying to comprehend the subject matter.

    Also, know your audience should be on that list. I've seen way too many presentations where someone is going into painful implementation details with management people who don't understand the implementation, don't understand the details, and only want to distill a 10 second sound bite out of the whole presentation.
  • Re:Oblig. Tufte (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hijacked Public ( 999535 ) * on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:19AM (#18605757)
    Tufte is correct about a lot of things related to data presentation, but I think he lets Powerpoint become the focal point for a lot of his complaints that would be better directed elsewhere.

    He doesn't like Microsoft style graphs. While you can create a graph from inside Powerpoint, you are actually doing in in MS Graph (or some similar name). He doesn't like 'chartoonery', but that isn't Powerpoints problem either. Gaudy slide backgrounds and car crash noises probably fit though.

    What he is actually unhappy about is more that many people trade in visual tricks for good quality data and analysis. You can hide the fact that you entirely missed the causal variable in your analysis of rocket motor O-ring failure if you enthrall the audience with little rocket motor shaped pictures on your graphs. A more accurate title for the essay you quote might have been "The Cognitive Style of Computer Software", because there are a whole lot of bits and pieces of programs that go into making all these stupid presentations. Tufte will even admit that Powerpoint is just fine for feeding slides to your projector, just don't actually create content in it.
  • by LibertineR ( 591918 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:22AM (#18605821)
    Just to expand my point,

    If a presenter is reading their own slides, it is a dead givaway that they dont really know the subject matter. If a presenter only glances at a slide to see where they are, need to skip ahead, or spend extra time on a particular point through prior audience request, then you have a hope of learning something from that person, which IS THE POINT.

    You are not supposed to be learning from the slides, just getting information about what you are hopefully going to learn from the speaker.

  • by loafing_oaf ( 1054200 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:26AM (#18605909)

    Right. I read Tufte's rants on PowerPoint when I was in college, and that was quite a few years back. I agree with his disappointment with PowerPoint [edwardtufte.com]. Of course people can make worthwhile presentations with it. The problem is that PowerPoint sort of encourages people to focus on everything but the actual information.

  • by RichPowers ( 998637 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:27AM (#18605949)
    Graphic and layout design is not easy. Why do you think so many websites look like crap? For the same reason most PowerPoints do: few people have the talent to effectively organize and present information. I've worked on a few publications and have some Photoshop/InDesign classes under my belt. If I must, I can create a decent slideshow that doesn't make people slam their heads against the table in frustration :)

    In skilled hands, PowerPoint can be a powerful tool. But it can just as easily ruin a meeting or presentation if the user doesn't know what he's doing...
  • by DragonWriter ( 970822 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:49AM (#18606429)
    If you RTFA, you'll note (once you get past the the typical spin in the first couple 'graphs of any newspaper article) that the substance is not that PowerPoint, or presentation software more generally, or even, more generally still, using visual aids in a presentation is ineffective or hurts retention.

    Its presenting exact same information in the same manner (i.e., the same words) in multiple different formats simultaneously hurts retention. As John Sweller states in TFA:

    It is effective to speak to a diagram, because it presents information in a different form. But it is not effective to speak the same words that are written, because it is putting too much load on the mind and decreases your ability to understand what is being presented.

    Of course, anyone who has taken a basic speech class that discusses effective use of visual aids would know that's exactly the wrong use of a visual aid, computerized or otherwise. So, while its interesting research that reveals that what is widely accepted by experts in the field of communication to be a bad practice is actually demonstrably counterproductive to recall rather than merely an annoyance to the audience that isn't an optimum use of resources, its not any kind of particular blow against PowerPoint, presentation software, or visual aids in presentation, just further reinforcement that having an easy-to-use tool to produce and display visual aids doesn't replace understanding how to effectively use them.

  • by Rob the Bold ( 788862 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:51AM (#18606457)

    Microsoft is at fault for making people with no training in presentation whatsoever think that thanks to Powerpoint, they can make one. They explicitly market the crap that way, and the thing does nothing at all to enforce good slide design.

    Yes. Powerpoint is pretty much the Saturday Night Special of presentation "aids". There were plenty of bad presentations back in the olden days, but at least the format forced you to consider what you were doing. When slides were actual 35mm slides or overhead projector transparencies ("foils" to some), you couldn't just cram your whole presentation verbatim onto those without noticing the heft of the stack, or the pricetag at the print shop. Even guys who were insulated from this by their secretaries at least had the benefit of having the secretary prepare the slides for them.

    Of course, there's nothing you can do about it, short of sabotaging your local "powerpoint projector".

  • by sammy baby ( 14909 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @12:10PM (#18606795) Journal
    Likewise. God, that prof was horrible.

    Once my friend and I realized that he was just reading the textbook, we started leaving fifteen minutes into the class, just to make sure we weren't missing anything. Once he complained about that being "rude", we started alternating, bringing other work to do in class, or just not showing up. Can't say it made a lick of difference.

    Side note: on top of all that, it was a 200 level class on Data Structures, and the prof spent the first several weeks of class telling us how to comment our code. He returned the first of five assignments we'd turned in on the last day of class, at which point I realized that every project I'd done in the class had been "miscommented." "You know," I told him, "it would have been really useful to know you didn't want me to comment them this way before we had to turn the second, third, fourth, and fifth projects."

    He shrugged. "Sorry." Ass.

    (Sorry. Venting complete.)
  • by mdielmann ( 514750 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @12:28PM (#18607119) Homepage Journal

    They are a visual aid, designed to allow you to display visual information. That means slides like charts, graphs, photographs, logos, etc. When you're discussing something that lacks a visual aid, the slide should show nothing more than the topic of discussion.
    But how will I use the 700 features in PowerPoint, especially the 30 new ones in the latest version?

    The answer, of course, is "don't".
  • by lahvak ( 69490 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @12:30PM (#18607143) Homepage Journal

    One day the overhead was broken. Without a blink of an eye he picked up a piece of chalk and began lecturing the old fashioned way, writing down stuff on the blackboard. The prof was transformed from a deadly boring lecturer to an absolutely fascinating speaker. There was much more class interaction and I learned way more in that class than in any previous class.

    I think this perfectly illustrates the problem with Powerpoint. When you watch a lecture with blackboard and chalk, you actually see the ideas develop on the board (if the lecturer is doing a good job). The lecturer can go back and emphasize certain parts of the text or graph, circle things, even erase parts of equations and change them to something else, you can actually witness the analytical process the lecture is trying to convey. In addition to that, you will actually see the lecturer in person interact with the text, graphics and data, which I believe can greatly help your learning. Powerpoint just isn't good at emulating that sort of stuff, and that's why I never use it. Sometimes I use various LaTeX presentation packages, that make it relatively easy to do things like develop equations and formulas step by step, emphasize selected parts of equations, build graphs and diagrams step by step etc. It's not perfect, but it's definitely better than what you can do with Powerpoint. Paradoxically, even with all the animations, fancy transitions etc, 99.99% of Powerpoint presentations end up being much more static than a good chalkboard lecture.

    There is also another thing that I believe is nicely illustrated by your example. Experts on human learning seem to agree that people learn better if the environment in which they study changes. Which means that a lecturer should every once a while change his or her presentation style. Using slides one day and chalkboard another day, perhaps depending on topic that is covered, can definitely help your students to learn. Too many professors have their own routine (I do too, it's just so easy to do that) they follow each lecture. Students then come to the class, make sure that everything is the way it's "supposed to be", and turn off. They make a routine out of it, too. A sudden change as the one you describe can bring them back, break their routine, and precondition (I hate that word here, but I can't think of anything better right now) them for absorbing the material better. Even if the actual delivery on that day isn't any better, at least it wakes some of the students up!
  • by tomz16 ( 992375 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @12:31PM (#18607155)
    It depends on the ultimate use for the slides. I have dozens of binders, and gigs of powerpoint presentations on everything from classes that I took, conferences that I went too, and projects that I worked on. I VERY frequently refer back to them. I create and give presentations to others every week or so, and frequently use my own slides as a reference for myself in future work. If the slides had nothing but pictures and figures on them, they would be absolutely worthless. There HAS to be at least a sentence or two on each slide in order to jog your memory about what the presenter was saying, and give the context to the content.

    Ultimately, in my experience in academia and industry, powerpoint serves a dual purpose as both a presentation tool and a communication/archival tool. In fact, for every formal report I submit to or receive from NASA, a dozen or more powerpoints have zipped back and forth. I usually find the content of those slides exchanged and presented informally WAY more useful than the contents of any actual report.
  • by mrchaotica ( 681592 ) * on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @12:53PM (#18607553)

    Once he complained about that being "rude"

    I would have complained right back that it's rude to read from the book when he's supposed to be teaching! And then I would have gone to the dean of students or the registrar or whoever and demanded a refund of my tuition.

  • by Infonaut ( 96956 ) <infonaut@gmail.com> on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @01:03PM (#18607687) Homepage Journal

    Speaking of Edward Tufte, check out 'The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint: Pitching out Corrupts Within' for an excellent critique on the misuse of PowerPoint and a primer on the best way to use this tool.

    At the core of Tufte's argument is the notion that PowerPoint (and other slideware) encourages intellectual laziness on the part of the presenter, because it allows a presenter to build a presentation around the software, using it as a crutch. Instead of thinking through complex information and then determining how to augment the oral presentation with selected PowerPoint information, most presenters dumb down the subject matter for PowerPoint. The result is a presentation that has been dumbed-down to suit the needs of the software, not the audience. The presenter is happy, Microsoft is happy, but the audience is not being well-served.

  • by Khelder ( 34398 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @01:17PM (#18607961)
    If you really want to give a bad talk, merely using PowerPoint may not be enough. If you neglect Dave Patterson's advice [berkeley.edu], you might inadvertently give a good talk after all.

    More advice from Dave Messerschmitt [berkeley.edu].

    Re: PP, I agree with some other posts I've seen here that PP can be used badly or well. Most of the aweful PP talks I've seen would have been just as bad (and possibly worse) with another technology.

    That said, it's not as though all tools for a given task are equivalent. I'm a lot more likely to make a long straight cut using a table saw with a guide than I am using a hand saw without a guide (and possibly even with).

    In this regard, I don't think PP is nearly as bad an offender as MS Word, because Word makes it far too easy to do bad things, like ignore styles, and hard to do good things, like use styles instead of one-off formatting. (In fairness, it seems to be improving, but is still a far cry from, say, FrameMaker from 1992.)

  • by Nicros ( 531081 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @01:30PM (#18608171)
    Great idea. And then they would have said, "No problem! Drop the course and take it later we will refund the cost of the class."

    And then what would happen? You would be short of a full load, waiting to take the class the next quarter/semester. Praying the whole time that the asshole isn't the ONLY guy who teaches that level 200 course.

    Not to mention also praying that the course is offered at all in the next quarter or semester!

    If either one of those things turns out to be true (which is almost certain), Then YOU are the ass, as you will end up delaying your graduation date because of one prick and one class that you couldn't handle.

    In a perfect world we go to college to get educated and you would spend the 10 years there battling it out with the adminstration to get the education you deserve for your money.

    In reality, most people just want to graduate so they can get on with their lives.
  • by tomz16 ( 992375 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @01:32PM (#18608199)
    The first sentence of my post says that it depends on the ultimate use for the slides. Keep that in mind as you read my reply.

    This, however, is the problem in many ways. The small amount of text in these sorts of slides is hardly enough to actually communicate the point. Reading someone's powerpoint slides and trying to infer or remember what they were saying is usually rather difficult.
    I disagree completely!!! From my experience slides that are shared among people with a common background are usually trivial to decipher with very minimal text. When one of my colleagues or coworkers either presents or sends me a set of slides, chances are good that I will know immediately what they were getting at. ESPECIALLY, if they provide me with a sentence or two on that slide to reaffirm my initial assumptions.

    Furthermore, once I have taken a class, and sat in on the lectures, I find that I am easily able to decipher the powerpoint slides afterwards if the presenter gave me a bullet or two to jog my memory. In fact, I have taken several extremely technical classes for which there exist very little published works, and NO TEXTBOOKS. NONE! ANYWHERE! The bulk of the knowledge in these subjects exists only as a set of slides and the experience of the presenter(s).

    I am definitely not arguing for doing away with formal written works. I AM arguing that slides have their place, and in my experience are actually a highly efficient method of communication between colleagues AND in a student-teacher relationship. That is simply the opinion of someone who uses powerpoint slides as a reference on a daily basis, and has actually been a student most of their lives.

    A set of slides is no substitute for a good written presentation of the material. If you want slides make slides, and if you want people (including yourself) to remember the details of what was presented then provide a proper written document as well.
    That is perfect in the fairytale world where everyone has unlimited time to do nothing but write formal reports to each other. In the real world, very few of my ideas make it past my whiteboard to even get into a presentation. Even fewer of those get written up in any formal way. My collection of powerpoints outweighs my stack of peer-reviewed papers, formal reports, and patents, by several orders of magnitude. Very little of the stuff that is highly compelling or mostly speculative is ever formally written up until it enters the realm of the mundane. In short, if you want to read about the stuff that was exciting 5 years ago, I have a few carefully written papers for you. If you want the latest and greatest results from me, you are getting a powerpoint with a few bullets, and maybe a brief e-mail or conversation in the hallway. I know many will argue that this state of affairs sucks, but that's just the way real life works...
  • by alienmole ( 15522 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @01:44PM (#18608437)
    The problem is, learning about some new phone doesn't exactly require much intellectual effort on the part of the audience. I really don't think that's the sort of thing that this study is referring to.
  • by failedlogic ( 627314 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @02:14PM (#18609011)
    I'm a recent university grad. Some professors chose to use PowerPoint and others did not. Of all the lectures, professional presentations, meetings etc I've attended, Powerpoint was never really the problem. Sure it is if its distracting. The slides aren't to the point. But the best presentations are when presenters challenge the audience's views, are engaging, make accurate statements, and interpret the material correctly. Powerpoint slides don't do this, people do. That's what's missing.

  • by DragonWriter ( 970822 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @02:20PM (#18609119)

    Their findings completely fail to take into account multiple learning styles.

    No, they just fail to accord with your expectations based on your beliefs about how multiple learning styles should make the results turn out.

    People who are heavy visual learners will tune out what the speaker is saying and just read what's on it. Most of the stuff that the speaker is saying is near insensible anyway because those paths aren't very good at absorption. For heavy auditory learners, you could have almost anything on the slide, but it wouldn't matter unless the speaker described it. The power point isn't redundant to the speaker, it's a backup, in case the audience contains heavy visual/poor auditory learners.

    No, its not. The results show that that doesn't work. And, you know, you explain what may be part of the reason why: most learners are strong in both visual and auditory, though which they are strongest in varies. So perhaps getting identical information down the channels people tend not to shut out increases distraction without much increasing the effectiveness of the most effective channel.

    That doesn't mean you don't use visual and audio in an effective presentation: this finding is about how you make an effective presentation combining them, and its not by presenting the same words simultaneously in different media.

    The best teachers in the industry also include segments where they have their students moving physically about the classroom.

    Different segments appealing to different senses (or breaking up boredom) is completely different from presenting identical information in different channels concurrently.
  • by Pchelka ( 805036 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @03:08PM (#18609963)
    It really irritates me that most of the comments in the discussion of this article have focused on the presenters and why PowerPoint is evil. Being a good listener and paying attention to the material is even more important than the quality of the PowerPoint presentation and the handouts. The slides and handouts don't matter at all if you just don't want to be in a meeting or attending a class.

    I recently taught a college level science course that is typically taken by non-science majors to fulfill graduation requirements. The other instructors in our department recommended that I make my PowerPoint slides available on the course web site before the lectures. When I started doing this, I found that about 75% of the class did stopped coming to the lectures. Warning the students that they would miss important material from demonstrations, discussions, and in-class activities if they skipped lectures did not make any difference in attendance. The students who were interested in the course and willing to do the work to earn good grades downloaded the notes, came to the lectures, and participated in class discussions and activities. Unfortunately, most of the students were only taking the class because their academic advisers forced them to take it or because they were expecting an easy "A." These students downloaded the notes, frequently skipped class, did not participate in class discussions, and then complained that their low test scores were due to my bad teaching, not their lack of effort. Making the PowerPoint slides available before a lecture only helps the students who actually want to learn. If the students aren't willing to take an active role in their own learning experience, nothing the instructor does will help them to learn or retain the material presented in class.

    The same basic idea applies to business meetings and conferences. If you're not paying attention and being an active listener, then it does not matter whether or not the presenter is a good speaker or uses PowerPoint. Having a copy of the slides beforehand does not matter if you decide to skip the meeting since you already have the notes. It also does not help having the slides ahead of time if you do not study them to prepare for the meeting, or if you just sit there passively listening during the meeting. People learn better and retain more when their minds are actively engaged in a presentation through note-taking or discussions of the material being presented.
  • Re:WRONG. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by tb3 ( 313150 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @06:52PM (#18613335) Homepage
    That explains why their presentations SUCK compared to Jobs'. He spends a lot of time on his keynotes, and it shows.
    And sorry, but "They have larger issues on their minds?" What the hell is larger than making a major presentation for a major product launch, for the company they're in charge of? How much their options have sucked in the last five years?
  • by fbjon ( 692006 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @08:01PM (#18614101) Homepage Journal
    Or you could just, you know, convert them to 320x240 sized png files while you're at it. :)
  • by 644bd346996 ( 1012333 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @09:16PM (#18614861)
    The way I read it, Norman is asserting that the "slides are written for the benefit of the speaker." He then follows it up with a valid question that his assertion raises, but he never actually gets around to addressing that question. He sets the stage, but then goes and talks about other things. When you point out a counter-argument, you are supposed to refute it.

    By the way, I'm not trying to be a shill for Tufte. I just think that Norman's essay isn't the kind of thing to be holding up as good criticism of Tufte. And I don't think my quoting cut out the meaning of his statements. I quoted the introductory sentence of a paragraph, commented on it, then quoted the last sentence of that paragraph. (You should have finished reading my comment before calling me a shill.) I was not being intellectually dishonest. I simply commented on the most provocative portion of the essay, which also happens to be a totally unsupported claim.

    If you get modded down, it should be for not reading my comment, not because the mods respect Tufte.

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