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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 UbuntuDupe ( 970646 ) * on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:04AM (#18605409) Journal
    Well, it's tricky, and I've never found an easy way to do it. Put all the information, and there's clutter. Put too little, and there's nothing to keep the eye occupied while you ramble.
  • by LibertineR ( 591918 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:06AM (#18605453)
    Is there anything worse than sitting through some jerk reading their slides verbatim, instead of using them as points to be expanded upon?

    I think we all have, and it is true hell, and creates immediate distrust in the presenter.

  • by click2005 ( 921437 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:15AM (#18605669)
    I was going to blame people who take holiday photos then insist on showing you them all.
    Nothing seems to induce brain death quicker than holiday snaps.
    Maybe the two problems are connected.
  • by Jameson Burt ( 33679 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:21AM (#18605803)
    In Toastmasters 10 years ago, we had a flurry of short speeches using PowerPoint.
    One fellow, working for the Pentagon, said the military had tired of PowerPoint presentations,
    where individuals took great effort to produce graphics and sound,
    at the opportunity cost of content.
    The presentations became more like juveniles showing off their songs and
    latest toys.

    Large sections of the military then banned much of PowerPoint,
    particularly sound and glittering graphics.

    I myself continue making presentations with the most difficult
    but most thought-out of tools, LaTeX,
    which is actually a mathematical book publishing tool.
  • by D4rk Fx ( 862399 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:23AM (#18605839) Homepage
    A good way to present the information is just to put a broad idea of what you're going to talk about on the slides. I don't mind if profs use note cards as long as the notes are making good use of the class time, and you know the material well enough to field questions students might have. DEFINITELY do not just read your slides or cards. This is really boring and makes me feel like being there is a complete waste of time. Make it at least seem like you're trying to interact with a classroom instead of a tape recorder.

    I think it's a good idea to hand out both items well before class so the more ambituous students have a chance to go over the material that is going to be taught to them. I wish I would have realised when I started college how important it was to know what you would be learning about that day. I could have already formulated questions to ask the prof that perhaps otherwise wouldn't have been thought until after class and I had begun the homework.

    If I still don't understand after I asked the question, do not re-iterate the same exact information unless that really is the only thing to it. Try to make an attempt to rephrase the answer, or perhaps ask me to explain what I need to know a little better. (This is more of an observation of necessity rather than a personal need)
  • by Azathfeld ( 725855 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:39AM (#18606207)
    Another good example is the visual presentation of information in An Inconvenient Truth. Gore uses data and images as a reinforcement of what he's saying, and never as a way to simply repeat what's in the lecture.
  • whiteboard + marker (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:49AM (#18606435)
    As an associate instructor of an intro to computer science course, I can say that whiteboard and marker is the best way to go. Chalkboards are okay except generally a little more messy. Maybe courses like history and what not powerpoint is OK, but its hard for me to explain certain concepts on powerpoint. Plus--if someone asks a question, my powerpoint presentation wont be equipped to handle their question.
  • by khendron ( 225184 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @11:59AM (#18606599) Homepage
    It's not the program, it's the medium. In this case the medium is the screen.

    I once had a Calculus prof whose lectures were awful. This was pre-powerpoint: he used transparencies and an overhead projector. All he would do is plop something on the overhead, read it to us, and then plop down the next slide, and repeat.

    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.

    Next class the overhead was working again. Sigh.
  • by AlejoHausner ( 1047558 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @12:07PM (#18606739) Homepage
    David Patterson has some very good advice on how to give a bad presentation. It assumes low tech (in 1983 all we had were transparent slides), but the spirit of the advice is what counts. n.htm []
  • by Lethyos ( 408045 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @12:08PM (#18606759) Journal

    Presentation Zen []. Definitely read their contrast of presentations given by Gates and Jobs []. On a personal note, I can proudly say I have never given a presentation with bullet points. I tried hard to give up that crutch and the result has always been commendation afterwards. My audiences have described my presentations as fluid, participatory, and engaging. Avoiding bullet points at least proves you know your material. Also remember that your presentation is there to enhance what you have to say, and not the other way around.

  • by lmpeters ( 892805 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @12:09PM (#18606787)

    During a class on child development I took last semester, everyone had to do a presentation in front of the rest of the class on a particular topic. Most people crammed all the information on the slides and read them verbatim, much like you describe. My group, on the other hand, just put a few bullet points on each slide, and interspersed them with visuals that helped convey the points I was making. I also threw in a few exercises where the class could participate, such as a sequence of pictures where the class tried to remember as many of them as possible and tell me what they saw after the last picture went away.

    I feel pretty confident that, while the information in other presentations was at about the same level of difficulty as ours, the class learned more from our presentation than any other. All because I actually knew how to make a good PowerPoint slideshow.

    Therefore, my feeling is that PowerPoint and similar programs aren't necessarily bad for learning, but they're often horribly misused. Since it offers such a user-friendly look and feel, many PowerPoint users underestimate how much care needs to go into a good slideshow.

  • by Hijacked Public ( 999535 ) * on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @12:21PM (#18606975)
    That isn't always the point. A thought that occurred to me the last time I attended a Tufte lecture was that, in a lot of cases, the point is to obscure the facts and the data and mislead the audience into making the choice the presenter wants.

    This is true of nearly all sales pitch presentations. Tufte worked on both Shuttle disasters, so he mentions them a lot, and in some of the presentations he criticizes the entire point behind them was to deflect blame. Lockheed Martin didn't want their wing design to be the reason why the shuttle burned up. Whomever it was who built the rocket motors for the Challenger didn't want their motors to be the reason why launches had to be aborted.

    Sometimes the entire point of a presentation is to confuse you and obfuscate the facts. It might be true that if a person is reading verbatim from their own slides and has a laser beam background and fly in from the left bullet points accompanied by monkey shrieks...they might be doing it to distract you.
  • WRONG. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by LibertineR ( 591918 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @12:27PM (#18607081)
    Disclaimer: I worked for Microsoft.

    Microsoft forces those who will be giving public presentations to take a one week training course on doing it right. It was jokingly called 'Touch-Turn-Talk' school, for those of us hired who were not comfortable public speakers. Probably the best career enhancement class I ever took. We were videotaped and able to see along with our classmates the the true extent of our suckage.

    At the end of the class, the improvement was amazing.

    No company should allow anyone to speak for them without some sort of formal public speaking training. The ROI is immeasureable. Microsoft is not responsible for companies using Powerpoint, anymore than Sears would be if you use your Craftsman wrench to club your wife in the head.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @12:34PM (#18607233)
    If you have a Photo or Video iPod, it is a good test to convert the presentation to a series of png files (e.g., with pdfcreator []) and upload them to iPod. If they don't look good on its 320x240 screen, it means that they already cause too much eyestrain that will prevent the reader from understanding.

    As a bonus, you'll be able to practice your presentation while not being near your computer.
  • I call bullshit (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @12:52PM (#18607519)
    We use powerpoint for 3 of my 5 classes this semester. Last semester, I believe it was 4 out of 5. For all of my classes that use powerpoint, the instructors make the presentation files available before class so we can print them off.

    A powerpoint presentation that is well done is much MUCH better than a presentation with overhead transparency sheets, let alone a poorly done powerpoint presentation. Honestly, would you rather be copying down a graph and miss all the information that the instructor is talking about, or be able to mark up comments on the graph as you're following along with what the instructor is talking about? Basically, what we do for all of my business school classes is have the powerpoint presentations as outlines, like what you would expect if you went to a meeting.
  • by p3d0 ( 42270 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @01:00PM (#18607643)

    Most people can't create good presentations.

    (I know I'm not the first to put this comment here; the real reason I'm commenting is that I want to describe how I make PowerPoint presentations...)

    I do a lot of technical presentations. I imagine that I am explaining the topic to someone interactively using a white board (which is always very effective). Then I just make slides containing a cleaned up (and often animated) version of what I would have put on that white board. No whole-paragraph bullet points or long blocks of text.

  • by MythoBeast ( 54294 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @01:35PM (#18608259) Homepage Journal
    Their findings completely fail to take into account multiple learning styles. People have a mix of learning styles. For most of us, we absorb information most easily when we get it in auditory or visual form - heard or read. There are also kinesthetic learners and cognitive learners - people who don't learn unless they're moving, or don't learn unless they're figuring it out for themselves. Anyone who's tried to teach a fidgetter should know that asking them to sit still shuts down their brain from absorbing information. Every person has their own unique mix of these styles.

    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.

    The best teachers in the industry also include segments where they have their students moving physically about the classroom. One well-known teacher of teachers has an example where he gets across the difference between parallel and serial by having the students line up and walk across a line, and then walk across the line in groups. The idea behind exercises is to appeal to the cognitive learners.

    It's fine for people to say that it clogs the pathways when you try to absorb things through two channels at once, but for most of us it's an either/or, where we pick the one that best suits us.
  • by mikael ( 484 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @01:39PM (#18608355)
    We had a Computer Engineering lecturer like that - while he did give an interesting talk from his personal experience working for industry startups, he had this annoying habit of drawing an intricate diagram (say an real-time data flow diagram of a flight control system), then while everyone was frantically trying to copy it down and keep up with all the updates being made, he would loudly proclaim "however, current industry practice require that we no longer us this method" and he would completely wipe out the diagram with a single sweep of the chalkboard duster.
  • by 644bd346996 ( 1012333 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @02:03PM (#18608787)
    A dissenting opinion that seems to miss the point in several ways.

    For example:

    The slides are written for the benefit of the speaker.
    The above statement is absurd. Slides are for the audience to look at. Nothing should be on the slide that won't be helpful to the audience. The speaker's notes should either be in his hand or on the podium. Norman almost seems to understand this. He ends that paragraph with this:

    The question is, if the slides are for the speaker, why does the audience have to be subjected to them?
    Unfortunately, he doesn't ever get around to answering the question.

    One of Tufte's most important points is that most people tend to dumb down the data to fit the presentation, rather than adapt the presentation so that it can effectively convey all the information. Norman's response amounts to saying "No, you don't understand!" Instead, Norman should back up his assertion that presentations should go light on meaningful data.

    Listeners cannot absorb too much information at once. Talks should be limited to getting across just a few critical points. The goal is to get the listener interested enough to explore the subject in more depth on their own, perhaps by reading, perhaps by conversation. If too much is packed into a talk, the listener becomes overloaded and is apt to remember less than if the talk were better paced with less information. Worse, the listener may simply give up and cease following. Perhaps even worse is that listeners might get interested and pause to pursue some implications mentally, only later to discover that they thereby missed other material.

    This is one of the points Tufte has continually failed to grasp, not only in his diatribe against PowerPoint, but in almost all of his publications and talks. Tufte is a statistician and I suspect that for him, nothing could be more delightful than a graph or chart which can capture the interest for hours, where each new perusal yields even more information. I agree that this is a marvelous outcome, but primarily for readers, for people sitting in comfortable chairs, with good light and perhaps a writing pad. For people with a lot of time to spend, to think, to ponder. This is not what happens within a talk. Present a rich and complex slide and the viewer is lost. By the time they have figured out the slide, the speaker is off on some other topic.

    The above paragraphs assume that a presenter who has developed his slides according to Tufte's ideals will still present them the way they would present lists of bullet points. If somebody takes the time to develop an effective chart, odds are that they will take the time to explain it and point out the more important trends that it reveals. It is not counterproductive if an audience member also notices a trend that you do not have time to talk about. To assume that it would be counterproductive, as Norman consistently does, it to assume that your audience is stupid, or at least slow on the uptake. With that condescending attitude, your presentation is guaranteed to be bad.
  • by Pchelka ( 805036 ) on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @02:12PM (#18608981)
    I have serious issues with the conclusions of the researchers discussed in the article.
    Their conclusions do not fit my own personal experiences or what I was taught in my graduate level courses on pedagogical methods at all. Also, I don't think that pictures are much different from written information, since reading words and interpreting a graph both require processing visual information. Graphs and diagrams are also useless without legends and axis labels written out in words, so you can't avoid the written word by just showing graphs and diagrams on slides.

    When I was a student, I found that I got absolutely nothing out of lectures if I just sat there and passively listened to a speaker. I got more out of lectures when I took notes. Passive listening increased the likelihood that I would zone out or fall asleep in the middle of the lecture, particularly when I was tired from staying up until 2:00 am to finish my quantum mechanics homework. Of course, what I got out of my notes and the lecture depended a lot on how well the material was presented. If the professor was not organized, was difficult to hear, had really bad chalkboard skills, and went too fast, I got very little out of the lecture even if I tried to take notes.

    Okay, so when I was in college, we still used chalkboards. However, I have the same problems with PowerPoint talks. If I sit there in the dark and listen passively during PowerPoint presentations at meetings or conferences I get absolutely nothing out of the presentation. I've found I retain more when I try to be a more active listener by taking notes and asking questions, but the speaker needs to go slowly enough for me to keep up with him or her.

    I also have found that when I study material on my own, I need to reinforce what I am learning by speaking or taking notes. When I took French in college, I learned new vocabulary faster by saying the words out loud as I read them, or by writing the words down while I spoke them. When I read technical articles, I actually need to write down notes on a piece of paper (or type on a computer) as I read or I will not retain any information from the article at all. I think this is the same problem I had in lectures, only in this case, I need to be an active reader, rather than an active listener. I know some people like to use highlighters to mark up their textbooks or articles. This does absolutely nothing for me, as it is still passive reading. I need to summarize everything into my own words in order to retain the information, whether I am reading articles and textbooks, or listening to a lecture.

    I honestly do not think the problem with PowerPoint presentations is that they provide too much information and that people inherently have difficulties processing information simultaneously in visual and oral formats. I think the real issue is that people have different learning styles and not everyone learns best through the same classroom or presentation techniques. I don't think that most people have a good sense of self-awareness when it comes to knowing how they really learn best. I found that I actually became a better student after taking courses in pedagogical methods, since I gained a new understanding of why my instructors planned their courses the way they did.
    Studying pedagogical methods also helped me find ways to overcome some of the difficulties I had when course material was presented in a manner that did not fit my learning style.
  • by fossa ( 212602 ) <> on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @02:26PM (#18609263) Journal

    I'm familiar with books by Tufte and Norman and have attended Tufte's presentation on presenting information. I think Tufte's writings on PowerPoint may fail to emphasize the main problems, but it seems to me that Tufte and Norman are largely in agreement. Norman states,

    Tufte is a statistician and I suspect that for him, nothing could be more delightful than a graph or chart which can capture the interest for hours, where each new perusal yields even more information. I agree that this is a marvelous outcome, but primarily for readers, for people sitting in comfortable chairs, with good light and perhaps a writing pad. For people with a lot of time to spend, to think, to ponder. This is not what happens within a talk. Present a rich and complex slide and the viewer is lost. By the time they have figured out the slide, the speaker is off on some other topic."

    But Tufte never advocates placing such, high resolution material in a slide. Slides are a low resolution medium; high resolution material belongs in a handout that the audience can review at their leisure during or after the talk.

    Norman goes on to criticize Tufte's assesment of the Columbia disaster PowerPoint slides. "Yes, [the slide] is almost incomprehensible. But in my opinion, the slide should have had less information on itTufte wants more information. He demonstrates this by showing how many words are on a page of a textbook. 'So what?' I say. We read textbooks very differently than we listen to talks.

    Tufte doesn't want more information in the low resolution, temporally spaced slides. He wants more information in a technical report with enough text and high resolution graphics to properly explain the situation and enough time to absorb it and make a proper decision. Tufte's point was not that the slides could be improved but that a presentation is no way to make life and death decisions. I don't know what else went on, but it sounds like that was it; the decision was made based on that presentation alone. I've read much of Tufte, and this is my conclusion of his meaning. It sounds like the material Norman read did not make this clear, for which you can fault Tufte; it's easy to miss the points among the specific PowerPoint jabs.

  • Re: The other side (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @03:43PM (#18610511)
    Consider this:
    Instructors do not have ANY education experience and almost nothing is provided to teach them how to teach. The only qualification is that they know the topic. This appears to be the traditional way its always been done.

    In the past, students consisted of people who wanted to learn who only needed a guide/coach to help them teach themselves the subject matter (this is what I'm told by old timers.) This made college educated people highly valuable; today, everybody goes to college and the majority of students are not like that. The system is still targeting an audience which is now a SMALL minority of the student population.

    Surely, you know of people with degrees who are not competent or do not meet expectations in their field of expertise. I bet that the percentage of these graduates has been rising for decades...

    I am not blaming anybody. The system is old, the student makeup is new, and expectations of college are inaccurate as well as changing (I'd guess trade schools are still the same.) I see people with CS degrees taking my classes on web design when they should be able to figure it out faster on their own.

    When I started, I was given only the last man's slides which were lifted from the textbook about 1 week before classes started. Nothing is provided and they don't care if you read your slides; in part because they are open to any methodology and because they themselves have no education training in order to judge you. Student surveys have little insight due to a large portion of students that use it as a response to their grade.

    I heavily depend upon "slides" to keep me on track, they work quite well if properly used like speech notecards. Some students print them out and write notes in the white space because there is a table of contents and page numbers which helps them organize their notes better.

    When you teach the same stuff you already know all the time it is really DULL! The subject matter is always boring, which is why I think so many instructors lose interest - they are into the subject not education itself. Some are there for research, some for the job, some because they are overqualified for what they like doing, and a few of us are there because we like educating (like myself.)

    Oh, there are many variations of thought along the lines: "people are getting dumber." I've heard a wide range from deevolution half-jokes to consumerism to misconceptions about what college is. Me, I think some of it comes from their age- the older you get the more out of touch you get with your own student experience. My memories of college are fading, at least I still remember I was a bad student.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 04, 2007 @03:43PM (#18610523)
    I've seen Tufte lecture. He presented for the better part of 6 hours, and didn't use ANY slides.

    He made the presentation engaging, took on the audience's skepticism, showed real-world examples and objects, DID provide a handout, and captivated us all day long.

    I took away a brain-full of new ideas and information.

    Two problems for the real-world, though:

    1. Not everybody is Tufte. He's a great presenter. A lot of my college professors were well-meaning schlubs, and I was able to doze through my 7:30 AM classes. Still, I'd lose interest in a schlub with or without a PowerPoint show.

    2. People in F500 companies are forced to present, whether they have anything to say or not. It's a political thing. You have a national sales meeting, everything's going great, you don't have any needed adjustments to make, doesn't matter: you STILL have to get up on stage and talk for an hour.

    One of Tufte's main thrusts is that you make compelling presentations of information by having compelling information to present.

    If you're up there onstage running your mouth just to reinforce your position as the alpha-(fe)male, that's not exactly compelling, and will bore, will disengage. With PowerPoint or without.

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