Emily Norman: PowerPoint: A Student’s Perspective

The essay below was written by Emily Norman ‘19, one of our 2018-2019 D’Amour Student Fellows. She was assisted by longtime DCTE friend and collaborator Prof. David Crowley, who provided sample slides for her to help illustrate the major points of the essay.

PowerPoint (and other slide-sharing technologies) can be an extremely useful tool in capturing the attention of an audience or classroom. But I have seen many cases in which the professor or even a student will rely so heavily on their presentation slides that they forget they are presenting to an audience. Instead of enhancing the lesson, the slides becomes a hindrance. From my perspective as a student, I would argue that effective presentations in the classroom contain three important components: a balance between text and images, interaction with the audience, and a gradual release of information.

Some presenters load a slide with as much information as possible. The more information given the more retained, right?  To the contrary, too much information on one slide becomes chaotic and overwhelming to the student. Instead of paying attention to the lecture and the important points, the students find themselves scrambling to write down all the information without comprehending what they are writing. In these situations, I often find myself and others leaning over to one another and asking “What was that sentence”? Or “What did he just say”? Not only is this distracting to other students, it is frustrating for the ones that constantly feel like they are missing critical information.

Figure 1: This is an example of a slide that is too wordy and hard to follow.
Figure 2: This is an example of a slide with not enough information. Although the pictures are helpful, there are no words to understand what is actually being done.

An easy way to combat this problem is to give smaller amounts of text on each slide, and balance the text with images. Pictures and diagrams break up the monotony of the text and are really helpful in forming connections between the text and real world examples. In my science classes, my professors introduce a topic by explaining an experiment. They typically do this by presenting data in the form of figures such as a bar graph. These bar graphs make it infinitely easier to understand the topic because I can form connections between the data and the text. Without a bar graph, the text seems meaningless and is considerably harder to follow. Not only does formatting a presentation with minimal text and images help enhance the retention and understanding of the information, it helps students follow along if there is an image to focus on.

Figure 3: An example of a slide with the right amount of images and text. The text is very minimal but gets the main conclusion across.

Interaction between the students and the slides is also necessary. It is critical that students are guided through the slides carefully and slowly with questions posed to them. I have seen tutors in the Assumption College Academic Support Center walk through slides with the students one step at a time asking constant questions to ensure the student fully grasps the concept. This can be harder in a classroom setting, especially when the professor needs to teach a certain amount of information in a certain amount of time. But if there is no interaction between the slides and the students, students will not form meaningful connections with the course material, and will not remember it. Prof. McCready provides an excellent model for how to structure interaction with the slides. She presents a slide with a diagram and before saying what the data means, she asks us what we think it means. By doing so, we not only have time to think about the data presented, but also form our own conclusions and predictions. It helps us form meaningful connections and retain the information more readily.

Last and what I may consider to be the most important part of PowerPoint presentations is to present the data gradually. For example, I have had professors that will present data but instead of showing all of it at one time, they will show half of it and over the course of a few slides develop the data into its entirety. By presenting the data in chunks, students can make predictions on what is going to come next. If all of the information is given at once, it is overwhelming and students tend to focus on the big picture and not the important steps it takes to get there. When a professor or a tutor uses gradual release for a student or tutee, it helps them understand the figure in more effective way. Sometimes the most crucial information lodges in those little details we tend to overlook if the information is presented all at once.

Figures 4 and 5: An example of what gradual release looks like.

Powerpoints can be an extremely useful tool in the classroom. Visual aids are extremely helpful in understanding and comprehending information but they must be presented with guidelines in mind. Too much text can be overload and many times students do not have enough time to write down all the information nor do they know what is important or not. Including pictures and diagrams are helpful in not only breaking up the text but also forming connections between the text and real life examples. Finally, it is very important that the students are forced to engage with the slides. This can be done by posing questions of the class and having them form their own thoughts to make meaningful connections, or through the gradual release of information which helps the students take in information at a pace that makes sense.