A post in praise of PowerPoint

Folks, some time in the last nine years, my learning style has changed. I must confess: if you’re giving a paper without slides (or, at very least, a handout), I will struggle to listen to you for so much as ten minutes straight.

This is a bit of a shock to me, since at the end of my high school career I could take verbatim notes without shorthand for forty-five minutes at a time. As an undergrad I actively disliked lectures which relied heavily on visual material (I’m not and never will be a visual learner) and preferred the sorts of lectures wherein people talked at you for an hour straight. Even then, though, I appreciated overheads for names and dates.

Here are some great points about PowerPoint slides in academic papers:

PowerPoint as Exhibit A
XCKD crop - Citation NeededArt historians have figured this one out. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a paper where handouts were passed around with photocopied pictures of features of medieval art and architecture; yet lit and history papers keep passing their primary texts around on hard copy. This inevitably leads to the Not Enough Handouts crisis – which could neatly be avoided putting the primary text up on a screen. Those interested enough to want a copy of their own can write down the name of the text and line refs and look it up later; those who aren’t would probably chuck the handout out anyway.

Me, I use PowerPoint to display the original text, while I read out the translation. It’s a working compromise between the feeling that I ought to display academic rigour and the fact that hardly anyone reads Old French.

PowerPoint as scaffold

Some of the best papers I’ve seen over the years are ones which have only four or five slides, giving a rough scaffold of what’s to be covered. Keep it simple to avoid overloading your audience, sure, but a running guide is incredibly useful to those of us whose minds wander.

A lecture - the art of transferring information from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the students without passing through the minds of eitherI’ve heard people say they feel like the audience pays less attention if there’s a PowerPoint, or we should all be able to pay attention for twenty minutes. I don’t know about the universe at large, but I tell you what I noticed when I got sick last semester. The week that I was a total space cadet, swinging between hyperactive and extra-dopey, I asked students for transcripts of their presentations because I didn’t trust myself to pay proper attention. But the papers where I *did* get a good grasp of what they’d said – those were the papers which had some sort of notes available on the screen. That way, when my mind wandered off with the fairies it wasn’t too hard to scrape it back in the direction of matters Arthurian.

PowerPoint as humourous marginalia

I was once told that I should never put funny asides up on PowerPoint, since the audience would get distracted. Terrible pity, since that ruled out the dot plot of comparative idiocy in Arthurian Romance. Thing is, I’ve always got a good response out of funny slides (that dot plot generated more discussion than my entire paper), and they make the process of

BBC Merlin - Arthur with sword - Say it with Phallic Symbols

paper-writing that much less horrible for me. And, coming back to that week when I was sick* – I had one student who spoke without a script, and with only the barest PowerPoint slides. I wasn’t able to get a full transcript from him, but his liberal application of humourous ClipArt and Disney figures as commentary on Tristan and Iseult served as… hangers, memory tags which meant his paper stuck much better in my head than anything else anyone said to me that week, in class or out.

So I shall return at once to my policy of illustrating Arthurian papers with BBC Merlin macros.

Not everyone in your audience is a native speaker

Today I went to a session which was held in my second language. It wasn’t on texts with which I’m intimately familiar, so I was expecting to have a hard time of it. The first paper I expect I wouldn’t have made head or tail of regardless, but the second – it sounded really *interesting*! The speaker’s accent was easy enough for me to understand; I picked up enough Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed!of what she was describing to know that the stories would probably interest me (one was de Boron’s Merlin, and another involved hijinks with towers and someone refusing to speak to their wife). But without a scaffold up on the screen to tell me useful things like what the name of the text was and when it was written, I spent valuable time that I should’ve been using to decode the argument trying instead to figure out what the title of the text was (it’s hard to tell if a name is a name or just a noun I don’t know yet), when it was written, and how the third title which was mentioned occasionally related to either of the other two.

Slides, with names and dates and maybe key points on them – in the language of the paper, of course – would’ve given me a much-neaded head start around which I could build an actual understanding of what was being argued.



* To be honest, my attention span is still not what it used to be – partly I think due to changes in my learning style as I grow older (oh hai, internets, affecting my brains!), and partly because I’m still sick and medication makes me dopey sometimes. So yes, this is an Accessibility Issue, although I understand there are equally good accessibility arguments *against* the use of PowerPoint or any other given visual aid, and it’s not like the presence or absence of PowerPoint determines completely whether I can participate in a session. It’s a factor in how much I can learn from that session, though.


14 Responses to “A post in praise of PowerPoint”

  1. Annelise Says:

    You’re so right… There’s research (I can’t quote it, but I read it last year in an Education subject) to suggest exactly what you’re saying about the PowerPoint as a scaffold. This is not just a way to dumb down the information ‘so that anyone can grasp it’ across learning styles and abilities, though this is important and shows deep understanding. Presenting scaffolds of arguments and ideas allows everyone to skip the ‘translation’, as it were, of your new thoughts or perspectives into ideas and experiences they’re already familiar with. You immediately get a higher level of engagement and creative cognitive response.

    I think that paper suggested that people learn best when what is on the slide is shorter than, and (key point) *different to*, what you’re saying out loud. Even if it’s mostly just the main point worded differently, it keeps people listening to the aural and presented part of your paper while reinforcing it on a textual level.

  2. Annelise Says:

    Also, with well-placed funny (or any kind of stimulating/engaging/ slightly off topic) asides, I think they break up the medium and allow much longer concentration, without needing to change the form of delivery or structure of the classroom in an impossible way. Breaking away from the ‘must know’ and ‘should know’ into the curiosity of ‘could know’, in a way that still supports the heart of the theme or unit, is also the thing that makes all the best teachers I’ve ever had stand out 🙂

  3. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    I’m with you on this, and have met it from the other side, too; my most difficult lecturing gig got much easier when I stopped using the presentation merely as illustration and more as lecture skeleton. Reading off the slides is evil but should never be necessary. I tend to do images and structure on slides and text on handouts, though, I think people still read closely better off something close to them than halfway across a room. Also, that dot plot is great and deserves into every lecture and paper into which it could possibly be fitted.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      I tend to be more likely to read a powerpoint than a handout – juggling handouts and notebooks and pens annoys me. But I’m not everyone and I have 20/20 vision, so.

      I did find your paper particularly easy to follow, but that might be because it was light on argument and didn’t pull in all that much by way of external information.

      • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

        Ha! That would be because my paper had hardly any actual contents. The man who constructs an argument from three charters, all of which are somehow significant despite survival, ordinarily I would disregard that man. Suffice it to say, I will not try and get this one into the volume-of-the-sessions.

        • highlyeccentric Says:

          Well I thought the content was interesting, but if you were my student you’d get comments back about spending less time rehashing the primary source… actually, you could’ve solved your going-slightly-overtime problem by whacking the key quotes up on powerpoint, and then highlighting the critical words on which the argument rested, and not wading through the entire translation.

          I rest my case. Powerpoint fixes everything.

          • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

            That might have helped. I didn’t use a presentation because all I could think of that would go in it were holiday snaps of Girona, and I don’t have many of those and nothing there is left from the right period. I also wanted the full translations because they compare to each formulaically so neatly. But that could have been done with highlights, you may be right. Worth bearing in mind for next time, as is all feedback really.

  4. Katrin Says:

    I’ll do a blog post about Powerpoint instead of flooding your comment section with my prattling… will be up one of the next days : )

  5. Adventures without powerpoint, or, where would a Chrétien paper be without irony? « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] possibly having made this post about the crucial importance of PowerPoint, I was setting myself up for disaster. So guess who […]

  6. At last, Kalamazoo 2011… Part III « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe Says:

    […] by historians, fluidity of early medieval ethnicity and so on, past us but because it made really good use of a slideshow and graphics and was thoroughly entertaining. Dr Arnold is a presenter to seek out. How many people have you […]

  7. Carl Edlund Anderson Says:

    Back in the day, before PowerPoint became ubiquitous even in technophobic corners of the humanities 🙂 I was a great fan of handouts in presentations, mostly since they gave people something to stare at as if in great interest during, and perhaps something to remember about you afterwards, if only via a spare pocket or the corner of a briefcase. (How many time did I unearth some scrap of paper months later, and think “Oh, yes, _that_! Excellent …”? Plenty, actually. :)) Now I’m not so sure. It took me awhile to adjust to PPT after “falling back into” academia (having learned to conceive of it during my years in the Real World as the province of salesmen and marketing hacks, and not for sullying the hands of the great and good who concerned themselves with more rarefied matters :)) but now I’ve come to conceive of it as taking the place (in the classroom, at least) of handouts and lecture notes; the PPTs are all available to the students online, anyway.. Similarly, I can understand students taking their own notes that expand on the PPTs, but I am baffled by the surprisingly (to me) large numbers of students (’round my neck of the woods, anyway) who industriously reproduce slide text as their notes. Perhaps for some, the mere act of copying serves as an extra aid to memory — though this would not explain the ones who (even more bafflingly) snap digital photos of each slide as it passes by …. There’s some sort of psycho-educational research to be done here ….

    Still, on reflection, I guess I can see a continuing value in handouts — at least as a form of advertising — in conference presentations, etc. After all, even if you supply an email address or URL by which attendants could get a copy, what are the chances they will? Some kind of one-sheet handout that serves as a combination of glorified abstract and business card might be useful here.

    On the other hand, in the wild and wonderful future, simply begin able to instantly distribute some kind of interactive smartphone/tablet-oriented electronic handout to everyone in the room would be kinda cool. 🙂

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      I often copy out things which are on distributed powerpoints – one, I almost never look up the powerpoint anyway; and two, you’re right, it’s about aid to memory. If I copy it out at the time, I never ~need~ to look up the powerpoint; and I also remember the other stuff which was said around it, which the pre-prepared powerpoint doesn’t do for me.

      Some presentations are aided by handouts, yes. I like ones with bibliographies, myself 🙂 But as a compulsive notetaker, handouts usually drive me bats (too much to juggle!) and are easy to lose…

      • Carl Edlund Anderson Says:

        Yes, I understand the note-taking impulse, especially as an aid to memory, though it doesn’t seem to suit my learning style: writing seems to take up sufficient brainpower (such as I have!) that I can’t listen and write simultaneously, and whenever I have another go at note-taking I just end up with extensive gaps that risk rendering the whole thing incomprehensible. So I’m much better off just listening closely along with with a handout and a PPT to download. (On the other hand, I find that I can head off Googling for interesting stuff mentioned in the presentation/lecture without losing my way; note-taking just wipes me out, though!)

        Still, as I say, I understand that it works well for others — which nevertheless leaves me baffled by students snapping digital photos of an onscreen PowerPoint slide. Surely that is neither an aid to memory, nor an improvement on downloading the file? Maybe students elsewhere don’t do this, but ’round these parts I see it all the time.

        Oh well! Off to prepare a new PPT for Friday’s class ….

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