Thursday, July 28, 2011

Are Your Students Dodging Bullets?

In a discussion forum for anatomy and physiology teachers, I'm participating in a thread concerning whether using PowerPoint presentations are really all that effective in lecturing.

How many times have we heard from students they they just can't take another barrage of "bullets" in class . . . PowerPoint bullets, that is.  They're used to professors showing slide after slide of nothing but bulleted notes.  Often simply reading off the slides and nothing more.

Ouch!  Talk about bullet wounds.  I'd be gun shy after an hour of that, too!

So no wonder the PowerPoint approach is often condemned.

But really, is this fair?  Just because there are a lot of folks out there using PowerPoints ineffectively, does that mean the whole approach sucks?  I don't think so.

To me, this is a matter of using the right tool for the right job, and using that tool properly. You wouldn't use a hammer to drive a screw, right?  Well, I guess you could . . . but it would not be a job well done. I think that's what you're doing when your slides simply present your notes. If you want your students to have an outline, then print them out an outline!

Use PowerPoint slides for what PowerPoints do best.  That's images and multimedia.  OK, the occasional short list of brief bulleted items to serve as a visual organizer of your presentation is fine, too.

For example, here's a slide that visually presents a topic in a way that a bulleted outline simply cannot.  Keep in mind that this slide does not include my explanation of it, which is critical.  But isn't that what we want a slide to do?  That is, don't we want the slide to support our story, not replace it?

To drive a screw, you need a screwdriver . . . and you need to move it clockwise to drive the screw, with enough pressure to keep the driver engage with the head of the screw.  If not used properly, a screwdriver can make a mess of your building project.  If you use images (an appropriate use of PowerPoint) but make them too small to be seen, then you're using the proper tool but using that tool improperly.

PowerPoint for Teachers: Dynamic Presentations and Interactive Classroom Projects (Grades K-12) (Jossey-Bass Teacher)So if you use PowerPoint slides to teach, you need to learn to use them for their proper purpose and use them in the proper manner.

If you're in my generation, not having grown up with PowerPoints, you may not have seen enough good examples to be comfortable with this tool.  So what to do to get comfortable, eh? My suggestions include:
  1. Many colleges offer courses in the use of PowerPoint.  Take a course!  Or talk to the instructor about sitting in on all or part of the course.  If not your college, maybe another local college or high school.

  2. Show up for faculty development.  At my college, our business and computer professors often offer in-service workshops that distill the main elements of effective PowerPoint design.  If that doesn't happen at your school, then make it happen! Invite these experts to share their wisdom at the next faculty development event.

  3. Sit at the feet of masters (and mistresses).  Find out who in your school is really great at using PowerPoint to teach effectively.  Just ask your students . . . they know.  Then ask that person to let you sit in one or two of their classes.  Take them out for lunch afterwards and pick their brains about what has worked well for them  . . . and what hasn't.

  4. Find online videos, books, and other resources for ideas.  PowerPoint is ubiquitous in education and business and there are a lot of folks out there eager to share what they've learned.

  5. Practice. Practice. Practice. Experiment with different approaches and designs.  Ask for honest feedback.  The only way to get good at something is to keep at it!
The one thing you do not want to do is just plug away at what you know isn't working.  If can't use PowerPoint effectively . . . and aren't willing to get good at it . . . then do not use it!

In upcoming blogs, I'll share some specific methods for avoiding bullet wounds while using your PowerPoints by making full use of the program's visualization features.