Faculty Today

Instructors: Stop putting your PowerPoint slides on-line

I tire of the belly-aching about how students don’t show up to lectures anymore (the latest example of this is mentioned here). In my opinion, this is a signal that something is wrong with how the material is delivered rather than being indicative of some deeper issue. It means the traditional lecture format needs a serious overhaul. In other words, perhaps this is the fault of the instructor rather than the student.

One of the key issues is that instructors are getting into the habit of spoon-feeding students by placing lectures on-line. I was a 20 year-old undergraduate once, and if I was able to get all the lecture material by logging on and clicking ‘download’, it would certainly make it easy to skip class! If lectures are posted on-line, I’m not surprised that students aren’t going to lecture.

The solution is simple: STOP posting Powerpoint slides on-line!

Screen Shot 2014-05-14 at 9.30.51 AM

OK, I admit I’ll get some flak from that statement. Here are some of the arguments for posting Powerpoint slides on-line, and my rebuttals:

Students argue that having lectures on-line facilitates their learning: instead of concentrating on the lectures and the content, students have to scramble to write things done.

This merely indicates that the instructor is going too quickly over the material, or that too much material is being covered. Less is often more. If students are scrambling to write stuff down, this means “slow down”, it doesn’t mean “post your lectures on-line”. There’s a serious disease in higher education and it’s called “Information Overload Disorder”. For some reason, instructors have in their mind that covering loads of material is a requirement for a University course. No: covering important information in an active and integrative manner is a requirement for a University course.

Students are SO used to having the notes, and I’m afraid my teaching evaluations will suffer if I don’t put the notes on-line.

Sorry, this doesn’t fly either: my teaching scores have actually increased once I stopped putting notes on-line, and I’ve received countless positive comments from students about not posting slides on-line. This is because the class was always full, and it forced me to change the manner in which lectures are delivered (see above: I had to cover less material!). Having students in the classroom instead of their dorm rooms produced a positive feedback loop: it created a full classroom, and an active classroom. Since there were more students in class, there were more questions and since there were more questions, the classroom became more interactive and as the classroom become more interactive, student engagement increased.

Powerpoint is so awesome! Textbook companies provide the slides and all the material is ready to go! Clickity-click-click let’s LECTURE!

Powerpoint is not awesome. Powerpoint slides are an ineffective and rather annoying tool for the University classroom. Text-heavy Powerpoint slides do not promote an active learning environment. Active learning is an important and valuable concept in higher education. Active learning means the classroom becomes a space for debate, discussion, interaction, and the instructor is the facilitator of all of this rather than a ‘voice from a podium’. Powerpoint slides can be used to illustrate concepts, for showing relevant graphs or images, but they should not be used for a long list of bulleted points. Frankly, Powerpoint often becomes a memory tool for the instructor rather than a tool for effective instruction. Try a chalkboard instead…

Students shouldn’t be forced to come to lecture – heck, they are paying for University and we are at their service. It’s their right to have access to course notes on-line.

Yes, students are paying to come to University, and instructors are paid to teach. In most cases, this means teaching in a seminar room or lecture hall. In most cases, this means teaching in a context where direct interaction with students is possible, important and a key part of the University experience! To me, it’s the student’s right to be able to go to lecture and experience an active and engaging environment: an environment that creates opportunity for learning from an expert on a topic, but also learning from peers. These are difficult things to replicate outside of a classroom. So, instead of thinking of it as forcing students to come to lecture, it’s time to create a lecture environment that is welcoming, exciting and engaging. Let’s create environments which make it so students want to come to lecture.

The University Classroom: let's make it a place where students WANT to be! (photo by M. Pourde)
The University Classroom: let’s make it a place where students WANT to be! (photo by M. Pourde)

Not all students can come to lecture!

Correct: and it’s certainly convenient to be able to have access to Powerpoint slides especially if a student is sick or has a family emergency. However, this is based on an assumption that someone will be able to actually understand a lecture based on a series of Powerpoint slides. Hopefully this isn’t the case! Instead, a Powerpoint presentation should facilitate and guide rather than be a definitive record of a lecture. A good lecture should never depend on Powerpoint: a good lecture should change direction depending on a question from a student, or a current event that occurs on the morning of the lecture. It should be dynamic, and never ‘locked-in’ to a series of slides. If students miss lectures, there are alternatives: Many students record lectures, students often have friends in a class, and there are office hours available for students. I often find office hours to be rather quiet times, yet this is the perfect opportunity for a student to approach an instructor if they miss a lecture.

What are the alternatives?

I’m not saying don’t put anything on-line, rather I’m arguing against dumping an entire Powerpoint presentation on-line. There are many alternatives… but you’ll have wait for a future post that will discuss some ideas – so stay tuned! (or you are welcome to comment, below).

In sum, I hope this post can cause a stir, and cause instructors to question the value of posting lectures on-line. As in all things, there is no silver bullet solution to low student attendance in a lecture hall, but I firmly believe we are doing a serious disservice to students by posting material on-line. Let’s instead work on innovative approaches to teaching that will make the lecture hall an inviting and exciting space for teaching and learning.

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11 comments on “Instructors: Stop putting your PowerPoint slides on-line

  1. There is actual empirical data showing online lecture delivery reduces learning outcomes
    This article on written vs electronic note taking while not duirectly relevant to the issue of online notes is also interesting from the point of how lectures re-enforce learning

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  3. carolynsamuel

    1. I agree with most of the points presented in this blog post, but the statement “ … perhaps this is the fault of the instructor rather than the student” deserves more discussion. While it is largely the responsibility of the instructor to design a course that compels students to be actively engaged in their learning, instructors are sometimes limited in the creativity of their course design by physical constraints.

    Many classrooms have seats facing the front of the room with a data projector projecting onto a screen that faces the seats. This design almost beckons a lecture accompanied by slideware. While the physical space does not compel instructors to use PowerPoint in the conventional ways that it is often used, for example, with bulleted lists of information, instructors might be encouraged to design courses differently if classroom design beckoned other teaching and learning scenarios, such as group discussions around small tables.

    2. One of the discussion topics in an academic skills course I teach is how students can learn effectively (or not) from lectures supported by PowerPoint. (Of course, “supported by” can be interpreted in different ways.) I ask the students to read this article (am not aware of an online link to it):

    Orwin, C. (2006, September 9). Swimming against the tide of PowerPoint. The Globe and Mail, p. A21.

    The title captures Orwin’s position and he states: “Like students since the time of Plato himself, they’ll have to pay close attention to speech and to arguments conveyed by speech. I’ll also refer them again and again to the book open before them. They’ll learn that even in classes much bigger than they should be, less can be more. Naked came I into the world, and naked will you find me at the lectern, except for a nice suit, my lecture notes, and (on my good days) Plato or Machiavelli whispering helpfully over my shoulder.” Students in my academic skills course typically end up discussing judicious and non-judicious uses of technology for teaching and learning. This discussion seems to make them more aware of their own learning styles. I hope this awareness ultimately has a positive impact on how they approach and become responsible for their own classroom learning.

    3. I work largely with students who are non-native speakers of the language of instruction, in other words, non-native speakers of the language the instructor uses for teaching. Many of these students say they appreciate being able to listen to the lecture in class and then return to the audio recording later on to re-listen to points they missed. Listening twice to lectures is not efficient. For this reason, it is important to offer students alternatives … or strategies for effective listening the first time around. I have some ideas about alternatives, but I’m staying tuned, Chris, to see what you post.

    • Excellent comments, Carolyn! I really appreciate the time you took to craft these responses. Fundamentally, I do agree with all of them, and I was purposefully being a bit extreme in the post.

      1) Classroom space need to change with the times, and you are correct that the vast majority of teaching spaces are designed for ‘podium style’ lectures with ppt – it’s a shame, and it’s been a struggle for me to change my teaching style to overcome this obstacle. Let’s home more and more active learning classrooms are designed in the future.

      2) yes, yes, yes! Powerpoint is only a problem when it’s used as a crutch rather than a tool. Powerpoint slides can effectively support teaching and learning, but at the end of the day, students and instructors need to shift focus so the slides can really support the content / discussions / critical thinking, etc.

      3) Again, a great point. I think my post has a narrow view in the sense of not appreciating fully the variety of learning styles out there, and that for some students, the ppt slides are the *best* way to learn, in the same way that for some, having audio recordings of lectures is key. When I posted the link to the blog on Facebook, a very vigorous debate ensued, with a lot of the focus on this exact point: learning styles cannot be pigeon-holed.

      Again, you thoughtful comments are so much appreciated!!

    • In regards to your last point, I know of a prof in a similar situation who uses a “smart pen” (like the echo pen) which syncs her voice with the notes that she is writing during class. This technology allows a student to simply click on the portion of the lecture notes they did not understand and they can listen to that portion of the lecture.

  4. dbazely

    Reblogged this on a day in the life and commented:
    I think this should go on Madeleine Ewins blog… for more students to read… (from her mum who is also a science prof)

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