Why Are Universities Still Using PowerPoint?

It was recently argued that universities should ban PowerPoint because it makes students stupid and professors boring. I agree entirely. However, most universities will ignore this good advice because rather than measuring success by how much their students learn, universities measure success with student satisfaction surveys.

What is so wrong with PowerPoint?

Overreliance on slides has contributed to the absurd belief that expecting and requiring students to read books, attend classes, take notes and do homework is unreasonable. Courses designed around slides therefore propagate the myth that students can become skilled and knowledgeable without working through dozens of books, hundreds of articles and thousands of problems.

A review of research on PowerPoint found that while students liked PowerPoint better than overhead transparencies, PowerPoint did not increase learning or grades. Liking something doesn't make it effective, and there's nothing to suggest transparencies are especially effective learning tools either.

Research comparing teaching based on slides against other methods such as problem-based learning — where students develop knowledge and skills by confronting realistic, challenging problems — predominantly supports alternative methods.

PowerPoint slides are toxic to education for three main reasons:

  1. Slides discourage complex thinking. Slides encourage instructors to present complex topics using bullet points, slogans, abstract figures and oversimplified tables with minimal evidence. They discourage deep analysis of complex, ambiguous situations because it is nearly impossible to present a complex, ambiguous situation on a slide. This gives students the illusion of clarity and understanding.
  2. Reading evaluations from students has convinced me that when most courses are based on slides, students come to think of a course as a set of slides. Good teachers who present realistic complexity and ambiguity are criticised for being unclear. Teachers who eschew bullet points for graphical slides are criticised for not providing proper notes.
  3. Slides discourage reasonable expectations. When I used PowerPoint, students expected the slides to contain every detail necessary for projects, tests and assignments. Why would anyone waste time reading a book or going to a class when they can get an A by perusing a slide deck at home in their pyjamas?

Measuring the wrong things

If slide shows are so bad, why are they so popular?

Universities measure student satisfaction but they do not measure learning. Since organisations focus on what they measure and students like PowerPoint, it stays, regardless of its educational effectiveness.

Hospitals measure morbidity and mortality. Corporations measure revenue and profit. Governments measure unemployment and gross domestic product. Even this website measures readership, broken down by article and author. But universities don't measure learning.

Exams, term papers and group projects ostensibly measure knowledge or ability. Learning is the change in knowledge and skills and therefore must be measured over time.

When we do attempt to measure learning, the results are not pretty. US researchers found that a third of American undergraduates demonstrated no significant improvement in learning over their four-year degree programs. They tested students in the beginning, middle and end of their degrees using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, an instrument that tests skills any degree should improve – analytic reasoning, critical thinking, problem solving and writing.

Any university can deploy similar testing to measure student learning. Doing so would facilitate rigorous evaluations of different teaching methods. We would be able to quantify the relationship between PowerPoint use and learning. We would be able to investigate dozens of learning correlates and eventually establish what works and what doesn't.

Unfortunately, many key drivers of learning appear to reduce student satisfaction and vice versa. As long as universities continue to measure satisfaction but not learning, the downward spiral of lower expectations, less hard work and less learning will continue.

The ConversationPaul Ralph is Lecturer in Computer Science at University of Auckland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


    Students like PowerPoint because they don't like going to lectures.

    Written and presented by people who didn't endure lectures and work presentations BEFORE PowerPoint, and often by people who are just shitty teachers.

    Using slides in power point is similar to copying and pasting an article from The Conversation, you might be able to pass, but you sort of need to do your own research if you really want to get anywhere.

    "When I used PowerPoint, students expected the slides to contain every detail necessary for projects, tests and assignments."

    That's the fault of the students, not the technology; and I say that as someone who DID over-rely upon slides during my undergrad, because I was a lazy and it was the path of least resistance. In hindsight, courses that I learnt most from, used slides solely as a guideline to pace lectures, but also provided weekly 'additional/required reading' content on top of a prescribed text. Unfortunately, plenty of lecturers know that students would rather 'learn' from pre-summarised slides, so they appease them for better teacher evaluations at the end of semester by stuffing their presentations at the expense of a rounded course structure.

    When I went to Uni (albeit about 15 years ago now) the lecturers used powerpoint but we also had the text books (sometimes more than one) as part of the syllabus. Not everything was in the slides, and you needed the books or online resources to do your assignments.

    I did do an IT degree, I don't know what the case would be with other degrees but with us, we never expected powerpoint to have all of the information we needed.

    Last edited 27/06/15 7:57 pm

      It would seem from my one semester at uni so far that most subjects claim that only material discussed in lectures and tutorials is examinable, likely to avoid any issues.
      As textbooks are often ca. $150ea, many students aren't able to afford to buy all the textbooks needed over the course of a degree. This is also an issue.

      I wouldn't have a problem with textbook material outside of that discussed in class being examinable, provided that I were informed at the start of the course.

    i recently attended a conference where the presenters were strongly urged to do their best to avoid "death by PowerPoint". i.e. boring dot point text. Some of the presenters complied, using images instead of text. Which was a total disaster for me, as I'm deaf and those boring powerpoints do allow me to at least know what the presenter is talking about, even if I miss out on the finer details. There were 2 presentations where I came out having not understood a single word of the presentations, apart from the title, as the images were so metaphorical, I couldn't relate them to the topic. Not always a good idea to be too clever!

      Unfortunately the delivery of that conference wasn't really geared towards you.

      Last edited 29/06/15 10:01 am

    I do measure learning in my classes and find greater success without powerpoint and many lecturers and teachers share the view. I use them at times for hurdle tasks but never as the main component for an assignment.

    Universities measure student satisfaction but they do not measure learning.

    Umm... isn't that what all the tests and assignments are about? Measuring learning?

      Keep reading... the article does address this. (I was originally going to say the exact same thing.)

      "Exams, term papers and group projects ostensibly measure knowledge or ability. Learning is the change in knowledge and skills and therefore must be measured over time."

      Whereas exams and so on only show a snapshot. It does strike me as a fairly tenuous point, as most University courses assume that you do not know the subject material before you start. - the exams measure differences from the assumed pre-knowledge expressed by the course prerequisites.

    The worse use of powerpoint I have ever seen... a university research hospital had a sleep clinic that had a 3 month waiting list for a highly rated sleep health seminar, which I kept being told was really informative etc. 3 months passed by and it was a powerpoint presentation the speaker was reading word for word.

    I completely lost my shit after about 30 minutes... 3 months for a presentation that included basic facts that you find on Wikipedia, hell the PPT could of been emailed to me and I could of read it in my own time.

    Lots of profanity and questions about their incompotence and their abuse of government funding.... hospital security was very nice and asked if I could leave early, and the hospital gave me a free referal to a pyschologist was very much appreciated :P I didn't get to the end of the presentation, but the sting in the tail was they wanted participates in a "sleep study" after the powerpoint, which was a long con to sell them those overpriced sleep-apnea air mask machines which most of them wouldnt of needed.

    The most annoying practice is when lecturers make (powerpoint) slides available, but only after the lecture. During the lecture, they basically suggest you not take notes because it's all there on the slides. As a result any notes you take during the lecture are expanding on the slides you don't actually have yet. Very hard to reconcile afterwards.

    The end result is that your only notes are the (manifestly insufficient) PP slides.

    Last edited 28/06/15 5:10 am

      That would suck. Fortunately in my day the slides were made available prior to the lecture/tut. So you could add to the notes.

    I have been a student on and off for 20 years. Lectures are so stupid when we have other technologies. The thought of attending a lecture that has been repeated 50 times-why? Just record it and make it available. Slides are very important for summaries of information and to provide references for further research. The question should not be if powerpoint slides are redundant, but the lecture format is. I have spent years doing quality distance learning and it is better than attending lectures. We have video, audio, skype, pdf's (why buy books unless you like books), the internet with research databases etc. Slides fit into this technology as a tool for further learning.

    Wearied student.

    Agree! For me it's a matter of how you address the topic with all the available technology. Younger generations are used to technology so they will expect modern stuff when learning. The thinking and analysis are not against the technology or methodology used or viceversa. If a teacher lacks motivation, enthusiasm and is boring no matter what technology he/she uses nobody will be interested. In my business, a lot of people are glad to have access to some education through simple online courses in Powerpoint since their life is busy, complicated and still they have to comply with their continuing education courses.

    Uni's fault for making their main means of being open profit.

    Uni's do not care what you do or dont lear, period.

    There is nothing wrong with powerpoint, it is a tool used to deliver information. The issue is with the delivery, if it becomes the only tool the lecturer uses then you have an issue. If they don't use it effectively then you have an issue.

    I subscribe Kowalski's 10/20/30 rule (10 items, 20 minutes, 30 point font). it serves me well.

    When I was in Uni, it was still mixed, some PPT, some overheads. Some of the overheads being used had dates on them that were as old as me.

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