PowerPoint: Let’s Make a Meal of It

Steve Volk, October 3, 2016

PowerPoint is used by a huge (I believe that’s the technical term!) number of faculty, students, administrators, business people, yoga instructors, plumbers, toddlers, and just about anyone else you can name except your cat. (Now we know who’s the smart one in the family.) In this post, I wanted to raise the question of whether we should be sharing slides with our students: If yes, then when (before or after class), and in what format (verbatim from class or edited, as slides or PDFs); if no, why not?

But then I thought: Why not make a whole meal of it and go over various aspects of PowerPoint use, not necessarily the technical (how do I get the transitions I want between slides, how on earth do I insert video, etc.?) but more the educational and aesthetic side of it. So, put your napkin on your lap, have your fork and knife at the ready, and let’s tuck in.

Amuse Bouche:

Is it PowerPoint, Power Point, or Powerpoint? Microsoft would have us believe that it’s PowerPoint, but are we going to let them boss us around? Well maybe for this time only for sake of consistency.

Appetizer: What makes for a good PowerPoint presentation.

Beyond a doubt, the best book ever on PowerPoint design (only 32 pages! only $2.00!)  is by Edward Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Tufte, if you’ve been busy updating your Facebook status for the last few decades, is a statistician, artist, and Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Statistics, and Computer Science at Yale University. Tufte has been called the “Leonardo da Vinci of data” (New York Times), the “Galileo of graphics” (Business Week), and the “Gordon Ramsay of visualization” (Food and Drink). OK, I made the last one up.

Tufte is the one who made the chart below instantly recognizable to millions. He describes this as “probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” It is a map by Charles Joseph Minard that graphically portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812. The peach-colored band is the size of Napoleon’s army as he marches into Russia from the Polish border; the black-colored band is its size as he retreated from Moscow. The temperature and time scale is below. If we have some military historians in the crowd, throw out your lecture on the defeat of Napoleon and just show this graphic.

Charles Minard, Napoleon's Russia Campaign, 1812

Charles Minard, Napoleon’s Russia Campaign, 1812

That’s Tufte and Minard. Breathtaking suggestions on how to use information graphically, i.e., now to make interesting PowerPoint slides. Given that we’re mere mortals looking for tips on how to improve our slides, I’d turn to the following for useful advice:

I’ve already clearly ignored Godin’s recommendations about bullets and the NRA, so I’ll continue the appetizer with a few summary points when thinking about improving your slides:

  • Fewer words per slide! There are a number of reasons for this besides the obvious: Your slides should not be your lecture written out and distributed in chunks that you then read to your students. Fewer words per slide (can you keep it to 6?). This will:

(a) Force you to concentrate on what you think the main point is that your students should be getting;

(b) Allow your students to concentrate on that main point;

(c) Allow for more discussion about those points;

(d) More easily engage students than if they are frantically trying to copy down what’s on the screen EVEN if they know you will share your slides with them.

  • Design a slide using images or other data visualization in order to help students absorb the central points you want them to remember; Tufte’s main point, and the essence of all data visualization work, is that good graphics can bolster learning. Just imagine teaching a course in biology or physics, for example, without the use of a graphic, chart or image to help explain a point.
  • Communicate emotions: Research shows that memory is enhanced through emotional engagement. Slides that convey emotion can help students remember the content that is being discussed.

For more information on data visualization and image use in the classroom, see “Drawing to Learn: Beyond Visualization.”

Main Course: Slide Sharing with a Side of How and When

spagettiSo we’ve reached the main course: Should we share slides with our students? The answer, of course, depends on many factors. But let’s dig in:

Slides that are primarily textual. It’s probably a good idea to share your slides with students if they primarily carry content information that would be hard for them to copy down or take notes on during class. This is particularly the case for information that will be needed later (on exams or papers, for example). Further, making this information available will remove any disadvantage from students who are not fast writers (either on laptops or with pen and paper), have not yet developed good note-taking skiills, or who, because of a disability, are literally unable to take note s effectively. (Note: not all students who, because of a documented disability are eligible to be assigned a college-provided note-taker, will actually take advantage of this.)

The question here is more when as opposed to if. Some faculty will provide slides of their lectures prior to the lecture; some only after. The answer (as with so much else) depends on your overall purpose in the lecture. Faculty who don’t want to distribute slides before the lecture argue that students will have no reason to come to class; faculty who don’t want to distribute slides after the lecture say that it’s “unfair” to those who “sat through class” to distribute them to those who didn’t make the effort to attend class. To both sets of faculty I would just say: something else should be happening in class that makes attendance critical (and not just an attendance policy).

It makes sense to distribute slides to class prior to the class if they will help students learn more effectively during the class session itself. Students should be able to use the information to better prepare themselves for learning in the class, to ask more effective questions, to pursue lines of thought they couldn’t develop in class on the spur of the moment. I would often think that if I gave students the slides before class, I’d be giving away all my good “punch lines” and they’d be bored in class (or see that I had prepared and wasn’t “spontaneous”). That certainly would be the case if one is doing no more than reading from slides, but concepts, to be learned, need frequent reiterations, so you’re really not giving anything away by sharing slides before class.

It makes sense to distribute slides after class in most cases (see below for exceptions), since they become yet another source that students can refer to when studying the course material. Slides, even if they contain only a few words of information, can help students recall central concepts and “replay” class discussions. To the extent that your slides function as mnemonic devices, why withhold them from students. (If you’re not already doing this, uploading your slide set to Blackboard is as simple as uploading any other file.)

opposingIf you are lecturing from notes on your PowerPoint slides and only want the students to see the slides themselves since you have other information on “background” in the “notes” section that you’re not using in the presentation (e.g. “Stress this point because Emily and Sam seem to miss it consistently”), you can either make an edited slide set to upload, or, more simply, convert the set to a pdf and upload that; it will only capture your slides, not the notes. (From the main PowerPoint menu, simply “save as” a PDF.)

Slides that are mostly graphic, with images only. The main question here is whether the slides can be intelligible to the viewer (students) without you as an interpreter. Most of my slides, for example, are images which make little sense without the context I (or other students in class) provide. So I don’t distribute slides before a class, but I do make them available after the class so serve, as I noted above, as mnemonic devices for the students.


Other considerations.

  1. Use of copyright images or other material: images that you use in class are protected; images that you post to Blackboard are protected; but if students take your images and use them in ways that are not protected, well, that could violate copyright law. At the very least, make sure your images are credited and that you have discussed proper image use with your students.
  2. Your slides are, after all, your slides, your intellectual property. I’ve discussed before reasons why faculty might not want to share their syllabi on the internet. The same considerations would apply to your slide set. This would come down to an individual’s choice regarding how one thinks about intellectual property and its sharing. But I would stress that sharing slide sets with students via Blackboard is in a different category, and that faculty should be encouraged to do this for the reasons listed above. (You can always put a notice on the first slide: Property of x; all rights reserved.)

Dessert: Taking Microsoft off the Table: Keynote, other presentation software?

Microsoft’s PowerPoint, of course, is the standard. Much like “zipper” or “Xerox,” the term has come to stand in for all presentation software. Mac users are familiar with Keynote (which I’ve usually found to be a better presentation software in many ways), but Keynote doesn’t play nice with those who don’t have Macs and if you are combining slides with a PowerPoint user, it’s a giant headache.

Prezi is another option, and you’ve probably see it in operation at a conference. (If you’ve ever wondered why the “slides” seem to be moving from place to place on a very large canvas, that’s Prezi.) Prezi is wonderful in the kinds of engaging presentations you can create, seamlessly inserting visuals, text, and video, but you travel a fairly steep learning curve before you can learn to employ it very effectively, and if you don’t manage it well, your viewers will likely suffer from motion sickness as they are whiplashed around the screen.


Slidebean, another source of presentation software, has a website on the “Best Presentation Software of 2016” which, not surprisingly, finds their own product to be the best. Visme, another company, has its own “top 10” list of PowerPoint alternatives. (Guess who’s #1?). The good folks in OCTET can offer their own opinions. But for the vast majority of us, the choice comes down to using the presentation software that is most readily available, easiest to use, and most accessible to all of our students.

If that’s the case, than the key is learning how to use it in the best possible ways, i.e., in ways that help students learn and remember the most. A Prezi presentation might be just the thing for a conference, but not necessarily for sharing with your students. So in choosing presentation software, as with any educational technology, always focus on what are your primary learning goals and use the technology that can most easily serve those goals.

The Chocolates on the Table

I hope your appetite for presentation software is fully sated, but if you’re still hungry for more, send me some comments on how you use PowerPoint or other presentation software. I’m happy to prepare another feast.

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