Good teaching matters, pt. 5: Create simple Power Point presentations

Dr. Barbara Martin, a former professor in the College of Education at the University of Central Florida and at Kent State University in educational technology and educational psychology, specializes in instructional design (ISD), criterion-referenced testing, evaluation strategies, distance education, and instructional theory. She has written articles on ISD and educational technology, including a book on designing instruction for affective behaviors.

In the last episode of this five-part series, Good Teaching Matters: five teaching practices to improve the quality of a training course, Barbara shares her expertise and experiences aligning technical information with effective training.   Whether you’re an educator or a student, you’ll want to read Martin’s piece on five important teaching practices that can improve the quality of a training course.

When slides and transparencies were widely used, course developers used a rule-of-thumb that said no more than eight to ten words should be included on any one slide. This is still a good rule even though we are now using PowerPoint (PP) slides.  It is good because it forces the instructor to talk to the students rather than reading the slides to them.  Unfortunately, many instructors cram as much information as they can onto a slide so that it will trigger their memory when they are teaching.  However, the tendency is for instructors to read the information to the learners rather than to teach it.  Since learners can read faster than a presenter can talk, students may read the whole slide while the instructor may still be discussing the first point.  Students are often ready to move on while the instructor is still reading.

The alternative is to build PP slides that allow the learner to view only one main point at a time. That main point should be stated in ten words or less. An effective way to build a PP slide is to add one concise line at a time, in logical sequence.  This is called progressive disclosure.  It focuses the students’ attention on the one idea being discussed and it prevents students from reading ahead.

Instructors often include as much information as will fit on each slide. There appear to be two reasons for this. First, PP provides a set of notes for the instructor to use during the presentation. In effect, the PP becomes an instructor manual. Second, the instructor wants to give students a full set of notes ― and students want those notes, too.  A good strategy to meet these needs without overloading each slide is to make two sets of slides: first, a set with all the detail, for use as lecture notes and handouts; and second, an edited-down projection set containing just the key words and ideas.  Using the edited-down set forces the instructor to discuss the information on the slide rather than simply read it to the audience.

With these two ideas in mind, progressive disclosure and a “projection” set of PP, here are some tips that may help you improve the design and presentation of your PP slides.

Design Tips:

  • Use progressive disclosure.  There is a feature on PP that allows you to do this quite easily.  Under “Animations,” use the “Fly in” and “Fade” commands.
  • Keep it simple.  This includes visuals, pictures, lettering and word art, fonts, colors, and the amount of information.
  • Communicate without words using graphics, photographs, and illustrations whenever possible.  However, keep them simple too.  Instructors tend to like to use all the PP bells and whistles and to include a lot of distracting motion and fade-in features ― what software designers call “dancing baloney.” Research shows that too many bells and whistles can detract from learning.
  • Ask the students to do something with the information presented on some slides.  For example, ask questions about the visuals, present problems that have to be solved, or make “nonsense” statements that students have to correct.  This requires the learner to apply what they are learning.

Presentation Tips:

  • Paraphrase the information on the PP slides, don’t read it. Remember that students can read faster than you can talk.  Use complementary messages (i. e., use different words and phrases) and dual channels (senses), (i.e., visuals, words, and movements) to make the same point.
  • Talk to the audience, not the media.  How many times have you sat in a class or presentation where the instructor was reading the information on the slide and therefore had his/her back to you?  Do you really want the audience to remember the back of your head?  If you have only a few key ideas on the PP, they should serve as a memory jogger.  A quick glance at the screen is all you will need to remind you what to teach.
  • Move out of the way of the screen so everyone can see.  Instructors should be very conscious of obstructions, including where they are standing, that block the screen. Get yourself a laser pointer and stand away from the screen so that everyone has a good visual line to the PP slide.
  • This tip is a corollary to the one above.  Turn the projector off when you are:  (1) not using it and (2) when there is nothing on the screen. This is especially true if you have finished using the PP slide and want to make other points.  A bright white screen will draw the learners’ attention to it.  Student will focus their attention there rather than on what you are saying.  Use the “B” key on your computer keyboard to make the screen go black.  Push the “B” key again and you will go back to the same slide..

In summary, PP can be a terrific teaching tool.  However, some have called modern-day training, death by PowerPoint.  It has been overused and often poorly used.  To make it more effective,  remember to keep your PP slides and your graphics simple, use progressive disclosure, and ask learners to apply what they are learning.  In addition, paraphrase your message, talk directly to your students, make sure everyone can see the screen and turn the projector off when you are not using it.


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