How to use Powerpoint in your teaching

Good for wallpaper, maybe less so for British Politics 101

The last few weeks have seen me back at the face-to-face teaching thing, with a number of talks, presentations and briefings.

As someone who mostly sits in his shed in his garden, this is a very positive development, especially since all that face-to-face work is happening in warmer spaces than the shed.

However, it has also reminded me about the importance of getting any Powerpoint usage right.

As Amanda has written before, while it’s easy to dunk on Powerpoint, it is ultimately like any tool we use in the classroom: good for some things, bad for others.

Indeed, that I’m writing this nearly a decade after Amanda’s post suggests that both technology and pedagogical practice change more slowly than we might often think.

So let’s run through the key points once again.

First up, focus on your learning objectives. What are you trying to achieve with your teaching? Who needs to learn what?

If you don’t know the answer to this, then everything else falls apart, because it points you towards optimising the opportunities for your audience to learn the things you want them to learn. And the tools you’ll use.

Hence, I didn’t make a Powerpoint for the ‘in discussion’ session I had one evening recently, even though I was asked to make some structured opening comments: I wanted to reduce the distance with the audience, so we discussed, rather than be the guy who turns up with The Answer.

Secondly, tailor your Powerpoint to your audience.

I vividly remember sitting in a panel presentation, years ago, where a guy opened up his 165 page Powerpoint and then jumped around about 15 of those slides to do the presentation of his paper. I did not feel the love and was mostly interested in what else might be in that huge slide deck.

Make a specific Powerpoint for that specific session. Building on your sense of the learning objectives, recognise that each instance that you teach is different and unique, so your materials will be unique too.

Think about how you might present your paper differently to a departmental seminar, a general conference panel, a workshop or to non-academic audiences: all the same source material, but each with different incentives and interests that feed back into what you offer them.

Thirdly, make your Powerpoint functional.

If you ever have to say “you probably can’t read this” or “this isn’t important”, then you’ve failed on this count.

Anything you put on a slide will be paid attention to, read and considered. It’s why lots of text on a slide results in people not paying attention to you speaking: they’re reading.

So only put in what is necessary and nothing more, remembering that your Powerpoint isn’t the only thing that’s going on when you teach.

Personally, it’s why I switched to mostly images for my slides some years back: students are listening to my explanation/interpretation of those images, plus it gives me a degree of freedom and flexibility to adjust to their needs.

Finally, reflect on your practice.

The only time I’ve ever had to break up fisticuffs was when two colleagues argued (very hard) about the Powerpoint that one of them was about to use in their shared class.

Somehow, the upshot was that I spent the next hour in that class, to give some feedback on the offending article (120 slides for a one hour lecture).

Strangely, and even though it’s totally not how I’d have done it, the colleague made pretty good use of that Powerpoint, because it fitted their style of teaching and the needs of the class. But they’d never really had anyone discuss how that worked (and how it might work better) before.

All of us benefit from thinking back on what we’ve done and from getting input from others, including our students. It’s part of why I’ve writing this post: much as I’d like to say I smashed all those face-to-face sessions I’ve been doing, actually I know there’s still room for improvement, improvement that I can take into my next session (which is this weekend).

One Reply to “How to use Powerpoint in your teaching”

  1. Very sensible advice. If anyone’s into getting really creative but also very functional with it, there’s a great little book by a friend of mine (and no I’m not on commission!) who’s worked for decades in advertising. You can find it in all online bookstores: “Everything I Know about Life I Learned from PowerPoint” by Russell Davies.

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