Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Using Power Point Slides

When I was in college, I took a class on the American Presidents. It sounded so interesting in the college catalogue that I did not check it out in advance. Unfortunately, the teacher walked in with a notebook full of yellowed class notes that he proceeded to read to us day after day. He read and we copied (or slept). It was a horrible experience. And, although Richard Nixon was then president of the United States at the time, the class ended with Harry Truman because that is where the professor’s notes ended. I honestly do not believe he had updated those notes in two decades. Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson didn’t exist in that class of American Presidents.

A few years ago I was talking with some of my favorite students about education. I asked them what they liked least. I was surprised that they all expressed the same objection which was verbalized by one as “I hate it when a teacher comes into the room and throws up some Power Point slides and then proceeds to read them to us. I can read for myself.” Is Power Point the equivalent of my teacher reading his ancient notes to us? Yeah, maybe it is.

I have never used Power Point in a college class but I can understand why it is popular with teachers. First, it provides an easy way to organize the material in a logical fashion. Second, once they are made, they can be kept from year to year and save time in the future (hmm, now we are backed to the yellowed notes). Third, many textbook publishers will prepare them for you so the amount of work is slight. Fourth, at many schools, Power Point slides can be made available to the students to serve as study guides.

So, Power Point does have some benefits but what do your students think? I have a couple of suggestions.

--If your student evaluations allow you to do this, add the following question: “Does the teacher use Power Point slides too much, too little, or just the right amount?” Power Point slides can be a lot like bad breath—everyone might know you have a problem before you do. Although I am a heavy critic of student evaluations, I think that kind of question can be very helpful and should be more used on student evaluations.

--If your textbook publisher has Power Point slides available, send those to the students for study purposes. For class, make your own slides. It is your course—for goodness sakes—so design it the way you want. If nothing else, it forces you to think about the material more.

--Never put more than 10 words on a slide. That will break you of the habit of reading them to the students. When I give teaching presentations, I do use Power Point slides but I use them as a prompt for discussion. For example, we discussed inventory today in my Financial Accounting class here at the University of Richmond. If I had used Power Point slides, here are a few that I would have prepared because each of these would have prompted (I believe) some excellent class discussion.

Slide One: Who would possibly use a periodic system in 2010?
Slide Two: Inflation takes place: compare FIFO with LIFO
Slide Three: If you look poorer, why use LIFO?
Slide Four: LIFO conformity – what does it really mean?
Slide Five: You start a business: Would you choose FIFO or LIFO?
Slide Six: IFRS and LIFO - what is going on?

Well, you get the idea. I’ve accomplished what I wanted. I have organized the class in some logical manner and I can either explain the meaning of what I have written or I can ask the students about the meaning. Reading is not a real option. And, these slides don’t take long to prepare and I can use them again.

But, if you do choose to use your slides again next semester, I would urge you to always edit and freshen them up. Don’t simply rely on the same slides each semester from now until 2030. Each semester rethink what you want to cover and how you want to do it and change your slides accordingly.

Used correctly, I think Power Point can be great. However, used poorly, I think we are back to 1969 with my political science teacher reading notes to me that he hadn’t revised since the end of World War II. That's what my students were fussing about.

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