I’ve just started as a lecturer on an eye programme. One of the experienced members of the faculty has advised me not to rely on PowerPoint during my lectures. His view is that students learn nothing from listening to a PowerPoint presentation. Is he correct? 

I think your colleague is correct. During the last 5 years of my work as a university lecturer, I tried very hard to move away from using live PowerPoint presentations to help students learn. 

 There are many well-documented problems with using PowerPoint presentations in university classes and many areas of work. 

 During a PowerPoint presentation, the audience has two sources of information that are vying for their attention. They can focus on the presenter’s speech and absorb the information they’re hearing, or they can focus on the slides and absorb what that they’re seeing. This conflict in attention leads to distraction and an inability to process the information. If the presenter is simply reading off the slides, this split is less of a problem. Sadly, many presenters think that reading from slides to a room full of people makes for a good learning experience and good use of time. It doesn’t 

 On the contrary, if the presenter is offering more information than what’s present on the slide, or the slide contains visuals that are designed to complement the presenter, the audience again has the difficult task of splitting their attention to accommodate both information sources. Without being able to focus on one source, they become less likely to retain the information that’s being presented to them. Even worse, those in the audience who chose to focus solely on the presenter or the PowerPoint slide potentially miss out on a great deal of important information. 

 Some presenters try hard to cram too many words into each slide making many of them difficult to see. Others add pictures to emphasise the text. Most of the pictures I see in PowerPoint slides add no value to the audience at all. So, now the audience has to listen to the presenter, read the slide, and look at a picture. 

 The way PowerPoint slides are usually set out, a heading with bullet points underneath, is very linear. A major point and then some sub-points, which follow on from the major one. Different directions of thought, different ideas, other ways of thinking are all lost in this linear setting out of information. The thinking is logical but not life-like. In life, there are many other viewpoints, thoughts, and ideas. The narrative style of the information set out in a book chapter or a research paper are far better aids to use for learning. The narrative style of written work avoids the linearity of a PowerPoint slide. In narrative documents, a story can be told. There is no story to be had from a series of bullet points. 

 To counteract the linear restriction, companies are moving towards a more narrative structure, due to our brains being naturally hardwired to process, understand, and engage a story. It’s the same reason that Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, has banned the use of PowerPoint in company meetings. Instead, his teams spend the first 30 minutes of the meeting reading a multi-page memo with a narrative structure in order to improve learning and engagement with everyone involved. 

 In my classes, I posted PowerPoint lectures online along with links to key book chapters and expected the students to read these before the class. Then in the class, I would spend time on areas of the topic that students had difficulty with in the past, answered questions that had been emailed to me, and problems solved by applying the theories and concepts from the book chapter and the PowerPoint slides. I would have preferred not to have used any slides at all and just used book chapters and research papers but I meant with resistance from students…and sadly other members of faculty. 

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