As a slight change of pace, I want to pitch a teaching-related question to the community. Here’s the question: what are the general rules for using PowerPoint effectively as a teaching tool?
The reason I ask is because the answers I have received over the years are remarkably inconsistent. Within the context of my own education, I learned how to do an enormous amount of cool things in PowerPoint during my computer technology courses in high school. Then in college, I learned that we were generally not supposed to use most of those tools (e.g., elaborate transitions, dynamic effects, embedded audio/video) because they distracted members of the audience from the substance of your presentation. I was later told that PowerPoints should contain virtually no text and be almost entirely graphical in nature, but I’ve also seen comedic routines that highlight how convoluted or unnecessary graphs only serve to make the presentation more confusing. I have also witnessed presentations that feature extremely text-heavy slides (e.g., detailed presentations of arguments regimented into premises and conclusions) but are nevertheless excellent. I have been told by some students that text-heavy slides are boring, but other students have told me that text-heavy slides are sometimes preferable because they better serve as aids for reviewing material or outlining key ideas in lectures.
Despite all this disagreement, however, it’s clear that some PowerPoint presentations are genuinely lackluster. The phenomenon of experiencing a bad PowerPoint presentation is so common that the phrase “death by powerpoint” has been coined to describe it, and it is not hard to find how-to lists and Ted Talks devoted to crafting better PowerPoint presentations. Even TeachPhilosophy101 has a section on the topic. So here’s where we come back to the starting question: what are the general rules for using PowerPoint effectively as a teaching tool? I haven’t found many that avoid having a ton of exceptions, but I feel confident in listing a few:
- Avoid using small text.
- Avoid putting more than 6 objects (i.e., items of interest) on a single slide. There’s pretty strong psychological evidence that people have much more difficulty processing 7 items or more than processing 6 items or less.
- Take advantage of contrast to make text easier to read and to highlight what’s most important on each slide.
- Keep graphs simple, and make sure the labels are large enough to be read easily.
- Have your presentation largely committed to memory so that you do not have to read your PowerPoint slides.
I assume these same rules would also apply to PowerPoint alternatives like Prezi and Adobe Slate, though I have little firsthand experience with those presentation mediums. (Readers should feel free to mention whether they think different rules apply to those alternatives.) Is there anything else that we can add to this list? Or do any of you think that some of the rules I’ve listed are misguided?