To PPT or not to PPT – that is the question

Whether or not to use a (now almost “traditional”) PowerPoint (PPT) presentation when asked to run a session is certainly a good question but it’s not necessarily THE question.  There are many more important questions in education.  However, it is worth thinking about when you are asked to present on a topic to a large number of people.  In medical education, there are a minority of instances in which a single lecture is better (educationally) than a small group or a reality-anchored, case-based discussion in the clinical context.  However, there are increasing instances when budgets and logistics require it – either in person or online.

Should you use Powerpoint or not? Opinions are divided – and strong.  But sometimes the opponents seem to be opposing a straw man (the bad PPT).

With ideas or technologies (as with drugs) there is often a bit of a dialectic: a phase of enthusiasm, a phase of backlash and then a more reasoned compromise.

Powerpoint does have its proponents in education. One argument is that it helps the more modestly skilled performer to get their material across (rather than constraining them). The critics make the point that a lecture is actually a performance anyway (and should be a good performance).  I suspect those who are keen to ditch PPT probably have some natural performing skills already.

I have been around long enough to remember when the usefulness / appeal/ memorability of a lecture depended on how enthusiastic and charismatic the lecturer was. Some certainly weren’t worth going to. Others were most enjoyable and entertaining but the content dissolved into the mists of time and had no permanent impact.  This was the “BP” era – the days Before PowerPoint.  It was quite a relief when we were able to expect that a lecture would have a structure with bullet points and take home messages

The backlash

A Guardian article sums up some of the complaints about PowerPoint, claiming it is making us stupid.  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/23/powerpoint-thought-students-bullet-points-information It has been around for thirty years and concern about it began early.  It is relevant to note how it followed on from the overhead projector and was initially geared toward desktop graphic projection in meetings.  Of course it has now moved on to the point where slides are compulsorily loaded onto websites and students feel no obligation to attend as all the information is assumed to be on the slides.  The Guardian article also notes that students have been known to demand it back when it is withdrawn.

Some critics feel it limits the way we think and oversimplifies issues. Some feel that the intrinsic nature of the design of PPT templates is to blame for poor presentations and others feel that the way information is put on slides can inhibit learning because humans are only designed to learn in a particular way. If you are interested in some of the neuropsychological arguments you could look at work by Stephen Kosslyn (book called Clear and to the Point) who has drawn more optimistic and detailed conclusions about how to structure presentations to achieve better learning outcomes.

Discussion is fairly opinionated and, of course, it is notoriously difficult to get strong, replicable and generalizable evidence about educational methods that are guaranteed to work for you.

Critics also tend to focus on the obvious failures in some presentations. This presentation by Ross Fisher is titled “Everything you know about presentations is wrong” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Cl0xskA9fM and brings up many useful points including tips for improving presentations. It’s a long but listenable-to presentation. He maintains presentations often fail because of “cognitive load”.  He is a paediatric surgeon and well known to many medical professionals involved in education. His “P cubed” framework focusses on story, media and delivery http://ffolliet.com/   The aim is to keep people awake and he comments that the value of a presentation is what the audience thinks it is.

There are some interesting assumptions about how we (all) learn which it would be great to test. If someone talks and has words on a slide does this help learning or does it impede it?   Does it help some learners but hinder others?  Is it better to have an engaging picture while someone talks or is that distracting for some people?

How do we learn?  

There are theories about how we learn and numerous specific studies about the factors influencing effective learning. This article is broader than just presentations: http://result.uit.no/basiskompetanse/wp-content/uploads/sites/29/2016/07/Mayer.pdf “Applying the Science of Learning: Evidence-Based Principles for the Design of Multimedia Instruction”

demonstrates how complex may be the underlying theories. The cognitive theory of multimedia learning states that people learn more deeply when they build connections between verbal and visual representations of the same material and this paper lists studies demonstrating the success of strategies predicted to enhance this. One of the practical messages is not to overload the visual channel.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/acp.3300/full This is quite a specific study on visualisers and verbalisers and the main lesson is probably that it is very complex, there are individual differences and it is very hard to apply in practice.  It was interesting that only for visualizers was learning success substantially impaired if pictures or animations were missing. Certain professions scored differently on the spatial imagery scale, the object imagery scale and the verbal scale.  There was also a suggestion of a gender influence.

Let me confess something. I was probably a serious teenager and I used to attend church to hear sermons that were not short homilies. I enjoyed hour long lectures on topics I liked and had no problem concentrating but now we advise stopping after ten or twenty minutes because of the general issue of concentration span.  I assume a lot of it was to do with motivation, expectations and sub-cultural factors.  I can still remember  the title (but not the content) of a sermon of the 19th century preacher Spurgeon that I read in a rather lengthy collection:  “Hope yet no hope, no hope yet hope.”  I remember it because my great Auntie Ethel saw it over my shoulder when I was reading it and read it out in a broad Yorkshire accent commenting “It’s enough to give you brain fever!”  There are now similar concerns that Powerpoint, in a different way, is giving us “brain paralysis”.  We have certainly moved from a very wordy culture to a more graphic one – although prior to literacy there was much supporting illustration on church walls for instance. A perusal of 19th century newspapers or novels suggests the population was accustomed to more “wordiness” without pictures (even still ones).  When I reflect I realise that I prefer to read a book than listen to an audio version and I compulsively read ahead on PPT slides.

The synthesis / compromise – what works

I am never going to be a dynamic presenter. Just an adequate one.  But it shouldn’t be all about me anyway!  Perhaps we can still structure effective learning experiences.  There are some common themes that emerge from all the reading (and viewing) I have done – in terms of the principles for effective presentations.

This study on Presentation vs Performance: Effects of lecturing style in Higher Education on student preference and student learning  https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ959028 actually seemed to examine the differences between a “good” and a “bad” presentation.  The basic PPT presentation describes PPT at its worst.  The Performance approach included slides with much less text, more images, relaxed manner and varying tone of the speaker, use of personal anecdote and audience interaction.  Needless to say it was more popular and more effective.

Ross Fisher’s positive tips were not too different from the earlier advice for good powerpoint presentations or the article on presentation vs performance. He suggests the slide set, handout and script should be different, he notes the importance of story and suggests a “star moment” in a presentation. He alludes to font size, not being distracted by logos or too many words and he emphasises the importance of any performance: projecting to the audience and practising.

The following are two nice brief pages from University of Leicester of practical hints about presentations.

https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/presentations/delivering-presentation

https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/presentations/visual-aids

This readable article reviews some of the evidence regarding the learning outcomes of lectures with and without powerpoint. http://www.hagerstowncc.edu/sites/default/files/documents/14-fletcher-powerpoint-research-review.pdf  It indicates that PowerPoint has no significant impact on learning – but students like it.  However, the way it is used affects learning.     An assertion-evidence approach is best (read the article for the details) and with or without PowerPoint, lectures are less effective than methods using active learning. This is a good warning to not be seduced into providing only lectures, however good, and to assess your goals, the audience size, the topic, the venue and so forth as you choose an appropriate method.  It is an encouragement to continue the broader task of structuring  learning experiences in all the contexts of learning.

Currently I am preparing a PechaKucha presentation (a style originating in a Japanese architecture office) and trying to apply a few of the principles above – quite a challenge!

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