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For most posts on this blog, comments are turned off by default. For reasons why this is the case, and with which I largely agree, see this blog post at Bioethics Bulletin. I will open comments on individual blog posts when I explicitly desire feedback on something I have written. Those comments will be moderated; irrelevant, abusive comments will be sent to the circular file.

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6:30PM

Death by PowerPoint?

I’m a bit late to the party on this topic, since the discussion has been going on for several days. But hey, this is a new blog, and this is a topic that I have had cause to think about this semester.

Jennifer Morton at the fantastic philosophy teaching blog In Socrates’ Wake has posted a bleg[1] about how to effectively use PowerPoint as part of one’s pedagogical toolbox. This is an issue that came up earlier this semester in one of my classes. Using my campus learning management software[2], I ran a poll in the third or fourth week of class asking students how they thought the class was going so far, and how it might be improved. Some students asked for more discussion and group work, which I thought was a good idea.

Doing this meant paring down my slides, so I could get through the essential information more quickly. I figured that this would be a good thing. After all, “Death by PowerPoint” is a real phenomenon.[3] It’s what happens when you overwhelm people with information in presentation slides. The standard advice about presentation slides is that there should be a single main idea per slide, with a small amount of text directing the audience’s attention to a key point.

Generally, I agree with that advice and try to follow it. Sometimes, though, an argument deserves to be written out in its entirety on a slide. This is because it would otherwise take much too long to write it out on a whiteboard, and because students can read much faster than I can write or talk. If I have the argument written out on the slides, though, I can comment on the meanings of the premises and the way in which the argument is supposed to flow logically from premises to conclusion without mechanically reading through the premises themselves.

With the slides thus pared down to essential key points, I use PowerPoint slides in the best way possible - to visually illustrate and reinforce key points from their readings.

The comments on Morton’s post are full of good suggestions. One point of discussion in the comments is this: when should students get access to the slides? Should they have the slides before or after class? Michael Cholbi votes for the latter option, reasoning that some students will skip class and rely on the slides for their notes instead. I see the wisdom behind this suggestion, but I have had some success with letting students have the slides beforehand. My reasoning is this: If they have the slides prior to the lecture, they can annotate their slides with their in-class notes, consisting of reactions and comments on the material. The idea is to recruit their ability to make connections between the key points on the slides and the commentary on those key points that they are hearing from me and from other students.

But in order to avoid students skipping class, the slides can’t be too detailed. There should be an incentive for students to come to class and take notes. Giving students presentation slides with voluminous amounts of detail prior to class strikes me as removing that incentive, and I try to avoid doing that.

Bottom line? Presentation slides can be an effective tool in the teacher’s toolbox, if used correctly. And - bonus, from my point of view - you can integrate Poll Everywhere polls into your slides, which gives students a stake in how the presentation goes.


  1. A blog entry consisting of a request for information or contributions. “Blog” + “beg” = “bleg” (I think).  ↩

  2. My campus uses Angel.  ↩

  3. Consider the advice given on this particular slide show, for example.  ↩

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    I know that this makes me a late adopter, but I am considering using PowerPoint to teach my Intro class next term. I’ve taught this class a few times and I’m comfortable with the mix of lecturing and discussion that I have now. I consult my lecture notes sparingly and have a worked out rhythm that doesn’t require too much preparation on my part. So why change a good thing? Because I think that it is time to take a new look at how I’m teaching the course and try something new.
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