PowerPoint Studies

As communications scholars gather, they consider how to teach its use in public speaking courses, and how to use digital slides in their own lectures.
November 13, 2009

CHICAGO -- When Dianna Wynn starting teaching public speaking at North Carolina's Nash Community College, PowerPoint wasn't an issue. Nobody used it.

While Wynn said she feels "fairly competent now," she said that she still has this "feeling tugging at me" that she doesn't know "how to teach it well." Judging by the standing room only audience at a session here at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association, Wynn has plenty of company. Fellow communication professors, especially those who teach public speaking, said that they were not satisfied with their lesson plans on the subject or with the way most of their colleagues use the ubiquitous technology.

At the session Thursday, professors discussed what the textbooks say, what the trade books say, and what the latest research says about the use of PowerPoint.

Debra Waddell of Cascadia Community College noted that even as some faculty members joke about bad PowerPoints and their overuse, students consider it "expected" that they will learn about how to produce the presentations, and consider that this is a skill their employers, in turn, will expect them to have.

Waddell reviewed what the leading textbooks in public speaking say about PowerPoint. Most of what she found was practical -- with an emphasis on type size, the use of bullets, number of words per line, color contrast and so forth. The textbooks also contain lots of guidance on the importance of practice in order to deliver a presentation well and the need to talk to the audience, not the slides.

Isa Engleberg of Prince George's Community College reviewed what the trade books say about producing PowerPoints and she found a key difference: The trade books have theories and philosophies in a way that the textbooks don't. While Engleberg said she didn't agree with all of the philosophy, she said it was valuable to have theories with which to consider the presentations. "We're not using our own principles to teach," she said.

For instance, the trade books are much more focused on the idea of story telling and creating a narrative, she said. Others are based in cognitive science, and still others in theories of design.

In many ways, Engleberg said, communications instructors need to apply the same ideas they use in teaching public speaking. They ask students all the time "What's the goal of your talk?" and "How are you trying to reach your audience?" and they need to be asking those same questions about PowerPoint.

Star Muir, who helps faculty members at George Mason University learn PowerPoint -- and helped redesign the public speaking courses there to include more instruction on the tool -- reviewed some of the current research on how people generally and students in particular view PowerPoint.

A common problem, he said, is that those giving a talk don't realize the issues associated with presenting information visually at the same time they are talking -- and they don't realize the full power of the visual information to detract from their lecture to their students. To illustrate his point about "dual coding" and "limited mental capacity," Muir asked everyone in the audience to make an O with the thumb and index finger on one of their hands. They he told the audience members to place the O on their chins. But as he told them to do so, he actually placed his O on his cheek, not his chin. Everyone in the audience followed his visual cue, not what he told them to do.

His point, Muir said, was not to discourage use of PowerPoint, but to stress the difficulty of doing it well. And doing PowerPoint well doesn't mean going for every bell and whistle, he said -- given that many of them may not in fact add to students' learning.

Generally, he said that surveys have found that students like to see PowerPoint used in their classes, but are very critical of poor presentation skills, especially when a professor just reads the slides.

And a more serious problem may be on the horizon, Muir said. The popularity of PowerPoint with students related in part to its being relatively new, and representing a new way to follow a lecture. With the current generation of college students, PowerPoint is "old school" and Muir predicted that such students will be more difficult to impress and teach with PowerPoint. "The novelty is wearing off," he said.

One other sign that the novelty may be wearing off: All three presentations at a session on PowerPoint were made without PowerPoint, although the respondent did use one.


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