Using Presentations to Help Students Learn


Handbook and Other Materials l Asking the Right Questions (ARQ) l Training, Consulting, & External EvaluationFAQ

 Introduction l Item Bank

This is a section the Flashlight Evaluation Handbook chapter on getting feedback to improve your computer presentations for instruction.  This section describes how uses of PowerPoint and other computer presentations can affect learning. (At the bottom of this page is a link to some good sources for criteria for evaluating and  improving any kind of slide show (or for grading the communications value of slideshows  if they're created by students.)

There are still a few people around who think that computers are magicó present something on a fancy computer display and students will learn better than if more traditional methods were used.  Fortunately, most of us know that's not automatically true.  When instructors use presentation software such as PowerPoint or a set of pages from the Web, results depend on how the technology is used (including but not limited to the content).  Depending on those 'how factors,' learning outcomes may improve, become worse, or be just the same as before. 

Why are the results of using computer presentations so varied?  After all, one of the more surprising and useful research findings of the 1980s is that the effect of media on learning are over-rated: if the same content is presented in the 'same' way (but with different technology, the learning outcomes on average are about the same. If I speak these words to you, or you read them, or you watch me on a videotape, or you listen to me on streaming audio over the web, or ....: it doesn't seem to make much difference to what you can do, or even what you remember after a few weeks. ("You" in that sentence means people in general.)

But the devil is in the details, and how the medium is exploited, and how well, can make a difference in learning. For example,

  • If students can read and take notes better, course outcomes can be improved. Presentation software can help students learn if they have printouts of the slides which they can use during the lecture to add notes.  That way they can spend more time listening and less time scribbling at top speed. And the slides are more legible and more reliable than student notes on the main points. Some faculty make sure the students can see slides even before they come to class (by posting them on the Web) so that interested students can come to class more prepared.

  • Presentation software can sometimes help the instructor present an idea in a qualitatively different way.  Suppose for example, you want to illustrate a complex process.  One way to do that is to draw the first step of the process on the blackboard, talk about it, erase the picture, redraw it to show the next step, and so on.  In some cases faculty have drawn a series of fifty or more such blackboard images and taken two class periods to illustrate a full process; students struggle to take notes and later to review what they think the faculty member drew.  Presentation software could be used to create a series of 50 slides, each with an explanation. The faculty member can flip quickly through these slides to show the process in motion or step slowly through them.  If the slides are made available to students, the student can review them as quickly, as slowly, and as many times as needed.  Video, too, can play a role in helping students understand ideas in motion.

  • One way to improve learning outcomes is to offer materials or ideas that the student would not otherwise have seen.  Faculty members who previously could only use the blackboard may have consciously or unconsciously avoided teaching content that requires heavy use of photographs, video, diagrams or animations.  Presentation software can help open new options for the content of a course. If the new content is more valuable than what could have been taught before, then the presentation value has certainly helped increase the value of the course.

  • Presentation software need not follow the linear slideshow model. Many modern packages allow the ideas to be linked together in a web, not just in a line. The instructor, for example, can create multiple links from one or more slides . such a web of slides offers more options when the instructor wants to react to what's happening in the class, moment by moment. If the slideshow is linked to the World Wide Web, that further increases the flexibility of the instructional material.

  • Once you begin thinking of the slides as a resource for use outside the classroom, other possibilities present themselves. For example, some packages make it relatively easy to record audio.  This can help students who are more auditory learners and also fill in the gaps left by the cryptic phrases on the slides.  Students don't memorize every word spoken in class -- the audio can be helpful for reviewing the lecture, even for students who heard the lecture days or weeks earlier.

  • Presentation software may help the faculty member move presentations out of the classroom altogether, especially if used in combination with other instructional materials and supports such as textbooks, online quizzing, and e-mail.  If students come to class with a basic notion of the materials to be discussed, the classroom can be used for conversation, debate, practice, coaching and deeper understanding. The problems don't end there, of course. Suppose you use those kinds of strategies and some students still seem unprepared. What was the difficulty? Lazy students? inappropriate quizzes? Poor online instruction? Working with several dozen institutions, we already have done a little thinking about what an assessment package might look like -- something faculty could use to gather data to 'debug' their strategies for helping students prepare before class. If your institution is a Flashlight subscriber and you would like to work with us in drafting such a 'course research' strategy, please send e-mail to

That's been the good news. The bad news, of course, is that misuse of presentation software can also cause a downturn in the student's experience and in learning outcomes. Here are just a few of the potential problems:

  • PowerPoint (and blackboards) can subtly encourage the use of fewer words, not always a good thing!  This article in Wired ("PowerPoint is Evil") summarizes the views of Edward Tufte on this topic, and you may not have seen this view of Abraham Lincoln's PowerPoint-assisted Gettysburg Address.

  • Some faculty members take advantage of presentation software to zip through more slides and more ideas than they could previously have covered, but students can't keep up. The result: ideas that may have be to the instructor and clear on screen but are not clear in most students' minds. And the darkness in the room may make it more difficult for the instructor to notice that the students in the back half of the room are out of the picture.

  • Sometimes rooms have only two lighting levels: too light to see the slides or too dark to stay awake.

  • Technology breaks. If the instructor is not prepared with an "option B" and "option C" the results can be awkward.

  • The metaphor for most presentations is the slideshow: a preplanned linear arrangement of ideas. But good teaching is often adaptive and reactive: shifting in response to student needs, excitement or confusion.  If the teacher allows the slideshow to dictate the order and pace of ideas, learning may be the loser.

  • Most importantly, research tells us that students learn more by what they do (and the feedback that comes to what they do) than from what is explained to them. Doing, feedback, and explanation are all important ingredients in the learning recipe.  A physics faculty member once tested his students' conceptual understanding and realized for the first time that not even his "A" students really grasped the fundamental ideas of the course, he exclaimed, "I'm  a good lecturer. I've been teaching physics for 20 years. And I now realize that you cannot 'tell' people physics. It cannot be done.' So he shifted to a mode of teaching that was driven by what students do: experiments, simulations, exploration, debate.  That doesn't eliminate presentations from the instructor's repertoire.   But it does suggest that many faculty members rely too much on clear, compelling presentations and not enough on student action as modes of learning. 

For more references on using PowerPoint, here's an annotated webliography assembled by Steven Bell when he was Director of the Gutman Library at Philadelphia University.

Criteria for Evaluating the Quality of Slideshows

Whether the presentation is created by students or faculty members, there are criteria (from many sources, and not always consistent with one another) for evaluating and improving them.  Here's a good set of references. You might also want to look at our resource page on rubrics.

 Introduction to chapter on productive feedback on your use of computer presentations  l Inventory (Questions)>

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