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Dr Dawn T. Nicholson
Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences
Lecture Delivery Using MS PowerPoint: Staff and Student Perspectives at MMU
Increasingly, traditional face-to-face lectures are being delivered using presentation software such as Microsoft PowerPoint. Educationalists have argued that the use of presentation software can encourage a more active learning environment (Hunt 1998), that it can increase the effectiveness of classroom lectures (Sammons 1997) and that it lends greater clarity to lectures, making them easier to follow (Rossen et al 1997). Rocklin (1998) suggests the use of PowerPoint can help teachers to "help their students learn" while Creed (1997) counter-argues that PowerPoint is teacher-centred and that in some senses it can be a "bad pedagogical tool". So which is it? No-one would seriously suggest that the use of technology can solve all difficulties which arise in classroom teaching, nevertheless, it is clear (eg Rocklin 1997; Hunt 1998) that there are benefits from using presentation software. It is important, from both an educational and practical perspective to understand the pros and cons of using PowerPoint in classroom teaching. It is also helpful; if we appreciate the particular viewpoints of staff and students on its use.
To this end, a questionnaire survey of staff and students in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences was conducted through February and March 2002. The students were asked 16 questions (Table 1). Results were collated separately for first, second and third year undergraduates to see if any patterns would emerge relating to year group. Staff were asked 11 questions (Table 2). Some members of staff were subsequently asked for verbal input to pursue some of their responses at a deeper level. In all, 20 staff and 77 students (first year 36; second year 27; third year 14) completed questionnaires.
Table 1: Questions addressed to EGS staff
- Do you use PowerPoint to give lecture presentations to students?
- Do you give PowerPoint presentations at conferences or in circumstances other than teaching in higher education?
- IF your answer to question 1 was 'never', why do you not use PowerPoint?
- Have you used PowerPoint for purposes other than giving presentations?
- At which student levels (foundation, undergraduate and postgraduate) do you use PowerPoint to give lectures?
- If you use PowerPoint at some levels and not others, is this unrelated to pedagogical issues (eg because you only teach certain student levels) or is it a conscious decision to provide a different style of teaching at different levels?
- What do you regard as the main practical benefits of using PowerPoint in teaching?
- In your experience, which of the following PowerPoint features do you regard as being of particular pedagogical value in giving lectures (animations and layering; graphics and colour; hyperlinks to other files or web pages)?
- In your experience, do you think that PowerPoint presentations encourage active participation; increase the clarity of your lecture notes; are more engaging for students; address varied learning styles; enable you to relax more during lectures?
- In your experience, what do you see as the main problems with giving PowerPoint presentations?
- Would you be willing to discuss your responses in a short meeting with me?
Table 2: Questions addressed to EGS students
- Approximately what percentage of ALL your first year lectures have been delivered by lecturers using PowerPoint computer projection (NOT 35mm slides or overhead transparencies)?
- Do you agree that PowerPoint presentations add clarity to the content of lectures (strongly agree, agree, no opinion, disagree, strongly disagree)?
- Do you agree that PowerPoint presentations help to make the structure of lectures clearer?
- Do you agree that PowerPoint presentations are more engaging and interesting?
- Do you agree that the use of images and colour in PowerPoint presentations is particularly helpful?
- Do you agree that the use of animations (moving images) and layering (where an image is built up a bit at a time) is particularly helpful in PowerPoint presentations?
- Do you agree that the use of hyperlinks to other web sites and documents is very helpful in PowerPoint presentations?
- Have you witnessed any technological problems when tutors have used PowerPoint for lectures (eg could not get screen image; data projector would not work; laptop would not 'fire up'; could not get network connection etc)? If you answered YES, please briefly describe what the problem was and indicate how much disruption it caused to the lecture(s) concerned.
- Do you think that you learn more effectively when PowerPoint is used to give lectures?
- When you are NOT given PowerPoint-generated handouts, does the use of PowerPoint to present lectures help your notetaking or hinder it?
- When you ARE given PowerPoint-generated handouts, does the use of PowerPoint to present lectures help your notetaking or hinder it?
- Do you agree that it benefits your notetaking if PowerPoint files are put on the Internet so you can check your notes after the lecture?
- Taking all things into account, would you prefer lectures to be given using PowerPoint?
- Taking all things into account, would you prefer to be given PowerPoint-generated handouts?
- Would you like the usage of PowerPoint among tutors to give lectures to increase, decrease or stay the same?
- Please make any additional comments about the use of PowerPoint to give lectures or to provide handouts overleaf.
FINDINGS OF THE SURVEY: STAFF PERSPECTIVES
Current usage of PowerPoint
The pattern of usage of PowerPoint among staff to deliver presentations perhaps tells us something about the driving force behind acquisition of the necessary software skills: 40% of lecturers used PowerPoint to deliver lectures to students at least sometimes, while the equivalent was 60% for conferences and other presentations. While only 30% used PowerPoint to deliver presentations 'always' or 'frequently', 75% used the software to create overhead transparencies; 50% used it to create handouts for students; 30% used it to develop large posters; and 25% used it to make 35mm slides. Use of PowerPoint to deliver lectures for students at different levels (foundation, first, second, third year and postgraduate) was very similar. Where there were year group differences for individual lecturers, this was simply a function of teaching commitments at different levels rather than any conscious decision to use the software for some styles of teaching and not others.
For the seven lecturers who said they never used PowerPoint to deliver lectures, the time involved in setting up equipment prior to the lecture was unanimously cited as the major disincentive. A close second was the hassle involved in booking projection and computing equipment out. Other reasons cited (a long way behind, though) were the time required to prepare a lecture using PowerPoint software compared to a conventionally delivered lecture. One lecturer did not know how to use the software and another argued, interestingly, that students' learning might be adversely affected by this mode of delivery.
A number of other disincentives were raised including the possibility of encountering equipment or technological problems at the start of a lecture; poor viewing angle and lighting (particularly a problem in small teaching rooms); and lack of permanent hardware (again, an issue for smaller lecture theatres and teaching rooms). Another lecturer raised the issue of having lots of 35mm slides for use in teaching which would have to be converted to digital form in order to give in PowerPoint presentations. This is a particular issue for teaching in certain subject disciplines such as geography and environmental sciences which often rely heavily on the use of images of field locations.
Lecturers who do use PowerPoint to deliver lectures were asked to indicate the main problems involved. Hardware and software issues were cited unanimously. These included problems with transferring files via zip disk, floppy disk and CD; lack of permanent hardware in smaller lecture theatres and teaching rooms; and lack of portable pc's; unreliability of technology/hardware at the start of lectures. Four lecturers also cited time involved in lecture preparation as a further disincentive.
Practical and technological issues
Respondents were asked to rank a series of practical benefits of using PowerPoint to deliver lectures and two emerged as most popular by far: The facility to produce overhead transparencies and/or 35mm slides and the facility to be able to prepare handouts for students. A number of other benefits were suggested by staff including the ability to control the speed of notetaking of the students and the ease of updating and storing files. Five respondents also considered the process of delivering the lecture to be easier and more relaxing than conventional lecture delivery.
Respondents felt that the main pedagogical benefits of using PowerPoint to deliver lectures was the increased clarity of teaching material for students and a more engaging presentation (partly because of the 'novelty' factor). Respondents also considered that the ability to be able to use graphics was of key pedagogic value compared with the use of animations, layering and hypertext links. On a less positive note, one respondent felt that PowerPoint presentations encouraged students to focus on presentation style rather than on the content and substance of lectures and that this would inevitably discourage active participation. Another respondent felt that PowerPoint presentations discouraged good notetaking by the students, while another commented that PowerPoint presentations lack spontaneity.
FINDINGS OF THE SURVEY: STUDENT PERSPECTIVES
Current receipt of PowerPoint for lecture delivery
Students estimated that 34% of lectures were delivered using PowerPoint (mean from all estimates) but this hides significant differences in distribution during a three year degree. The mean percentage of lectures delivered using PowerPoint was 53% for first years, 11% for second years and 26% for third years. More than half of all students selected <10% or 10-20% as the estimated percentage of lectures delivered using PowerPoint while 39% of first year students gave estimates of >70%. The apparent differences in perception between staff and students of year group patterns may simply reflect the fact that staff were only asked if they had ever used PowerPoint to deliver first, second and third year lectures, not the proportion delivered to each group.
There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that PowerPoint is used less commonly in some disciplines (eg human geography) than others (eg more science-based subjects). This may reflect the nature of the topics, in that the use of colour, animations and images might be deemed less useful in the humanities, or it may indicate a greater affinity of scientists with technology.
Practical and technological issues
Almost half (47%) of students had witnessed 'technological' problems with many examples being cited. The most common difficulties cited were problems getting the projector or computer to 'fire up' at the start of lectures, difficulties establishing Internet connections (or finding 'dead' links), inability to get images on screen and hardware problems (laptops crashing and cable confusion!). In most cases, students said the resulting delays amounted to a few minutes but there were also examples of lectures being delayed by 15-30 minutes and even, in one case, of a lecture being abandoned.
There was good general agreement among students that PowerPoint presentations add clarity to the content of lectures (77%) and make their structure easier to follow (76%). Students also agreed that the use of images and colour (84%) and animations and layering (73%) are particularly helpful. Students were slightly more ambivalent about PowerPoint presentations being more engaging and interesting (66% in agreement, 34% no opinion/disagree) and about the value of hyperlinks (48% in agreement, 48% no experience, 4% disagree).
Of all students asked, 66% felt they learned more effectively when PowerPoint was used to deliver lectures and only 1% felt they learned less effectively. These totals belie significant differences between year groups, with 83% of first years claiming more effective learning compared with 36% of second years and 71% of third years. It is notable that 60% of second years felt their learning was about the same, compared with 17% of first years and 29% of third years. These patterns broadly reflect the percentage of lectures delivered using PowerPoint for each of these year groups. So, it seems the more PowerPoint lectures students receive, the more positive impact on their learning effectiveness. More likely, second year, and to a lesser extent, third year students, receive PowerPoint lectures intermittently - perhaps by one or two individuals who make small contributions to some of their units. If this is the case, it may be the variation or lack of consistency in teaching styles which has more impact on learning effectiveness than, specifically, the use of PowerPoint.
Given the high degree of value placed by staff on PowerPoint-generated handouts, it was considered important to gauge students' opinion on these handouts. In the absence of handouts, 49% of students felt that PowerPoint presentations helped notetaking while 36% said there was no change. When handouts were given, these figures changed to 60% and 37% respectively. Almost no students felt the use of PowerPoint had any deleterious effect on notetaking. Students made lots of comments relating to the way in which the use of PowerPoint helps or hinders their notetaking: Many considered the use of PowerPoint helps notetaking because of increased clarity, easier to follow structure and the use of colour. They also felt PowerPoint may hinder notetaking if insufficient time is given to make notes before slides are changed (though perhaps this is a generic problem) and sometimes poor lighting or screen glare can cause problems. Students were also vociferous about the provision of PowerPoint-generated handouts: Most felt that the provision of handouts helped notetaking because they could concentrate more on what was being said by the lecturer and simply annotate handouts. Interestingly, a few students said they preferred to make their own notes, and some found difficulty annotating the small boxes typically re-produced in PowerPoint-generated handouts.
An overwhelming 91% of students found the uploading of PowerPoint files onto the Intranet to be beneficial.
An overwhelming majority (91%) of students said they would prefer lectures to be given using PowerPoint and 83% said they would like to be given PowerPoint-generated handouts. However, it is not clear from the questions asked whether students would like (i) PowerPoint-generated handouts rather than none; or (ii) PowerPoint-generated handouts rather than handouts produced by other means.
When asked if they would like the usage of PowerPoint among their tutors to increase, 75% of students responded with 'yes'. The fact that this figure is lower than the 91% who expressed a general preference for PowerPoint-delivered lectures partly reflects the large number of first year students who already experience a high percentage usage of the software. There were only small differences between year groups in response to this question. The third year group included the only student who expressed a preferred for a decrease in the use of PowerPoint, but also the highest proportion who wanted an increase in its use.
The fear factor.....
It is evident that most staff are familiar with PowerPoint software and are already using it to generate overhead transparencies, handouts and 35mm slides. There is a suggestion, however, that some lack the confidence to use the software for its primary purpose which is to run a slide show presentation. This is partly due to a lack of familiarity with practical steps for setting up projection equipment and computer software, and with file transfer procedures, and partly due to the fear of things going wrong at the start of the lecture during setting up. Nevertheless, there are several steps which can be followed to minimise problems.
Attendance at training sessions is always a good idea, such as the 'new lecture theatre technology' series recently run by the Learning and Teaching Unit (see the article by Robert Ready in this issue). However, training is usually only effective if immediately followed with regular practice otherwise important steps can be quickly forgotten. Ideally, people should have practice giving PowerPoint presentations in a non-threatening environment such as an informal departmental research group. Giving a debut presentation to 200 first year students in a large lecture theatre is probably not a good idea! It is worthwhile asking a sympathetic colleague to 'observe' a presentation to provide peer feedback. This practice of peer review is rarely conducted but can be extremely helpful.
Anecdotal evidence suggests it is easy to get a little flustered at the start of PowerPoint lectures - primarily because of the 'fear factor' of things going wrong during setting up. By way of consolation it is worthwhile bearing in mind the fact that many staff questionnaire respondents considered the delivery phase of PowerPoint lectures to be more 'relaxing' than comparable conventional methods such as talk and chalk or overhead projection.
I was recently alerted to this aspect myself when I gave a talk using overhead transparencies for the first time in a couple of years. I found myself much 'busier' than usual - peeling off backing paper from acetates; attempting to uncover points in a bulleted list using a sheet of paper; exchanging overhead transparencies; and switching the projector on and off between slides. In an experiment, Lowry (1999) switched from overhead projection to PowerPoint delivery of lectures and as a result found an improvement in student's performance. He argues that one of the reasons for this improvement is the removal of these sorts of activities which are sources of disruption to the structure of the lecture. When I returned to my office after the talk I had to spend several minutes re-ordering the overhead transparencies - perhaps because I had been slightly too flustered to stack them neatly during the presentation itself. This experience contrasts with a typical PowerPoint presentation in which I hold the mouse in one hand and click away! I am not tied to a projector - I have the freedom to move around somewhat (depending on the length of cable!). I also do not have to uncover bulleted lists because the technology does it for me at the click of a mouse. I do not have to fiddle with any paper at and my lecture notes are in front of me (rather than on the table, slightly out of reach of the projector) in the form of 'notes pages' printed out directly from PowerPoint. Of course, it's a matter of 'horses for courses' - but it isn't until you've done it and practiced it that these simple benefits become evident.
|A tip to avoid problems with file uploading is to always carry a back-up using a different form of storage. For example, a PowerPoint file can be taken to the lecture theatre on both a floppy and a zip disk (or CD). This avoids having to use overhead transparencies as a back-up - which, frankly, is a waste of time and resources. Even if staff personal computers do not have a zip or CD drive available - they are normally accessible at some central computers within most departments. For those who are not familiar with zip discs - as I wasn't a few months ago - they are used in much the same way as floppy discs (ie they are re-usable) but have a much greater storage capacity. They come in two 'sizes', 100Mb and 250Mb. Computers with a 250Mb zip drive will take either size but some of those in the central lecture theatres only take the 100Mb size.
Student questionnaire responses and discussions with staff indicate that PowerPoint lectures are being given much more frequently to first year groups. This almost certainly reflects the fact that first year groups are large and lectures commonly take place in large, central lecture theatres fitted with permanent projection and computing facilities. While many departments have access to portable laptops and data projectors these inevitably involve time to book, collect, set up and return, with ample opportunities for things to go wrong along the way! A further difficulty is the limited time available to set up equipment in the short time gap between lectures and this can lead to irritating delays for staff and students alike. Ideally, all lecture theatres and teaching rooms should be fitted with permanent data projectors and computing facilities with networked connections. The cost implications of such a target are significant and thus its' implementation is likely to be some way off. In the interim, it is crucial that ample technical support is available to minimise delays and make the most efficient use of academic staff time. It is also important that all teaching rooms, particularly smaller departmental rooms, are assessed for lighting, glare and viewing angle. I recently used PowerPoint in a departmental room and found that it was not possible to switch the lights off at the front of the class, which were causing glare on the screen. unless I turned ALL the lights off in the room. The end result was a compromise which was ideal neither for notetaking or for good data projection.
The concern expressed by some staff over the time involved in developing PowerPoint lectures is to some extent offset by those who argue that one of the main practical benefits is the ease with which teaching materials can be updated. This coupled with the automatic production of handouts means that the net cost in terms of time is probably minimal - particularly where there is already some familiarity with the software.
There appears to be agreement between staff and students that lectures delivered using PowerPoint can clarify the content and structure of the material (also found by Anderson and Sommer 1997). This is a first step towards good pedagogic practice and students clearly rate these benefits as being important for effective learning. There is also good evidence that the use of colour and images is both widely used and deemed helpful. Nevertheless, other features with good pedagogic potential are not being fully explored (Nicholson 2002). These include the use of animations, layering and hypertext links.
Use of hypertext links (which should always be checked to ensure that they are live) relies to some extent on the availability of good web-based resources which underpin the topic at hand. However, there are numerous instances in which the use of layering and animation can enhance student comprehension of complex subjects (Lowry 1999). At its simplest, this could mean revealing items in a bulleted list one at a time. At a more advanced level, it could mean the gradual building up of a complex image or annotated graphic. Figure 1a shows a scanning electron microscope (SEM) photograph of textural properties in a sandstone. Alone, even with verbal explanation, this might seem complex to students with little or no experience of viewing objects at a micro scale. Figures 1b to 1d show a sequence of annotations progressively added to the image as the features of interest are highlighted and explained. In this way, students are guided through the key features one step at a time and there is no risk of them being overwhelmed by either the amount of information in a single image, or its complexity. They may also experience a sense of self-satisfaction in having been able to comprehend some relatively complex information. A further benefit is that it is human nature that students are more likely to be engaged by this teaching method because of a sense of curiosity about the information yet to be revealed.
The ideas raised in the questionnaire survey about the provision of PowerPoint-generated handouts are complex. Most students said they preferred handouts because they can use them to simply annotate with additional information and focus more on what the lecturer is saying. However, others complained about the print size of PowerPoint-generated handouts (I recommend no more than 6 slides per page) and some even expressed a preference to make their own notes rather than being given handouts at all! Ask most lecturers though, and they will say they feel 'safer' if students are busy scribbling away during lectures! I suppose that to see a student writing is to see tangible evidence that they are listening - of course this says nothing about their level of comprehension. One way to test whether students are listening is to design interactive elements into the teaching session - the use of PowerPoint can assist in this. Interaction and attention breaks are good pedagogic practice anyway (Johnstone and Percival 1976) since we all know that the concentration span of most human beings is something less than 15 minutes yet we often expect students to listen to us for 50 minutes without interruption!
Figure 2a shows a slide I have used in a first year lecture with 120 students to develop interactivity after 15-20 minutes or so have passed. Students are asked to match four statements in each of two columns. I give them a few minutes to do the task and spend the time walking around the lecture theatre offering assistance and teasing out answers. When the lecture is re-convened I ask students to raise their hand if they think statement 1 matches A, B, C or D. I then move on to look at the matches for statements 2, 3 and 4 respectively. In each case I indicate the approximate percentage of students agreeing with each match so they have some idea of how their answer correlates with their peers. I use the animations function in PowerPoint to progressively reveal arrows which connect correct statements with each other. In this way, no students are singled out for embarrassment, they all participate and they all get some feedback (by knowing whether they were in the 'correct' group or not). The whole process takes about 5 or 6 minutes and when the lecture is resumed, everyone, including the lecturer, has had a 'break'.
The survey shows that students appreciate PowerPoint presentation files being made available subsequently on the Intranet. This gives them an opportunity to make additional notes and to fill in any gaps from notes or diagrams missed during the lecture. It also allows the lecturer to provide additional material (eg answers to questions posed in class). Some have argued that this might encourage students either to not attend, or not to pay attention during the lecture. However, Ptaszyinski (1997) found that making files available subsequently encouraged greater attention from students in class because they were less 'hung up' about writing down every single word - they knew slides would be available for reading again at a later date.
CONCLUSIONS: THE WAY FORWARD FOR MMU
The survey of staff and students in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences at MMU has highlighted a number of issues relating to the use of PowerPoint to deliver lectures. These concern technological and practical disincentives for staff; the potential practical benefits to staff and students alike; and pedagogic implications. It is clear that students prefer tutors to use PowerPoint - they believe it helps their learning and want more of it. Staff know how to use PowerPoint, at least at a basic level, and are keen to use it but are clearly offput by certain practicalities and technological fears. The main pedagogic benefit being reaped at present is the clarity that PowerPoint-delivered lectures afford for content and structure. There are several features such as layering, animations and hypertext links which do not appear to be fully explored.
Clearly there are a number of ways in which advances can be made in the current situation in order to maximise the practical and pedagogical benefits which PowerPoint has the potential to achieve. Here are some ideas:
- Ideally, permanent data projectors and networked computing facilities should be available in all teaching rooms. Though the cost implications of this are not insignificant we are moving into an era in which our paying 'clients' (the students) expect to be taught using the most effective methods - which in at least some cases, means PowerPoint.
- While this level of provision is not available (particularly for smaller groups) consideration should be given to increasing technical support for teaching. For example, if academics could offload the time-consuming tasks of collecting, setting up, dismantling and returning portable data projectors and laptops, they would - according to this survey, be much more likely to use PowerPoint.
- Smaller teaching rooms need to be assessed for lighting and screen angle so that they are compatible with the use of data projectors.
- At a departmental (or faculty?) level - perhaps technical support could also be provided for scanning 35mm slides into digital format.
- While there is already some provision of software training for staff there appears to be a gap in provision of training for more advanced features. This would enable basic users of PowerPoint to experiment with animation and layering, importing video and sound, and using hypertext features, for instance.
- Dissemination of practice and ideas should be greatly encouraged at departmental, faculty and university level. Tutors have a wide range of views on the provision of handouts, developing classroom interactivity and encouraging students to listen, so let's not keep re-inventing the wheel! Some faculties run very successful learning and teaching events which could be used more fully for dissemination of ideas. However, for this to be successful it needs the participation of academics! Ideas on how to encourage wider participation on a postcard, please!
- We need to keep evaluating current practice. This can be achieved via peer review (which is good teaching practice anyway) and also by asking for student feedback.
I would like to thank staff and students of the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences for completing questionnaires and engaging in discussions over the issues raised.
Anderson, W. and Sommer, B. 1997. Computer-based lectures using PowerPoint. The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=503) November 1997.
Creed, T. 1998. PowerPoint No! Cyberspace Yes! The National Teaching and Learning Forum 6 (4). Greenwood Publishing Group.
Hunt, N. 1998. Enhancing lectures the modern way. The New Academic Autumn 1998, 3-9.
Johnstone, A. H. and Percival, F. 1976. Attention breaks in lectures. Education in Chemistry 13, 49-50.
Lowry, R. B. 1999. Electronic presentation of lectures - effect upon student performance. University Chemistry Education 3 (1), 18-21.
Nicholson, D. T. 2002 (in review). Optimal use of MS PowerPoint for delivery of lectures in GEES disciplines. Planet, LTSN-GEES, Summer 2002.
Ptaszynski, J. G. 1997. PowerPoint as a technology enhancement to traditional classroom activities. The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=542) May 1997.
Rocklin, T. 1998. PowerPoint is not Evil. The National Teaching and Learning Forum. Greenwood Publishing Group.
Rossen, S., McGraw, D., Graham, E. and Lee, D. 1997. "Enhancing your lecture with presentation software - Setting instructional goals". http://www.oid.ucla.edu/Fnmc/classtep.htm and http://www.oid.ucla.edu/Fnmc/goals.htm Last updated September 1997 by David McGraw for Faculty New Media Center (FNMC) at UCLA Office of Instructional Development.
Sammons, M. C. 1997. Using PowerPoint presentations in writing classes. The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=519) August 1997.
Dr Dawn T. Nicholson
Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences
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