The Successful Presenter

Communicate When It Counts

The In-Class PowerPoint Survival Guide

Making the Most of a Bad Situation
College and university students who have noticed that there's a direct link between the amount of PowerPoint the professor uses and the likelihood that they’ll be completely bored in class should take heart. They’re not alone.

This phenomenon occurs because of how the human mind processes information to learn.

The cognitive research in this area is quite clear. As human beings, when we try to read and listen at the same time, we actually understand less than if we do either one separately. Working memory is overloaded. We can’t keep up, so we give up.

This is relatively easy to prove. The next time you're watching your favourite all-news channel, try listening to what the news anchor is saying while reading what's scrolling across the bottom. Even if both are about the same story, it won't take more than five seconds to realize you have to block out one or the other to get anything meaningful out of the exercise.

working memory is overloaded by powerpoint in the classroom
And that's in five seconds. Imagine what happens during a two-hour, slide-driven lecture.

So how can students make the best of a bad situation, especially when the professor is unaware that using slides in class is unsupported by cognitive research? Two ways, really.

The first is for students to adjust their behaviour by better understanding how they process information, and using that knowledge to adapt in class. The second is to find ways to change the professor’s behaviour so that he or she uses fewer slides in class (if any at all), and puts significantly less on each slide.

Adjusting Student Behaviour
If slides are posted online in advance, read them before class and set them aside. Do not bring them to class.

In class, focus on listening to the professor and taking notes. Ignore the projected slides, no matter how many times the professor refers to them.

If the class format allows, ask questions—even if it's to slow the professor down to finish absorbing an idea.

work in pairs to deal with powerpoint in the classroom
If slides are posted after class, reverse the process. Ignore the slides in class and take notes on what the professor is saying. Review the slides later, especially notes are re-worked during that critical first 48 hours after they were taken.

If the professor doesn't post slides online, ask if pictures can be taken of the slides projected in class. If it’s ok, pull out a smartphone, snap the picture, ignore what's on the screen, listen to the professor, and take notes.

If photos can’t be taken, find a partner and work in pairs. One person listens and takes notes. The other writes down what's on the slides. Copy and swap after class.

Adjusting Professor Behaviour
When it comes to changing the behaviour of professors, there are a couple things that can be done.

couple things you can do to deal with powerpoint in the classroom
One is to print this article and leave it on his or her desk. If they read this far, they’ll now be learning that there is no direct evidence to indicate that using slides in any format, classrooms and lecture halls included, is even remotely effective. In fact, one of the world's top cognitive scientists says the evidence is pointing in exactly the opposite direction.

Those professors who use minimal PowerPoint or no PowerPoint should be praised, as should the rare professor (one in a hundred?) who uses PowerPoint well, but students might consider being frank about the use of PowerPoint on class evaluations.

If there were too many slides, say so. If the slides got in the way of learning, say so. If there were so many slides that the value of going to class is in question, say so.

And keep saying so until professors and administrators get the point. Education is far too expensive for students—and far too competitive for the institutions—to settle for glazed eyes in class, especially when those glazed eyes are created in the name of “
that’s the way it’s done” or “everyone uses it.”