Learning by PowerPoint?

Think about the last time you really learned something and specifically, how did you learn it? Was it via PowerPoint? No? Maybe you Googled it, read about it in a book/online or asked someone and got a good explanation? Maybe you even did the dance of trial/fail until you trial/succeeded?

If you don’t learn via PowerPoint – why do you think we often choose PowerPoint as our number one instrument to teach? Even though this question was rhetorical there actually is an answer:

Because we want to make everything clear, concise and easy to understand.

Example of a bad PowerPoint slide

While this is admirable it’s a waste of time both because the fact that “easy to understand” doesn’t help learning at all and the fact that the way most people use PowerPoint is all but clear and concise… You know what I mean… Death by bullet points or “Hey, let’s read the slide like it’s a script for a radio theater!” (Some examples? Take a look at the slide in the picture above and look at the other examples at Worst PowerPoint slides ever.) I’ll circle back to the fact that “making things easy” doesn’t help learning in a short while. First I’d like to revisit the first question again but from a different starting point.

Think of the last time when you prepared for teaching something to someone. You knew you’d be explaining this to someone else soon. So, how did you learn this and how did you prepare?

No matter how you did it: This is probably the best way of learning it!

If it worked for you it probably will work for someone else as well, don’t you think? You might say “But it took so long, because I did so many unnecessary steps. If I just could speed things up I could…” This is a fallacy. You didn’t learn this in spite of you struggling with the material. It was because of the struggling! What most people seldom realize is that time is an important factor for learning. If you don’t take the time factor into account you often only focus on content instead of understanding. (For more information on this, read the article “Why One Way Of Learning Is Better Than Another” to learn more about “spaced learning” and “repetition over time”.) Learning is almost always a change process over time. It’s never a one-time event. Think about it: Even an “Aha!”-moment does build upon previous experiences, doesn’t it?

So, how about the issue of doing things too easy not helping learning? Well, speeding things up is one part of the fallacy but the other is even more critical: using PowerPoint and thinking “if I could just make it clear, concise and easy they would learn it so much better”. This just isn’t the case! You actually don’t learn better if things are easy because that relaxes your brain and you just don’t try anymore. Why should you? You convince your brain to think you already know it. Take a look at the brilliant video clip below by Derek Alexander Muller done for his PhD in philosophy – “Designing Effective Multimedia for Physics Education“.

Muller’s own words in regards of videos trying to make things as easy as possible:

Research has shown that these types of videos may be positively received by students. They feel like they are learning and become more confident in their answers, but tests reveal they haven’t learned anything. (…) If the video presents scientific concepts in a clear, well illustrated way, students believe they are learning but they do not engage with the media on a deep enough level to realize that what was is presented differs from their prior knowledge.

Shouldn’t you use PowerPoint at all then? Well, of course you should, but do it right! Don’t ever use the PPT as a screen-reading tool or a document – use it as a way to strengthen your words! Show pictures, video and illustrations. Hey, here’s a thought! Why not use it as a PRESENTATION tool and actually present things? We should think of the stuff on the big white screen as a video, perhaps with pictures, and not as something the audience should read. In a video there’s never a logo, slide numbers, dates etc all over, are there? Maybe on the first and last few frames yeah, but not when showing content. The presentation you’re conducting is to convey a message. To persuade people of your way of thinking.

Everything in the presentation that doesn’t strengthen your message – interferes with it!

But how about the give-away documents? Shouldn’t they have logos etc on them so that the audience knows who said all of those things? Yes, of course! Because this is in the document. Not the presentation! I suggest you actually do create a classic “death by PowerPoint” presentation first. This becomes the draft for the give-away document. Then you create a presentation without all the superfluous content and words so that you convey the best message. All of the text of the slides in the give-away document goes into the notes field of course so there’s no waste of your brilliant author skills…

So, is it possible to learn anything via PowerPoint? Maybe not, but you could learn alot from a message conveyed with the presentation tool as a message strengthening device.