Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How PowerPoint ruins America’s STEM Education

On Monday, I alluded to some things that could be changed about America’s Higher Education system, particularly focusing on STEM Education. One of those changes would be to wipe PowerPoint from every computer, in every university, and pass out some chalk.

Ok, well that’s not entirely fair. I do believe in fair arguments so there are times when PowerPoint is a great tool for teaching. PP is great when used as an accent. Having trouble describing a system on the chalk board? No problem. Show a picture of it in PP. Need to demonstrate a little gizmo? Build a small animation in PP. PP is also great for presentations. It’s the standard medium for most (all?) conferences. It helps keep you on track and gives your audience something to look at while you’re explaining how great you are.

The problem with PowerPoint is that it’s taken for granted. Everyone expects you to give a presentation and it is soooo common, that no one teaches you how to do it effectively. Luckily, at UGU, they stressed giving presentations so you learned how to convey your information in PP without getting lost in PP. I was one of the fortunate ones. A lot of people I talk with didn’t get that during their education. Making graphs? Be sure to change the axes and font sizes. That’s a common mistake that kills me every time I see it. You know when you’re standing in the audience that you hate not being able to read the labels, make sure to fix it for your own presentation. You spend more time trying to figure out if it’s “nm” or “mm”, rather than focusing on what’s important.

Equations + PowerPoint = Knife in my Temple. Sitting through PP lectures in STEM fields which rely heavily on math makes me want to kill myself. As the student, an equation *magically pops up and on the next slide, it’s *magically in the form you need it. Those 4 pages of derivation? Don’t worry about those. Most times math is presented in PP missing huge steps and little tricks/transformations/substitutions. That’s where some real learning occurs.

If you have the PP and the note, what’s the point of going to class? Read it on your own time. Students shouldn’t be reading the PP before the class. They should be reading the textbook, otherwise why assign it? It’s like looking at the Cliff’s Note before the class and saying you’ve read the book.

On the professor side of the equation (which I’ll have to deal with soon enough), I think PP makes you a less effective teacher. You are already stressed with proposals, papers, and students. Who has time for teaching? Oh, lecture at 1 pm today… hmmm.. there’s that presentation that I gave a few years ago… maybe that’ll work. That’s an unfair oversimplification but I think it gets my point across. Once you’ve made your PP slides and tweaked them after the first semester or two, you probably rarely go back and change them. And that leads into a downward spiral where you assume you’ll remember the lecture once you’ve seen the slides so you don’t need to prepare. I was the culprit for this once. I gave a guest lecture one year and was asked to give it again the following year. I assumed I’d remember the material once I saw it, but that wasn’t the case. It was one the worst presentations I’ve ever given.

When PP is not used as an accent and is the sole medium for conveying information, that’s when you have problems. And, as more and more distance learning/web learning is pushed at universities, you’re going to have more and more problems. Apparently, PP is a huge problem for the US military (albeit for different reasons). Let’s not make it a huge problem for education.


  1. With you all the way. I am all chalk-and-talk, with PPT making an appearance only occasionally.
    Chalk-and-talk does wonders for being able to pace yourself (so kids can actually write things down, nitty-gritty derivation details if need be and all) or when you need to go on a tangent that naturally comes up.


  2. I'm happy to joining this blog, It is a very nice experience for me... Thank you for all your postings.

    Stem Education