Are your students prone to “death by powerpoint” in your lectures? Are you struggling to keep them engaged beyond mindlessly copying from the board? Today we’re sharing five tips adapted from Gary D. Fisk’s Slides for Students: The Effective Use of Powerpoint in Education to improve the design, clarity, and memorability of your daily lessons with this popular but often misunderstood tool.
Note: “PowerPoint” (note capitalization) here refers to the Microsoft Office software application. The term “powerpoint” refers more broadly to the modern presentation style in which the speaker’s voice is accompanied by a form of multimedia, regardless of the application in use.
Tip #1: Engage students’ emotions by incorporating story structure into your presentation.
Just as a compelling story uses a hook and call to action, begin your lesson with a few slides that pique the students’ curiosity, appeal to their personal interests, and foreshadow the topic to come (Fisk 72–7). When an educator taps into the students’ emotions, they become invested in the subject matter instead of wondering why they should care at all. Fisk suggests telling literal stories or biographies and asking relevant discussion questions like, “As a child, did you ever wonder if other people internally experienced colors like you do?” or, “ Who do you think should regulate _____, the states or the federal government?” (77). Then finish the presentation with an inspiring resolution or lingering thought.
Tip #2: Use simple, one-word or blank slides to encourage discussion.
Powerpoint is a tool to aid good teaching practices, not replace them. When used effectively, powerpoints can prompt engaging and memorable discussions. Slides with specific, one- or few-word questions like “Symptoms?” or “Rhetorical devices?” call attention to the discussion rather than the information to be copied from the board (94). If the question warrants more than a simple word, Fisk suggests a blank slide to cue the students to refocus their attention on the professor (95). Images or graphics without words are also effective ways to encourage discussion (95).
Tip #3: Break up the presentation with multimedia and activities to avoid a middle-of-class stupor.
Sagging middle? You started off your presentation strong, but students are starting to watch the clock. Fisk encourages educators to alternate the dry, academic meat of the lesson with multimedia resources and hands-on activities to “maintain the emotional energy” of the class (78). Relevant video clips, cartoons (or memes), and even jokes are great ways to add interest and humor to an otherwise lecture-heavy presentation. He also suggests a “fact-example sequence” to alternate between factual information and examples, stories, and videos of the subject being applied in real life (78).
Tip #4: Break free from bullet points, and experiment with alternative slide layouts.
It turns out that PowerPoint’s default bullet point layout may not be the most effective way to keep students focused and retaining knowledge. It’s familiar, it’s easy—but is it working? Fisk has found that the assertion-evidence format, or “headline style” slide, as designed by engineer and communications expert Michael Alley, is perhaps a superior way to organize information on a slide. In this format, a single-sentence, left-justified headline forms a complete thought along the top of the slide (138). It is only accompanied by an image or graphic. Here is my own example of what this might look like in practice:
But my slides are packed with information! How do I fit it all in? you may wonder. First, cut the redundant title or heading, give each bullet point its own slide, and turn that bullet point into a more complete thought (141). Fisk provides two initial reasons to give this format a try: the students don’t get ahead of the teacher as they copy down notes and they avoid “information overload” (142).
If bullet points are unavoidable, try turning the heading into an incomplete thought, finished by each bullet point (148):
Tip #5: Rein back the colorful backgrounds, animations, and fancy fonts.
Nothing brings me back to PowerPoint circa 2000 like bright orange WordArt, swooshing slide transitions, and text hopping onto the screen. Students will thank you for a slideshow designed with clarity and visibility in mind. Some educators find that revealing bullet points one by one is a useful tool, while others argue that it is a better practice to include less information per slide (129). Animations and colored boxes or graphics can be used practically to create visual connections and relationships while engaging with the information (125, 130).
Learn even more useful tips and see these methods in practice in Slides for Students!
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