Modern Manners: If you miss this column, the slides will be on Coursework

Opinion by Jeff Mandell
May 3, 2012, 12:28 a.m.

Modern Manners: If you miss this column, the slides will be on CourseworkPowerPoint presentations have become the teaching tool of choice in many Stanford classes. After all, how else would it be possible for a professor running short on time to finish the material other than by flashing dozens of testable facts on a screen in a matter of seconds? And how could students answer emails and shop online during lecture if the bulk of the material weren’t available on Coursework later?

More importantly, PowerPoint presentations are fairly easy to prepare and extremely easy to reuse, which reduces the amount of time that busy lecturers have to spend preparing for each class. From IHUM to computer science to human biology, many of the lecture classes I have taken have consisted of continuous slideshows divided into 50 or 75 minute segments.

There is no denying that PowerPoint presentations can be effective in conveying information. Beyond slideshows, the use of a computer interface allows a lecturer to share diagrams, photos and educational videos, which facilitates in-class learning that may not be achievable any other way. For example, it would be hard for a lecturer to adequately explain Frida Kahlo’s contributions to art without showing some of her paintings to the class. Likewise, at the end of a complex discussion, whether the topic is cell biology or moral philosophy, many students are glad to be presented with a slide summarizing the lecture’s main points in layman’s terms. Clearly, technology does have some role in the Stanford lecture hall.

My concern is when PowerPoint threatens to switch roles with the professor; that is, when instead of the slides being a supplement to the professor’s teaching, the professor’s teaching becomes a supplement to the words on the slides. There is always a risk of this happening because bright screens draw in eyes. This leads to the classic situation where everyone has read the static lines of text three times before the professor gets around to reading them, while in the interim no one heard what he or she was saying. Professor James Gross, who taught my Psychology 1 class last year, has solved this problem. Whenever the slide material was not directly relevant to what he was saying, he would click a button to make the screen go black. Not only did he receive more attention this way, it was surprisingly refreshing to the eyes to have that electronic glow go away occasionally.

Speakers become more engaging when they do not have to compete with a bright screen behind them. When all eyes are focused on them, professors sense the attention of the audience and perform at a higher level. Stanford lecturers are passionate, often quirky people, and they are most interesting when they share their knowledge in their own voices, not the bullet-speak of PowerPoint.

Worse, poorly designed slides can contain way too many facts and figures for anyone to digest at once, creating confusion about how much students are expected to know. Good teachers should be able to explain all of the course concepts in their own words during the lecture periods. If they can’t, then the course has too much material.

As wonderful as visual learning is, let’s not forget the value of the oral tradition, and the excitement that comes with hearing the secrets of the universe passed down by wise elders. The Greeks had Homer to recite “The Iliad,” and we have access to 21st century knowledge from some of the foremost contributors to it. I would rather learn from these people’s own words than from projections of textbook images.

When I look back on high school — where slideshow lectures existed, but were less common — part of me wonders how I learned so much in classes that lacked a succession of bullet points to guide me through the material. In particular, I remember my sophomore year history class, where my teacher seemingly narrated the entire history of Europe from the 1200s, barely looking at her notes as the class scribbled down her words at a furious pace. We should strive for a similarly engaged learning experience that demands the same level of concentration, rather than relying too heavily on Microsoft Office.


Questions, comments, suggestions, anonymous tip-offs? Contact Jeff at jeff2013 “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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