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Wednesday, July 30, 2014 | Last updated: 10:15am

PowerPoint fueled profs need software update



When a professor opens up a PowerPoint during a lecture, I feel my eyelids grow heavy and suppress the yawn that inevitably forms when I see black bullet points.

According to PowerPoint Info, more than 6 million teachers across the globe use PowerPoint when giving lectures. Since its use is so prevalent, it’s crucial that PowerPoint enhances the effectiveness of educators, rather than stifling the potential to spread knowledge.

Because while PowerPoint can be a dynamic and useful program, the application does not run itself. Only when combined with other teaching styles will PowerPoint create the desired learning experience for students.

An article by The Teaching Center examined research conducted in college classrooms regarding attention span, and stressed the importance of using active learning methods throughout lectures due to the fleeting attention span of college students. While research does not point to one standard length of time that students can focus, it does reveal that students are more likely to stay engaged through visual stimulation, participation, group discussion and other interactive methods.

Further research featured in U.S. News & World Report found that student attention increased when the instructor used certain methods — among them being quiz and test reviews, videos and the interjection of humor or personal stories into the lesson. These are just some tools that would complement a bland PowerPoint presentation. After 10 or so slides, showing a video or assigning a small group discussion would keep students more engaged and encourage more interest and participation that could ultimately increase grades and attendance.

Pat Willerton, associate professor in the School of Government and Public Policy, is one UA professor who implements creative teaching methods to keep students more actively engaged in his Politics of Happiness course. He said that he enjoys using PowerPoint during his larger lectures because of its dynamism, but tries to keep his presentations exciting for his students.

“When you are teaching these long classes, you can’t do the same thing for 75 minutes. You could stand on your head while juggling balls and telling jokes and it will eventually get boring,” Willerton said, “so I like to break things up.”

Willerton organizes his material through PowerPoint so that students know how to spell important names and can see an outline, as many teachers do, he said. However, he also uses it in a way that sets him apart. For example, Willerton will always play music from the country the class is studying when students enter the room. He also said that he will display the PowerPoint outline on one screen while a YouTube video related to the topic plays at the same time.

Students might not be the only ones to benefit if a slightly smaller portion of class time were spent on PowerPoint to make room for more interactive activities. Professors would also be forced to consider the way they teach, as well as the quality of their slides.

Words, words and more words often fill each slide from top to bottom while students do one of two things: Hastily try to read, digest and vigorously scribble down the abundance of information as fast as they can, or give up and zone out. Worse, some professors often rattle off exactly what is on the slides verbatim, which doesn’t clarify anything, nor does it enhance a student’s understanding. Text shouldn’t be the only way information is communicated to students.

Using popular social media sites is one way to connect with students. In order to increase student participation, Willerton uses Twitter to get immediate answers to real-time questions from his students. He recognizes that some students are a little intimidated in large classes and less likely to contribute their input verbally.

He also encourages his students to join the Facebook group for his courses, which he affectionately calls a “lounge,” so that students can interact comfortably with each other and with teaching assistants.

Student reaction to the creative aspects of Willerton’s teaching style in large lecture classes has been, for the most part, extremely favorable, as he has received high evaluation numbers and good attendance, and people have really enjoyed it, he said.

Using various types of technology in the classroom can be effective, helpful and even fundamental to a student’s achievement. However, effective implementation by professors is imperative to student success. There is a balance between student and teacher effort that will result in the optimal learning experience, and PowerPoint can be helpful to this process — but only if it is used as more than a crutch.

Shelby Thomas is a sophomore studying family studies and human development and Spanish. Follow her @shelbyalayne


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