When new software for presentations burst onto the scene in the early 1990s, it won legions of fans in academe. Students liked the easy-to-follow bullet points and snazzy animations of programs such as PowerPoint, ToolBook and Harvard Graphics. Faculty liked the structure and fun the programs added to their presentations.

But, 10 years later, the zeal appears to be wearing off. Students are more apt to complain that professors overuse or misuse the software--flicking quickly through dull slides, or reading them aloud verbatim. And, having sat through scores of such presentations themselves, some faculty think students' complaints are justified.

Among them is APA Board of Directors member and Furman University professor Charles Brewer, PhD, an outspoken skeptic. "I have seen far too many soporific PowerPoint presentations that have a lot of power, but no point," Brewer has been heard to say, more than once.

Brewer and other critics charge that, when misused, the programs oversimplify course material, turn students into observers rather than participants and reduce people to speaking in bullets rather than in complete thoughts. Even as they render material more digestible, they also can squelch spontaneity, creativity and exploration of nuances, says educational psychologist Geoffrey Scheurman, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

"Suddenly the form is more important than the content--the style more important than the substance," he says. "It's just as Marshall McLuhan predicted, 'The medium is the message.' And that won't change until we use this [software] more judiciously."

A sign of overreliance on PowerPoint and its ilk, Scheurman says, is the all-too-common perception that the lesson is ruined if the technology doesn't work. He believes instructors can teach just as effectively using the blackboard or overheads. Just as with any other teaching tool, the key to the software's effectiveness is in how it's used, professors are increasingly discovering.

Undue glory

In the quest for better uses, the first step is asking the right questions, says educational psychologist Richard Mayer, PhD, of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Rather than asking what new software does best, he suggests that instructors ask themselves how people learn, and then match instructional methods accordingly. "It's not the technology that creates the learning, it's what we do with it," he says.

There are plenty of faculty who still prefer more tried-and-true media. For example, Carleton College's Neil Lutsky, PhD, favors using overheads in his classes, no matter that he's a member of the APA Board of Educational Affairs Technology Working Group.

Yet at the same time, presentation software's popularity and ubiquity keep growing. Microsoft estimates that people use PowerPoint in more than 30 million presentations every day. By now, it is so much the standard for Web courses and e-mail, that it's often used with "unquestioning acceptance," says James Madison University's Virginia Andreoli Mathie, PhD, who chaired a technology working group at the recent APA Education Leadership Conference. She deplores such unexamined use. To tackle the problem, she and other researchers are beginning to conduct research on the effectiveness of PowerPoint and other presentation software in teaching and learning.

Old myths, new insights

Meanwhile, in the absence of research findings, faculty have used trial and error to test the software's applications. Along the way, they've begun dispelling some myths:

  • Myth #1: The more you wow students with it, the better your teaching. Bells and whistles don't necessarily improve comprehension, says Mathie. She admits that, as a first-time user, "I was so enthralled that I was leaping through screens and opening up boxes everywhere." In the process, she says she distracted students from major instructional objectives, in keeping with cognitive research findings that irrelevant visual information hampers students' learning.

  • Myth #2: Presentation software is best suited for quickly conveying large amounts of information. Students can't keep up when professors flip quickly through text-packed screens, says Mayer. For one thing, students can't absorb information when bombarded with it, his cognitive research has found. For another, when students focus on reading and recording material, "it doesn't always go through their heads first," says Vincent Hevern, PhD, a psychology professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and director of the Office of Teaching Resources for Psychology of APA's Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology).

  • Myth #3: Its visuals engage students in active learning. Not necessarily, says Brewer, who warns that when the instructor turns out the lights, students can disengage. He adds that when professors simply read the slides' text aloud, students tune out--a claim that's also supported by learning research. Students' minds wander when material is recited, Mayer has found.

  • Myth #4: It provides a necessary structure for lectures. While it can help organize material, it can also "straightjacket" your lessons, says Scheurman. Because the program sequences material, an instructor can't "just pull a slide when a teachable moment occurs," he explains. As a result, faculty run the risk of the software controlling and thinking for them.

Best uses

Even the staunchest critics agree, however, that when the reverse is true--when the instructor is in control--the programs can bring ideas to life. To do that, instructors must maximize interactive features, psychology faculty find, and they point to emerging rules of thumb:

  • Limit the amount of information per slide. Restrict the number of points to six or seven so as not to overwhelm students with information, says Mayer.

  • Avoid racing through presentations. Slow down so that students can absorb the material, says Mathie. More than three slides a minute is too many, she says.

  • Use visual images that directly relate to key concepts. Only choose graphs, matrixes and videos that illustrate your points, says Mayer. Attractive but unrelated backgrounds and pictures only distract, he says.

  • Capitalize on the software's unique features. Use color and tap animation and sound features to breathe life into concepts, suggests Mathie. Show an image and ask students what questions it provokes.

  • Think beyond the canned presentation. Open a blank slide, invite brainstorming and write down students' ideas as they think of them, suggests Lutsky. Or, he says, use the software to describe a study, ask students to predict its results and display their predictions on a graph.

"In sum," says Lutsky, "teachers could do more to use PowerPoint to pose questions rather than give students answers."