Powerpoint in college classrooms

I teach college classes in “smart” classrooms a fair bit — classes that have a computer hooked up to an LCD projector. And with a fair number of my classes, I teach from PowerPoint overheads. I used old-fashioned transparencies in the early 90’s, and switched as soon as there were enough computer-projection enabled classrooms.

As someone who’s done this a lot and for a long while, I often get asked about it by colleagues and grad students. So, I’ve jotted down a few things here to answer those questions for them and anybody else who stumbles across this. Make use of the information however you like.


Some of this is standard; some is stuff I’ve learned by trial and error; some is non-standard views that are IMHO superior to the conventional wisdom — especially for the college classroom, with has different demands than the “standard” business presentation. My job isn’t 20 minutes of getting them excited; it’s 40 hours spread over 15 weeks of teaching them some substance that they will be tested on.

Density and pacing:  I use slides with more text and more bullets than the current trends suggest, and then I go through them quite slowly; each slide might have 8-10 bulleted points on it, with the points averaging 8-10 words each, and with me spending 10 minutes on the slide — so, roughly 1 minute per point, with me lecturing at least 10 words for every word on the overhead.

Keep in mind that the overheads are macro structure, not advertising imagery, so don’t be afraid to put a fair number of items on a slide. Conventional wisdom for business meetings is to keep the amount of text on a slide very low, but for in-class use, students are way more bothered by the slides changing too fast than by having lots on a slide. Just don’t whip through them.  One 8-word bullet per minute is about as fast as I let it get.  That lets me read the item and say another 10x as many words explaining it before moving on the the next item. 

Visual formatting: Here is a sample of a typical PowerPoint template that I use; feel free to take it, use it, modify it, or whatever.

Some comments on the template and on on formatting for class in general:

  • Use white text on a black background, and yellow or some other light color when you want a contrast color. Don’t use “pretty” backgrounds, or background colors other than black. It might seem cool at first, but it gets real old in a big hurry. You want to maximize readability, not make a work of art.
  • Stick to standard fonts, and preferably non-serif fonts, and keep them in bold. Think about those big green highway signs, where the fonts are picked for maximal readability, even at a distance. My usual font is Tahoma Bold. If you use a font that isn’t on every machine, you run the risk of finding your layout all screwed up when you get to class. (You can pack the fonts in the presentation, but I’ve found this to be very erratic.)
  • Set the slides to build, so that a new click introduces a single bulleted item; if you keep the thing you’re talking about at the bottom of the visible items, then they won’t get distracted by reading ahead. And don’t use “Dim Previous Items”; it just reduces readability. And use a consistent entry effect, or none at all; mixing it up is just more distraction.
  • Don’t put animated images up unless you really need them to illustrate some bit of content; if you leave an extraneous animation up, their eyes will just keep jumping to it.

In general: Fewer, visually simpler, higher-contrast, but higher-content slides.

Posting the overheads:  PowerPoint still sucks after all these years in terms of producing decent plain HTML for posting. I think the best (but not perfect) fairly easy solution is to use “File/Save As” to save the presentation to an RTF file, load that into MS Word, tweak it a little if you want, and then save it as “Web Page, Filtered”. The HTML generated this way is — if not exactly clean — pretty usable for posting, allthough the bullets are a little funny in non-IE browsers.

Gadgets and the like:

Why don’t they put flash memory in all remotes? For about 3 years my preferred and recommended basic gadget was the SmartDisk PowerPlay Pro wireless remote controller and receiver with 32MB of flash memory built in. Go in, plug in a single USB stick, and you have your presentation and controller all set. But now it’s almost impossible to find a remote that has even some tiny bit of memorybuilt in, so I mostly resort to using a pretty standard Targus controller, and separate flash memory thumbdrive for the presentation, and bring along a really tiny USB hub just in case I run into a machine with only one easily available USB socket.

Other files/software to bring to class

I carry some other files to class on the USB stick that can be useful. Here’s my suggestions:

Other class content files: It never hurts to carry an electronic copy of the syllabus, as well as the presentations from the last time you taught the class, if you have them. If something goes wrong with the new thing, it never hurts to have a backup to teach from.

Other software: There are bits of software that you can run from a USB drive that you might not find on the classroom computer which can be helpful. Here are a couple I carry on the USB drive (and the small CD-R).

If you care about such things, you should check out the Portable Freeware Collection, for lots of free software that you can run from removable drives.

Other Resources and Opinions:

Finally, here are some links to resources on creating and using PowerPoint presentations. I don’t agree with everything they say, but they’re useful resources anyway.

06. October 2007 by Ron
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