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5 Signs of a Bad PowerPoint Lecture

Most professors are guilty of at least one of these slide faux pas. Find out what to avoid and how to present like a pro.

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by Norman Eng in Blog
April 2, 2017 14 comments

1. You “Repackage” What Students Read Last Night

Are your slides just the “CliffsNotes” version of the readings? Do they read like an outline of a textbook chapter? Do they act as a record of what you presented?

If so, you’re doing it wrong. Students won’t do the readings when they know you’re going to go over it the following day. Studying for some other quiz will take priority. In fact, they may not even show up to class if they know you give them the slide deck later on.

The problem comes when we attempt to cover the curriculum. If you hear yourself saying, “OK, what this slide is trying to say is …” then you’re repackaging.

Remember: depth, not breadth.

So pick one or two complex ideas that students can grapple with. That’s what your PowerPoint should focus on.

Let’s say students are reading about the four major theories of education—perennialism, essentialism, progressivism, and critical theory. It’s fine to briefly go over each one. More important, however, is to help students make sense of them.

One way is to turn them into education consultants. What kind of school would they want for their community?

A curriculum focused on learning the great classics, like Plato and Shakespeare (i.e., perennialism)?

One focused on mastering basic skills like reading and writing (essentialism)?

One focused on the interests and needs of individuals (progressivism)?

Or one rooted in developing critical consciousness (critical theory)?

Students can work on the pros and cons of each. They can work in groups. For large classes, students can turn to a partner and discuss. Active learning makes abstract concepts real.

As education consultants, students see these ideas from multiple perspectives—especially when they share.

What if you turn your students into consultants who solve problems? You can’t buy that kind of engagement. That’s why I see teachers as designers of experiences more than anything else.

2. You’re Using More Than 10 Slides

In my education lectures, I average 5-7 slides per class. They take no more than 15-20 min to go through.

Ever heard of the 10-20-30 Rule? Marketing expert Guy Kawasaki coined this term. This means presentations ought to: 1) have no more than 10 slides; 2) last no more than 20 minutes long; and 3) use type sizes no smaller than 30 point.

Audience attention peaks in the first few minutes of a presentation, and start to flag every 15-20 minutes. So break it up with activities where students work on a problem, dilemma, or scenario. If your class is over 2 hours, you can intersperse your slides.

In the end, having no more than 10 slides is not a hard and fast rule. The point is to talk less and involve the audience more. Here’s one way to break up your instruction:

Slide Lecture: 30%

Activity 60%

Other: 10%

For a one-hour class, that means 18 minutes for lectures, 36 minutes for activities (e.g., discussion, group work), and 6 minutes for miscellaneous items (housekeeping, attendance, etc.).

(Update: Research suggests that the quantity of slides actually does not affect student learning or performance. So you could have 20 or even 30 slides, as long as they are easy to digest. But the idea of being brief with your lectures, however, remains valid. Lessons should focus more on the hands-on or active learning, rather than passively listening.)

3. Your Slides are Jammed with Content

Marketing guru Seth Godin never uses more than 6 words per slide.

Let that sink in.

Talking about pollution in Houston? Instead of giving me four bullet points of EPA data, why not show me a photo of a bunch of dead birds, some smog and even a diseased lung? Amazingly, it’s more fun than doing it the old way. But it’s effective communication.

Godin’s point is clear. Whether your audience is made up of clients or students, how can we communicate better?

My students used to ask, “Professor, can you go back a slide?” When they copy the slide word-for-word, I know I’ve failed.

Now, I use videos as a jumping point for discussions. Other times I tell a story based on a provocative photo or illustration. Once in a while I show them a quotation (“Rousseau said, ‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.’ Let’s talk about this …”).

I’m not saying Don’t use words in PowerPoint. Just don’t make it the default approach.

4. You’re Finding Images on Google

Most images on the Internet shouldn’t be used for your PowerPoint. Technically, the owner of these images can ask you to take them down or even sue (however unlikely). While it’s not such a big deal in a closed environment like the classroom, I would get into the habit of using Creative Commons licensed images. They are free to use, distribute, or modify for your purposes.

(NOTE: I am not a legal expert in these matters, so please check any questions you have with the proper sources).

When you’re presenting outside the classroom, such as in conferences or other professional settings, it matters. If you run a blog or website, same deal.

So next time you’re searching for images, filter Google searches by usage rights (Google search –> Advanced –> Usage rights). You can then select for images that are free to use, share, or modify—even commercially, if needed.

Another way is to directly search images from the Creative Commons website: https://search.creativecommons.org. They aggregate platforms like Google, Pixabay, SoundCloud, YouTube, Flikr, Open Clip Art Library, and more.

It’s so easy to unknowingly share non-permissioned digital media these days. Why risk problems?

5. You’re Reading the Slides

This is by far audiences’ biggest complaint. Students are perfectly capable of reading the slides without you. Your purpose should be grander.

Here’s an example of a bad slide I used to describe instructional scaffolding:

Boring and unengaging, right? Here’s the slide I now use:

Imagine me asking, “How do we help children when they first learn how to ride a bike?”

When students suggest using training wheels, we discuss why temporary supports are important.

Teachers do the same thing. They provide temporary supports—like an essay template—until students can do it on their own.

I then ask students to brainstorm other ways to support children’s learning (e.g., providing sentence starters, graphic organizers, etc.). Only afterward do I bring up the term instructional scaffolding. Now the term means something.

The Bottom Line

Slides are not “the lecture.” They support you, not the other way around. What bad habits have you seen in slide presentations? Please share in the comments below.

14 Comments
  1. John says:

    Another faux pas i would add is “you are suing the slides provided by the publisher”

    I find those slides to be full of all of broken rules from what u mentioned in the other 5 (they repeat the book and they are paragraphs instead of key points)

    1. Norman Eng says:

      John I used to be guilty of this. I used the packaged instructor slides from Pearson and that’s when I learned about how bad slides were. Anything that’s one-size-fits-all is guaranteed to fail.

      1. John says:

        True, 1 size fits all doesn’t work anywhere in education, in fact. Maybe those slides were designed for people who are subbing the classes and if the sub is not proficient in the topic. Not that there should even be a “the class can teach itself with slides” paradigm.

        1. Norman says:

          You’re right Jim. And I agree–I think a lot of publishers are trying to help out those who are subbing or are brand new. What better way than to just do it for them?

  2. Katie Julien says:

    This piece was so interesting and I could relate to a few of the errors you pointed out inthis article. Thanks for that insightful article, I will apply the advice you gave. I will also share this with my colleagues.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      I’m so glad you find them useful Katie. I’ll do more posts related to making kick-ass slides!

  3. Student says:

    I’ve seen professors who stand behind the podium and never come out. It’s so easy to forget they’re there and focus on the slides. 

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Yes, that’s something else I will try to address in a future post!

  4. Yes, I could use some work in this area! I’m getting better though now that I’ve read your book!

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Thanks Terri!

  5. I sure need to put this in action as I move my course online! Thanks Norman.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Would love to hear more about it when it’s done, Jim!

  6. Sarah says:

    I’m enjoying reading your book at the moment and have a question regarding the PowerPoint faux pas mentioned here. I do not have a required textbook for the neuroscience courses that I teach, so I’ve been creating very detailed PowerPoint slides to convey the variety of detailed terminology, concepts, etc. The problem is that these very detailed slides violate many of the ideas you’re discussing in this post. Do you have suggestions to deal with this?

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Hi Sarah, the use of slides depends on the purpose. If you’re using it in place of textbook, it might be a different story. But if so, do students read alternative materials? (e.g., online articles, handouts, etc.) If so, would they be getting the same content as a textbook? I wouldn’t recommend duplicating content–if they are getting content via some sort of readings, then don’t present same content via slides. If however, they are seeing content for the first time in your slides, that’s a different story. If so, I wonder if that is a good idea. Cognitive research shows that students learn better when there is some familiarity with it (prior knowledge or exposure)–and readings help get them familiar before they walk into class. Seeing it for the first time on slides might be too abstract and unrelatable. But, after all is said and done, the bottom line is: What do the students think? Are they engaged? Do they learn from your format? If so, great. If you find you’re losing them, then they require something else. Feel free to email me directly at [email protected]

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7 PROVEN STEPS TO PLANNING, TEACHING, & ENGAGING YOUR STUDENTS

A Quick-Start Guide

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