Why Universities Should Get Rid of PowerPoint and Why They Won’t

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

Universities measure student satisfaction but they do not measure learning:

When we do attempt to measure learning, the results are not pretty. US researchers found that a third of American undergraduates demonstrated no significant improvement in learning over their four-year degree programs. They tested students in the beginning, middle and end of their degrees using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, an instrument that tests skills any degree should improve – analytic reasoning, critical thinking, problem solving and writing.

Paul Ralph’s main argument is against PowerPoint:

A review of research on PowerPoint found that while students liked PowerPoint better than overhead transparencies, PowerPoint did not increase learning or grades. Liking something doesn’t make it effective, and there’s nothing to suggest transparencies are especially effective learning tools either.

Research comparing teaching based on slides against other methods such as problem-based learning – where students develop knowledge and skills by confronting realistic, challenging problems – predominantly supports alternative methods.

PowerPoint slides are toxic to education for three main reasons:

  1. Slides discourage complex thinking. Slides encourage instructors to present complex topics using bullet points, slogans, abstract figures and oversimplified tables with minimal evidence. They discourage deep analysis of complex, ambiguous situations because it is nearly impossible to present a complex, ambiguous situation on a slide. This gives students the illusion of clarity and understanding.
  2. Reading evaluations from students has convinced me that when most courses are based on slides, students come to think of a course as a set of slides. Good teachers who present realistic complexity and ambiguity are criticised for being unclear. Teachers who eschew bullet points for graphical slides are criticised for not providing proper notes.
  3. Slides discourage reasonable expectations. When I used PowerPoint, students expected the slides to contain every detail necessary for projects, tests and assignments. Why would anyone waste time reading a book or going to a class when they can get an A by perusing a slide deck at home in their pyjamas?

“Good teachers who present realistic complexity and ambiguity are criticised for being unclear.”


  1. Chris C. says:

    I am largely in agreement with this. Far too many instructors, whether academic or business, use PowerPoint as a way to break down information into discrete bits. For introducing a new concept, product, or procedure, that may be appropriate. For teaching anything complex that has nuance, situational variations, connections to other areas of knowledge, anything about which there is an element of opinion, PowerPoint does a disservice to both teacher and student.

    Of course it discourages complex thinking: each slide is a tree and you are never given a glimpse of the forest. In some cases I have experienced, there are so many slides that they are random branches of unrelated trees, but you will have an exact description of that branch. But that tells you less than nothing, because you have no map to place that branch on the particular tree in the particular forest.

    If an instructor is not sufficiently well-versed in the subject matter and both confident and articulate enough to convey that knowledge in a fashion understandable to students with some background in the topic, maybe they should consider alternate employment.

    If one is teaching an introductory course or presenting to new hires, PowerPoint can be a good way to lay a foundation of information upon which to build a knowledge base. To teach at what I consider a college level (bachelor degree in 1973: so, yes, I can be called a curmudgeon on this), PowerPoint will usually prevent the student from passing beyond rote learning into analytical and critical thinking.

    And if the little snowflakes can’t deal with something that isn’t spoon-fed to them, maybe they shouldn’t be in college.

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