Author of Five Steps to Conquer 'Death by PowerPoint' Introduces The In-Class PowerPoint Survival Guide

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For everyone heading back to college or university, this article provides insight into surviving the dreaded "PowerPoint Professors." This is a "must read" for students and professors alike.

Presentation Skills and Presentation Training Insights While Conquering 'Death by PowerPoint'

This advice is based on the book Five Steps to Conquer 'Death by PowerPoint'

Working memory is overloaded. Students can't keep up, so they give up.

Students who have noticed that there's a direct link between the amount of PowerPoint the professor uses and the likelihood that they’ll be completely bored in class should take heart. They’re not alone.

This phenomenon occurs because of how the human mind processes information to learn.

The cognitive research in this area is quite clear. When humans try to read and listen at the same time, they actually understand less than if they do either one separately. Working memory is overloaded. They can’t keep up, so they give up.

"This is relatively easy to prove," says author Eric Bergman. "The next time you're watching your favourite all-news channel, try listening to what the news anchor is saying while reading what's scrolling across the bottom. Even if both are about the same story, it won't more than five seconds to realize you have to block out one or the other to get anything meaningful out of the exercise."

And that's in five seconds. Imagine what happens during a two-hour, slide-driven lecture.

So how can students make the best of a bad situation, especially when the professor is unaware that using slides in class is unsupported by cognitive research? Two things, really.

The first is to adjust their behaviour by better understanding how they process information, and using that knowledge to adapt in class. The second is to find ways to change the professor’s behaviour so that he or she uses fewer slides in class (if any at all), and puts significantly less on each slide.

If slides are posted online in advance, students should read them before class and set them aside. They should not bring them to class.

In class, they should focus on listening to the professor and taking notes. They should ignore the projected slides, no matter how many times the professor refers to them.

If the class format allows, students should ask questions—even if it's to slow the professor down while they finish absorbing an idea.

If slides are posted after class, the process is reversed; ignore the slides in class and take notes on what the professor is saying. Students can review the slides later, especially if they re-work their notes during that critical first 48 hours after those notes were taken.

If the professor doesn't post slides online, students can ask to take pictures of the slides projected in class. If they are allowed, they can pull out their phone, snap the picture, ignore what's on the screen, listen to the professor, and take notes.

If they can't snap a photo, they should find a partner and work in pairs. One person listens and takes notes. The other writes down what's on the slides. Copy and swap after class.

When it comes to changing the behaviour of professors, there are a couple things that can be done.

One is to cut out this article and leave it on his or her desk. If the professor reads this far, he or she will now be learning that there is no direct evidence to indicate that using slides in any format, classrooms and lecture halls included, is even remotely effective. In fact, one of the world's top cognitive scientists says the evidence is pointing in exactly the opposite direction.

Those professors who use minimal PowerPoint or no PowerPoint should be praised, as well as the rare professor (one in a hundred?) who uses PowerPoint well, but students might consider being frank about the use of PowerPoint on class evaluations.

If there were too many slides, they should say so. If the slides got in the way of learning, they should say so. If there were so many slides that they questioned the value of going to class, they should say so.

And students should keep saying so until professors and administrators get the point. Education is far too expensive for students—and far too competitive for the institutions themselves—to settle for glazed eyes in class, especially when those glazed eyes are created in the name of “that’s the way it’s done” or “everyone uses it.”

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Eric Bergman

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