PowerPoint Makes us Stupid

by Mark T. Mitchell on April 29, 2010 · 17 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

The New York Times has a piece on the use of PowerPoint by the military. According to one general,

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Does PowerPoint in the classroom have the same effect?

h/t Glenn Moots

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar John Médaille April 29, 2010 at 8:56 am

I think there is a certain irony in a general who says some problems are not “Bullet-izable.” And not bomb-able either. Or not even Obama-ble. Whatever.

avatar Matthew Milliner April 29, 2010 at 10:42 am

It doesn’t have to. PPT has certain temptations, namely sound effects and the above-mentioned overuse of bullet point, large font text lineups which should be used sparingly or (even better) completely resisted. But when it comes to art history, for example, PPT can be an extremely effective tool that launches this visually-based discipline to a new level of effectiveness, while (due to the aforementioned temptations) dragging other disciplines down to new levels of dumb.

avatar Gene Callahan April 29, 2010 at 12:41 pm

What Milliner said! When I use PP, I try to make sure it is a supplement to my talk, graphically illustrating my opints, and not just my talk in another format.

avatar Mark Perkins April 29, 2010 at 3:15 pm

I do think it’s possible to use PowerPoint well (as in Milliner’s mention of art classes), but the vast majority of the time, in my limited experience, it is used poorly. And I do think the temptation to reduce everything to bullet points is embedded in the medium.

avatar D.W. Sabin April 29, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Its worse than making folks stupid, it makes stupid people actually look cogent and prepared. But then, I am an old fart who refuses to use it because it intrudes on my extended bloviations.

avatar John Médaille April 29, 2010 at 3:51 pm

All but one of my students did their presentations on PP this semester, and it didn’t make them look prepared. I had to give a lecture on the proper use of PP. Some actually faced the screen with their back to the audience and just read their slides. I note that caned graphics convey canned thoughts. Or no thoughts at all.

avatar Scot Martin April 29, 2010 at 4:21 pm

I have to agree with the posters up above despite that my powerpoint presentation last year on Varroa destructor kicked ass!

avatar SusannaS April 29, 2010 at 4:33 pm

I was required, when defending my Masters thesis, to use Powerpoint. ::sigh:: So I ginned up some random quotes that kinda went with what I was saying and flashed them up when it kinda fit. I passed, but much later I was talking with my thesis adviser and we laughed mightily at the absurdity of such a requirement. Though I agree with Matthew – when visuals are actually *important* to the lecture, then yes, PP can be a useful tool. (But then again, I’m married to a professor who would dearly love to ban all technology in the classroom and require his students to bring their texts, a pen, and notebook paper… and nothing else!)

avatar Cecelia April 29, 2010 at 5:51 pm

I am all in favor of banning cell phones and laptops from classrooms. But PP is a definite aid at least for me. I use a lot of visuals in my lectures and PP gives me the ability to 1)avoid having to carry around trays of slides 2) crop the image, blow up details in the image and do side by side comparisons.

However – the notion of using a bulletized PP presentation to supplement a lecture strikes me as absolute nonsense.

avatar Mitzi April 29, 2010 at 11:30 pm

I am in graduate school now, and my professors are almost required to use PP and post their slides in advance of the lecture. I developed a hand and wrist problem shortly before coming back to graduate school, so this practice, and the ability to take notes on a laptop (I can only write about half a page legibly before my handwriting turns into agonized chicken-scratch) were a real lifesaver.
I know the numbing sensation described in the article from a 30-slide presentation, as they happen often in our weekly seminars. Everybody in the biological sciences uses PP. We use visually-oriented techniques in our research, but several slides of black-and-white western blots in succession will put even the most interested student to sleep. Used correctly, PP is a tool as good as any. Misused, it is a really expensive way to light a nap room.

avatar Grant April 30, 2010 at 1:03 am

I teach physics and math courses, and have found that for classroom settings in these disciplines, PowerPoint is generally counterproductive. The main reason for this is that making good graphics in PPT takes so much more time than simply drawing on a blackboard, and it is much less flexible. Writing derivations on the blackboard also forces me to slow down and encourages students to think through it step-by-step. I also got the distinct impression that many students tune out whenever they see a computer or TV screen. The only direct evidence I have for this is that students ask many more questions when I don’t use PPT. Perhaps this is a Postman-esqe case of instinctively trusting what is on the screen, or maybe the dim lights put high school student to sleep. In any case, the only useful application for PowerPoint that I have found in a classroom is for high-detail color visuals that I can’t reproduce on the board.

avatar Peter Schellhase April 30, 2010 at 8:40 am

I recommend the paper “The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within” by Edward Tufte. Tufte is an expert on the visual display of ideas and information; he levels a case against Powerpoint by way of his investigation into the space shuttle Columbia disaster. Thesis: Powerpoint is a tool for consensus building, not instruction.

avatar D.W. Sabin April 30, 2010 at 9:27 am

There we have it…a tool for “consensus building”….ho ho ho , welcome to the abattoir, have a seat, its swell here, we want you to feel comfortable. Red is such an exhilarating color don’t you think?

avatar Steve Berg April 30, 2010 at 8:09 pm

In my checkered past, I worked in the area of tactical missile guidance at a once renowned mid-western think tank. This was years before PowerPoint, but I made vuegraphs by the hundreds for my briefings and for those of my colleagues and boss. I did quite a few of them on my CP/M Kaypro, and then we got some nice MS-DOS computers and ran Gem on them for better and easier graphics. We printed them off on transparencies, and put them in plastic pockets, and then into loose leaf binders. If I kept the number of bullet points on each sheet to about 3 to 4, and carefully selected each sheet during a briefing or presentation, it generally worked pretty well. But, if there were complex drawings of graphs, it seemed as though the impact was lessened. We were careful to make our presentations as factual as possible, and avoided fancy “enhancements”. We tried to offer a prudent course of action that meshed with our findings. My boss was a brilliant and seasoned DoD senior executive, and I learned a great deal from him on how to research, write, and make presentations. Improving the effectiveness of guided anti-armor smart munitions is one thing, but trying to model diplomacy, close order combat, or the Byzantine social/military/religious/and political situation in our current military quagmires is far beyond the capabilities of anyone using PowerPoint.

avatar Mark May 1, 2010 at 6:20 am

I don’t know how to use powerpoint, but then I am not in front of students in a classroom. I don’t feel deprived for not learning it and I suppose it is a good tool in certain situations like art or architecture. Do you think its popularity is due to our culture of entertainment; a move away from word based culture to an image based culture?

avatar Steve K. May 2, 2010 at 11:08 pm

I despise Power Point and think it has had a very negative effect on the way we do things in the military and defense bureaucracy (was in the former, now in the latter). It is morphed from a means of displaying information found elsewhere (like in a research paper or official report) into the source document itself, in many organizations. Attention spans and reading comprehension has withered as a result, so have analytical ability and thoroughness. Some of our leaders get it, not only BG McMaster, but also for example our commander Gen. Mattis, who has forbidden the practice of using PowerPoint for source documents and has forced staff to write papers again. Not many like them, sadly.

Peter – great recommendation; I have passed my copy of Tufte’s work around the office before.

avatar Robin Datta May 4, 2010 at 7:31 am

PowerPoint does not make them stupid; the stupidity lies in the appropriateness of the choice of mode or in compilation. A medical talk tn physicians would be bereft of content without the graphics.

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