How to Transform PowerPoint from a Lecture Tool into a Learning Tool

PowerPoint®: noun 1. An overused lecture tool that is a teacher’s or trainer’s joy and a learner’s nightmare; 2. A slide creation program that is as good, or as bad, as its human user; 4. A computer application that can either aid – or destroy – learning.

Let’s get one thing straight: PowerPoint was NEVER intended to be a learning tool. Its original purpose was to help business people organize their presentation material, grow confident in their ability to speak, and to stay on track as they lectured. As such, it has succeeded superbly: the person using PowerPoint slides to present information IS more organized, more confident, and more “on track.”

From a learner’s perspective, however, PowerPoint is a lousy tool for learning, at least when it’s used the way most presenters, trainers, and teachers use it: as a visual display of lecture notes. Most PowerPoint users lecture straight from the screen, reading their slides aloud, word for word, while learners read them silently.

It can get worse. Some instructors even say, “Well, I know you can’t read what’s on this slide, so I’ll read it to you…” and then proceed to do just that, reading from a slide that is unreadable to everyone else.

The only upside for learners is that, with the lecture notes on Powerpoint slides and handouts, learners can elect to grab the handouts and bolt for the door – the slides and lecture notes are all there for them to read over a cup of coffee in the comfort of their own homes.

If you’ve ever been part of a captive class or audience that had to sit through a lengthy, boring PowerPoint presentation, you know how painful the experience can be.

As a trainer or teacher, you do NOT want to inflict that kind of pain on your learners. So what kinds of changes can you make to your slide presentations, while still covering the material? How can you use slides without losing your learners in the process?

Below are seven simple suggestions and two slide presentations that will help you transform your next slide presentation from a lecture tool into a learning tool. Use these ideas and watch your learners’ interest and involvement increase while boredom flies out the window.

1. Cut your slide deck in half.

If you use 20 slides for an hour presentation, aim for 10 instead. That’s about one slide every 6 minutes. Then get creative with the slides you leave out, using other media to display the information.

Instead of using slides alone, you can post some of the content on handouts, on wall charts that you’ve hung around the classroom, on index cards, or on single sheets of paper that you tape to the backs of some chairs.

When the time comes to cover that information, learners can take a moment to find the information – moving around in their seats or standing around a wall chart. If you’ve printed some important concepts on handouts or index cards, have learners highlight, underline, or draw boxes around the information. Any movement by learners awakens their dozing bodies and minds.

2. Use images to teach concepts.

A picture is, indeed, worth a thousand words. Learners everywhere know this! Humans remember images longer than words. So, whenever possible, use photos, graphics, or cartoons on slides to illustrate the information (of course the image needs to be related to the concept being presented). The image should be large and clear enough to capture the interest and attention of the learners. Screen-size images are better than tiny ones.

By the way, stories, metaphors, case studies, analogies, and real-life examples all create mental images as well. The more concrete you can make the information, the more interesting it becomes and the better it will stick in the minds of your learners.

3. Use the need-to-know versus nice-to-know rule.

Only put on a slide what your learners need-to-know. Put the nice-to-know information on a handout for learners to read later.

How do you know which is need-to- know versus nice-to-know? Ask yourself, “What information is crucial to the learners, the lack of which will cause them to lose their jobs or fail the test?” THAT is the need-to-know stuff. Cover this information first. Only if you have time to spare, do you go back and cover the nice-to-know material.

4. Keep it simple.

Instead of lecturing directly from your slides, put only the most important words or phrases on the slides and lecture from your notes instead. This means the slides have NO paragraphs, NO sentences, NO fillers (like “therefore,” or “quite possibly,” or “in conclusion”). USE ESSENTIAL WORDS ONLY on the slides.

5. Lose the template.

Attention drops when slides look boringly alike. “Habituation” kicks in and the brain begins to screen out repetitive images and data, causing learners to daydream. If your company policy dictates using the same logo or template on each slide, then vary its location or position, or add graphics.

6. Check for font size, distance, and color.

Stand at least ten feet away from your computer screen and look at your PowerPoint slides. If you cannot EASILY read every word on every slide, the font size is too small. Some say to use at least a 30-point font size or larger – actually, 48-point font or larger is best. No script fonts, please – they are difficult to read. Use printed fonts only.

Black print on a white background is the easiest to read from a distance. Colored backgrounds and light print (red, yellow, white, green) wash out in bright or fluorescent-lighted rooms. Use colors for graphics or borders. Be aware that the colors on your computer monitor may look totally different when projected onto a screen.

7. Use the 10-to-20 minute rule.

Break up your lecture into segments of no more than 20-minutes in length (10-minute segments are even better). In between each segment, pause and ask a question, solicit comments, or do a quick, one-minute review activity (see Sharon’s Micro-Courses or Sharon’s Articles on this website for lots of 60-second activities that can be used with any group of learners and any subject or topic).

OR: Every 10-to-20 minutes, STOP TALKNG and direct learners to MOVE: stand and stretch, sit and stretch, take a few deep breaths, write on a wall chart, write on note-taking pages, form standing groups to discuss what they have heard, turn to the persons seated next to them and ask a topic-related question, etc. Movement increases blood flow to the brain which, in turn, makes the brain work better – a good thing if you want learners to remember what you’re teaching them.

Now take a few minutes to view the two interactive slide presentations below:

Engage the Brain: 5 Ways to Create Interactive Slides by Sharon Bowman
Preventing Death by PowerPoint! by Sharon Bowman
Finally, if you’re interested in what other experts have to say about using PowerPoint as a learning tool, do explore the slide presentations on the link below:

The choice is yours. Every time you use Powerpoint as part of a presentation, class, or training, ask yourself: “Do I want my learners to be bored to tears or to listen and learn? Do I want them awake, involved, and wanting more?” Small, simple changes to your PowerPoint slides can make all the difference.

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