Active Learning with PowerPoint
Research on the effectiveness of PowerPoint is mixed. At worst, empirical research has found its use led to no significant difference in the matter of student grades. At best, it increases retention of material, increases student engagement, and improves faculty ratings (Berk, 2011). Many of the studies with negative findings are difficult to accept as the final word because very few of them examine the quality of the presentations or how the instructor is using the slides.
In my 14 years of teaching college students, PowerPoint has been part of my teaching toolkit, just as it may have been for many other educators. Over the years, I have seen slide presentations being used as didactic instruments that pay little attention to the value of active learning. These presentations can easily be updated to include active learning features that can help engage students in the learning process. This article explores some examples of active learning presentations from my own teaching experiences that students have found beneficial to their understanding of the content. The examples could be adapted to fit hybrid, face-to-face, or online teaching formats.
Active vs. Passive Learning
Before we get to the examples, it's important to have a clear understanding the differences between active and passive learning. In passive learning, "students are assumed to enter the course with minds like empty vessels or sponges to be filled with knowledge" (McManus, 2001, p. 424). Classic didactic teaching methods, including the lecture, fall under this definition. Students generally do not interact with the material in any meaningful way beyond recalling the information when they have an exam.
Active learning, on the other hand, directly involves students with the content. Students are asked to examine their prior knowledge, integrate their prior knowledge with new information, check their understanding of new material, question and debate findings, practice skills, and create new information. Constructivist teaching theories emphasize active learning, and academic peer-reviewed studies support its importance in keeping students engaged and helping develop their critical thinking skills. In their review of the research literature on active and passive learning, Bonwell and Eison (1991) state, "The evidence suggests that if an instructor's goals are not only to impart information but also to develop cognitive skills and to change attitudes, then alternative teaching strategies should be interwoven with the lecture method during classroom presentations" (p. 10).
One alternative teaching strategy that can be implemented quickly is revising an existing slide presentation so that it includes active learning techniques.
Moving to Active Presentations
Almost any active learning activity can be presented in a slide presentation. Doing a quick search on the Internet can yield a number of useful active learning resources, such as Active Learning Techniques, Active Learning for the College Classroom, and Twelve Active Learning Strategies. It is possible to adapt many of the ideas in these resources to fit your particular teaching scenario. Keep in mind that some activities may be better suited for the online environment, while others may work better in face-to-face settings.
As a general rule, if the activity requires instructions, I place those on a separate slide and place the activity on the next slide. I also try to color-code my slides so that the instructions are on one color background and the activity on another color background, as shown in the first example below. Placing the instructions on a separate slide gives the face-to-face instructor the opportunity to make sure that all students have the required materials and understand the instructions before commencing. In online classrooms, students can take a minute to gather scratch paper or other materials before starting.
Example One: Room Scramble
A room scramble can be used as a face-to-face classroom assessment technique to help ensure that students understand the material and to debunk subject-specific myths students may hold. A room scramble can be adapted to fit an online classroom setting (with a different heading, such as Test Your Understanding) by posting a multiple-choice or true/false question one slide with the correct answer and explanation on the next slide. (Alternatively, an online poll could also be used.)
Example Two: Find the Error
In the following example students are asked to find the two errors on a slide. This activity could easily be adapted for any topic or subject matter where identifying simple errors has value.
Example Three: Short Analysis
The following example asks students to analyze a quote. This technique can be used in any class where quick analysis is a valued skill. In a marketing class, for example, instructors could show ads from a product line and ask for first impressions. Students in an art history class could be asked to evaluate the symbolism or iconography in an image.
Example Four: Fill In the Blanks
An "oldie but goodie," fill-in-the-blank questions such as those shown in the following example emphasize vocabulary and linear processes. This example can be adapted for online classrooms by modifying the instructions to tell students to post their answers in a conference note or the assignment folder—or just review the answer key.
Example Five: Reflection
A reflective exercise gives students a few minutes to solidify their thoughts by asking them exploratory questions like How will you use this information? or What relevance does this information have to your life? My personal favorite is How will your new knowledge change your current practices?
Reflective activities could be set for any duration, but a good rule of thumb is that they be at least three minutes in length. A timer (see the PowerPoint timer tutorial for guidance) could be placed directly on a slide so that students can see the progression of time, as shown in the example below. For a face-to-face class, I would instruct students to respond on paper; in an online class, I would instruct them to respond in the conference area, their assignment folder, or as a private message.
PowerPoint game templates (including a community-authored collection from Microsoft) are easy to adapted for a face-to-face and online classrooms. The games, such as the Jeopardy-style game shown below, make test review sessions fun and engaging for students.
Many PowerPoint plug-in packages like iSpring have advanced interactive features. iSpring Free also allows users to embed simple Flash applications into PowerPoint slides. If I find a great open educational resource in the SWF format, I would use iSpring Free to embed the file into my PowerPoint so that I can quickly add an interactive element to my presentation.
Slide presentations are prominent in many classrooms, whether online, face-to-face, or a combination of the two. With a little bit of tweaking to incorporate active learning principles, these presentations can play a significant role in helping students review and understand important course material.
Berk, R. A. (2011). Research on PowerPoint®: From basic features to multimedia. International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, 7(1), 24-35
Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, DC: The George Washington University School of Education and Human Development. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
McManus, D. A. (2001). The two paradigms of education and the peer review of teaching. Journal of Geoscience Education, 49(5), 423-434. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Barnes, C. P. (1983). Questioning in the college classroom. In C. L. Ellner & C. P. Barnes (Eds.), Studies in college teaching (pp. 61-81). Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Berk, R. A. (2011). "PowerPoint engagement" techniques to foster deep learning. Journal of Faculty Development, 25(2), 45-48. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Boyas, E. A. (2008). Using PowerPoint to encourage active learning: A tool to enhance student learning in the first accounting course. International Journal of Information and Communication Technology Education, 4(2), 14-25. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Gier, V. S., & Kreiner, D. S. (2009). Incorporating active learning with PowerPoint-based lectures using content-based questions. Teaching of Psychology, 36(2), 134-139. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Henkel, C. (2010). Creating interactive learning objects with PowerPoint: Primer for lecture on the autonomic nervous system. Medical Teacher, 32(8), E355-E359. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Samsonov, P. (2008). Interactive images in PowerPoint. Southeastern Teacher Education Journal, 1(1), 55-61. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Tufte, E. R. (2003, September). PowerPoint is evil. Wired, 11(9). Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html
University of Michigan Center for Teaching and Learning. (2010). Active learning with PowerPoint. Retrieved from http://www1.umn.edu/ohr/teachlearn/tutorials/powerpoint/