Book review: “Slides for Students,” reviewed by John LeJeune

This book review of Slides for Students comes from John LeJeune, a history and political science professor at Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW). LeJeune joined GSW in 2016 and was formerly a Junior Teaching Fellow at Bard College.

Cover design by Corey Parson

The inspiration for Gary Fisk’s Slides for Students: The Effective Use of Powerpoint in Education is the “strange, somewhat curious disconnect between an amazing technology and a mediocre or poor student learning experience” (vii). Fisk calls this the “powerpoint paradox,” a pattern of “amazing technology being used to give awful presentations” (29). In college classrooms “death by powerpoint” has become an institution, if not an expectation; and yet surveys indicate that “students clearly like powerpoint” (43). Putting a cynical two and two together, it appears that death by a thousand powerpoints is exactly what students want, while the professors who lean on the program’s standard—but inept—defaults are happy to give it to them. Were it not for Fisk’s light and sardonic humor (see especially p. 14–15), one might give up already.

But those who continue are rewarded. First, throughout Slides for Students the cultural story surrounding powerpoint marks a fascinating sociological subplot. Without theorizing the problem directly, Fisk’s description of powerpoint offers an illustrative example of how suboptimal practices unwittingly become hardened, harmful social norms. “The widespread adoption of powerpoint in our culture is another form of a powerpoint default,” writes Fisk. “The ubiquity of powerpoint presentations in modern culture has defined the conventions for presentations to follow. . . . When these software and cultural defaults combine, the end result is a conglomeration of ineffective practices: too much text, too many bullet points, and—unfortunately—too many students who fall asleep during a presentation” (297).

“Fisk’s recommendations about best teaching practices are supported with peer-reviewed experimental evidence, culled from a comprehensive review of the literature.”

The adoption of powerpoint was both a natural and revolutionary development. One forgets that classrooms historically did not even have chalkboards, relying solely on lectures from the rostrum. The chalkboard proved to be of great help for supplementing verbal descriptions with illustrations, clarifying how concepts relate, highlighting key points, and helping students with information recall (if only by slowing down the lecturer). Later, overhead projectors only enhanced this potential by adding the element of prepared slides and images, including graphs and tables. Seen from this perspective, powerpoint represent the culmination of this process, with much of its appeal centered on the ease with which graphic, video, and other materials can be created, accessed, and stored. But ironically, this same ease of use became powerpoint’s Achilles heel. Given a host of pre-established templates and slide formats—most of which combined standard bullet point text with other glossy but unnecessary features—the initial generation of powerpoint users (and eventually their textbook publishers) adopted these settings and unwittingly established a norm for others to emulate. Thus, instead of using sound pedagogy to drive the use of technology, the ease of technology crowded out intentional pedagogy.

In response to this problem, the body of Slides for Students encourages professors to break this cycle by not resisting the use of powerpoint (which is here to stay anyway), but instead reassessing its use in the classroom, and working intentionally to harness its strength to enhance student learning. The study that follows moves well beyond a simple discussion of the mechanics of powerpoint (although useful functions are discussed) and becomes a larger meditation on the elements of sound pedagogy and where powerpoint is (and is not) most effective in this regard. A recurring theme is the need to rely far less on powerpoints to convey written information, which often leads to a passive-student approach that goes little beyond copying down bullet points. Instead, Slides for Students promotes a more active listening, learning, and note-taking environment. In one especially important section (p. 149–154), the idea of eliminating on-screen text altogether is seriously discussed.

To illustrate best practice, one common application is what Fisk calls the “assertion-evidence,” or “headline” style, slide as an alternative to text-based bullet points. As Fisk describes in some detail:

This slide design horizontally splits the powerpoint slide into two major parts, the upper and lower part of the slide. The assertion part of the slide at top uses a complete sentence that directly states the key idea of the slide . . . a hypothesis, a research finding, or a direct statement. In contrast, the lower part of the slide is for evidence: a supporting image, such as a photograph, drawing, or graph. (138–9)

An example of an "assertion-evidence" slide. A complete statement is at the top of the slide and at the bottom is an image supporting the text's claim.

Among other things, “assertion-evidence” slides avoid the problem of information “redundancy”—the decrease in learning that occurs when auditory and visual words compete for a student’s attention—while presenting ideas in a manner that prompts discussion or encourages relatable analysis (150, 185). It also avoids the problem of “divided attention” by allowing slides and lectures to work together, rather than compete (164–5). Another idea for student engagement is the “Pecha Kucha” exercise, which gives student presentations only twenty slides and twenty seconds per slide (206–9). Throughout the text, Fisk encourages professors to leverage the multimedia capabilities of slide presentations—including short videos and YouTube links—to facilitate active discussion and group exercises within the classroom, the opposite of passive bullet point note-taking.

All this brings into relief another strength of Slides for Students. Although anecdotal evidence is often presented to draw the reader into a topic, virtually all of Fisk’s recommendations about best teaching practices are supported with peer-reviewed experimental evidence, culled from a comprehensive (read: exhaustive) review of the literature. One leaves Slides for Students not only with new ideas for slide design and incorporation, but a much better understanding of pedagogical concepts like “redundancy,” “divided attention,” and “proximity principle” (which is important to consider when arranging materials within a slide), as well as the latest conclusions of scientific research in these areas. In addition, Fisk devotes significant time to considering powerpoint’s tactical role in an overall strategic lecture design (see especially Chapters 5–6, “Design for Emotion I and II”). He also includes a sample powerpoint lecture (complete with color images and explanations) to illustrate virtually all of the aforementioned teaching ideas in action (Chapter 16, “A Classroom Presentation Example”).

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