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What's the Point of PowerPoint?

Microsoft PowerPoint can be a powerful classroom tool. Used ineffectively, however, its technical bells and whistles can obscure educational content, turning a great lesson into computer chaos. The Education World Tech Team offers ideas on how to use PowerPoint to enhance, rather than overshadow, student learning. Included: A detailed lesson plan and rubric, an equation for creating your own PowerPoint rubric, a completed student presentation, and dozens of tips for ensuring effective PowerPoint presentations in your classroom.

Microsoft PowerPoint can be a powerful presentation tool for the classroom, but many teachers become frustrated by their students' fascination with its bells and whistles. Far too often, classroom content is forgotten as students focus on busy animation, loud audio, and distracting backgrounds. So, we asked the Education World Tech Team for their suggestions on how K-12 educators can effectively use PowerPoint in the classroom. Their answers might surprise you!


Where Do the Pros Go?

Did you think our Tech Team members were born with tech-expertise? Think again! Learning about technology is simply a matter of following where others have led. Tech Team member Gail Braddock recommends taking a look at the research and observations of tech expert Patrick Krispen. His many free classroom resources include an exhaustive and well-researched presentation entitled Now That I Know PowerPoint, How Can I Use it to Teach?. (Scroll down to access the free download.)



Tech Team member Elizabeth Sky-McIlvain suggests starting any PowerPoint assignment with the question, "What is the purpose of this lesson?," and then considering whether PowerPoint is, in fact, the only tool -- or even the best tool -- for the job, given your curricular goals and students' skills.

Melanie Northcutt and Lucy Gray agree that goals are key. They both suggest using rubrics to spell out clearly what knowledge or skill is being assessed.

When it comes to creating that rubric, Gray warns, "Structure things pretty tightly. Be [as] specific as possible with students as to what you expect."

When writing assessment expectations related to sound and media requirements, use language students would use themselves, not PowerPoint jargon, adds Sky-McIlvain.

And, above all, be sure to weigh content heavily in your assessment tool. Tech Team members consistently warn of the danger of allowing style to take precedence over content.

Sky-McIlvain offers a helpful equation you might want to consider when writing your rubric. A slide show presentation, she says, should include:

  • One specific question answered (notone specific topic explored). As is true in all projects, the question is as important as the product.
  • One theme or background.
  • One font set.
  • No more than one background sound. (If there is a background sound, there should be no other sounds.)
  • One consistent slide transition.
  • One text animation effect
  • One list animation effect (which can be used on each slide).

Northcutt also allows students to include one -- but only one -- background and sound effect or slide transition. As she notes, "They need to have some fun!"


A 1980s song asks, "What are words for?/When no one listens?" Students often are tempted to write sentences, even paragraphs in PowerPoint, yet our experts point out that this tool is most effective when simple topics, catch-phrases, and quick ideas are highlighted.

Bernie Poole notes that keeping text short and sweet, "guarantees that the PowerPoint is no more than a guide, with the presenter maintaining center stage, so to speak. It also more easily allows for handouts -- which, ideally, are two-sided, three slides per slide, with each slide accompanied by a lined area for notes."

And don't forget the value of storyboarding! Far too many PowerPoint users simply open the program and begin typing. Instead, suggests Sky-McIlvain, have students create outlines, lists, or storyboards of their presentation before opening PowerPoint. They might even brainstorm in Inspiration, and then export the outline to PowerPoint.

Finally, when it is time to type, be sure to consider font size in terms of the final presentation and its audience. Northcutt limits students to one font size and to Microsoft fonts only (no frou-frou fonts from quirky Web sites allowed!).

The larger the audience, the larger the font, adds Holmes. He also warns students to make sure the color of the font contrasts with the slide's background, and to avoid yellow or other overly bright colors that might be uncomfortable to read.

Tech Team members offer the following tips for keeping your students on track with the text portion of their presentation:

  • Include only 3-7 points (bullet) per slide and 3-7 words per bullet. (Poole)
  • Do not allow complete sentences. (Northcutt)
  • Do not show every point on a slide at once or your audience will read ahead and stop listening to the presentation. (Fred Holmes)
  • Challenge students to use pictures, not text, to do the talking. (Paul Aldridge)
  • Require spellchecking and citations for all text and media. (Sky-McIlvain)
  • When dealing with a sensitive topic (animal lab testing, for example) put in a cautionary-slide warning that some might find the material disturbing. (Paul Aldridge)
  • Include authorship (first name only if posting to the Web), school, and date, and a "Fair Use" statement. (Sky-McIlvain)


Despite their warnings about students' overuse of animations, clip art, backgrounds, and so on, Tech Team members agree that a judicious use of those tools can be effective.

John Tiffany suggests carefully noting what style choices are allowed and when they may be used, and explaining the reasons for your choices. He notes that PowerPoint offers a number of relevant backgrounds and images that can enhance presentations in his subject area -- science.

Paul Aldridge agrees with that philosophy of selective and effective animation, noting "clever animation from slide to slide, and media surprises, can be memorable."

Holmes suggests discussing with students whether it's more important for a presentation to be entertaining or informative. He warns students to be careful that pictures or background don't overshadow the slide's points, and to be sure to fade picture backgrounds (created using the Format Picture tool) so text can be seen clearly.

Don't be afraid to insert video or music. Aldridge shares that a particularly effective classroom PowerPoint show he saw was a memorial to John Lennon that included two laptops synched together and using both music clips and music.

Northcutt warns, however, that PowerPoint presentations can grow to unwieldy sizes when graphics, audio, and video are added. She limits student images to 75 dpi and uses a software program called Impatica to compress large PowerPoint files.

Don't forget to makes sure all media -- pictures, audio, and so on -- is saved in the same folder as the PowerPoint itself, reminds McIlvain. A Pack-and-Go option found on newer versions of PowerPoint make that quite easy.


To demonstrate how all the pieces mentioned above come together in an engaging and effective PowerPoint project, Gray shares the steps involved in one of her recent PowerPoint assignments. Included are links to both her rubric and to a sample of a finished student presentation.

"I created my favorite PowerPoint project during the fall of 2002 and have done it every year since," Gray notes. "I wanted kids to find a way to remember 9/11 without feeling morose. I wanted them to embrace life, to remember the good things in life that are worth living fully for.

"I used a video, called "Suggestions on How to Lead a Happy and Rewarding Life," which used to be part of a United Way fund-raising campaign. Based on a book called Life's Little Instruction Book, "Suggestions" is a very simple slideshow of moving and amusing adages set to Enya playing "Greensleeves." Using the video as inspiration, kids had to create one called "Suggestions on How to Lead a Happy and Rewarding Life in Sixth Grade."

"Students worked on the project in teams or pairs. Ideas were brainstormed in Inspiration, and then exported to PowerPoint slides (a very cool feature of Inspiration). Each team had to create a minimum of 15 slides and include a graphic on most slides. Music was optional. They had to save the presentation as a PowerPoint movie so it would run automatically, and they had to present it to their classmates.

"I graded the presentations using a rubric I created myself.

"This has been a really fun project and I've been amazed to see the thought the kids put into to it each year."

All in all, our entire Tech team agreed: If you pay attention to the tips above and utilize additional online resources, PowerPoint can be a valuable teaching and learning tool. Good luck!

The Education World Tech Team includes more than 50 dedicated and knowledgeable education-technology professionals who have volunteered to contribute to occasional articles that draw on their varied expertise and experience. The following Tech Team members contributed to this article:

* Paul Aldridge, Pine Crest School, Fort Lauderdale, Florida * Gail Braddock, elementary computer coordinator, Briarcrest Christian School, Memphis, Tennessee * Lucy Gray, middle school computer science, The University of Chicago Lab Schools, Chicago, Illinois * Fred Holmes, LanManager/WebMaster, Osceola High School, Osceola, Nebraska * Elizabeth Sky-McIlvain, director, Least Tern, Georgetown, Maine * Melanie Northcutt, Latin teacher, Girls Preparatory School, Chattanooga, Tennessee * Bernie Poole, associate professor of education and instructional technology, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania * John Tiffany, high school science teacher, Wauseon High School, Wauseon, Ohio



Article by Lorrie Jackson
Education World®
Copyright © 2004 Education World