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05 April 2009

PowerPoint and Linear Discourse

This is a short paper I wrote for my Linguistic Anthropology class. I think it's pretty interesting - I hope you enjoy it too.

Powerpoint and Linear Discourse
An article published in The New Yorker magazine in 2001 claims that over 30 million PowerPoint presentations are given every day (Parker, 2001). That number has almost certainly grown in the last eight years, but so have criticisms of the popular software. Edward Tufte, the most vocal of PowerPoint's critics, says that the software has an intrinsic “cognitive style” which forces itself upon presenters and audience members alike (Tufte, 160). Among the qualities of PowerPoint's cognitive style are the sequentiality of presentation, hierarchical organization of information, impoverished articulation of information and emphasis on gimmicky graphics and slide transitions. These qualities, he says, determine the style of the presentation, and diminish the presenters' abilities to transmit information effectively to the audience. However, my own experience in giving and receiving PowerPoint presentations is that their style and their effectiveness is determined more by the personality and ability of the presenter than by the software.
I chose to focus on one of Tufte's qualities in order to find out to what degree the cognitive style of PowerPoint affects the presentation of information. The quality I chose was the sequentiality of slide format. According to Tufte, “Slides serve up small chunks of promptly vanishing information in a restless one-way sequence” (Tufte, 160). This makes the presentation more like a movie or television than a “contemplative analytical method.” In some cases, this presentation method is useful, other times not. The sequence, he argues, should be determined by the character of the content, not by the software. In particular, he complains about what he refers to as “the dreaded slow reveal,” in which the presenter gradually unveils, line-by-line, a series of bullet points, often with obnoxious transitions that don't add anything to the content of the presentation. Instead, Tufte argues, presenters should offer paper handouts that allow the audience to control the sequence and pace of learning as well as providing spatial parallelism which “takes advantage of our notable capacity to reason about multiple images that appear simultaneously within our eyespans” (Tufte, 160).
I decided to evaluate empirically Tufte's claims for the sequentiality of PowerPoint presentations by observing my teachers who use the software and qualitatively evaluating the linearity of their presentations. I have four classes this semester, and all of them utilize PowerPoint to varying degrees. While the PowerPoint slides do proceed in a one-way sequential order, each professor found ways of working both inside and outside of the context of their slides to alter the flow of information.
For ease of explanation and anonymity, I will refer to Professors A, B, C, and D to describe the different styles of my professors. Professor A uses moderately elaborate PowerPoint slides with many charts, diagrams, pictures, and some slow reveal text. She moves through the slides in a very linear fashion with few, if any, tangents. For the most part, she simply reads from the slides or explains the diagrams and pictures. She doesn't cycle back, unless explicitly asked to by a student. However, some cycling back is built in to her PowerPoint presentation in the form of repeated slides. Professor B also uses moderately elaborate PowerPoint slides with some charts, diagrams and pictures and a lot of slow reveal text. She follows her slides faithfully as well, but has some tangents built in to them. For example, she will insert a picture on a slide which cues a related, but slightly off-topic story. Professor C uses generally basic PowerPoints with few pictures, no animation and no slow reveal text. She follows her slides intermittently, and inserts stories or tangents as the need or desire arises – some of which are relevant, others of which are not. Professor D rarely uses PowerPoint, and generally waits until the end of class to begin the slides. The beginning of class generally involves a question and answer session followed by several tangents including narratives, explanations, and discussions of particular themes. By the time he gets to his PowerPoint slides, there are only a few minutes left in class and he has to cycle through them very quickly. He touches on only the most important points, and cycles back and forth several times in the process. Figure 1 is a graphical depiction of my impression of these four presentation styles.

Fig. 1

It would be difficult for me to assess the effectiveness of these various styles and of PowerPoint in general. Some studies show that students prefer lectures with PowerPoint slides and feel that they learn more, but that there is no significant difference in learning between lectures with PowerPoint and those with overhead projectors (Bartsch). There does, however, seem to be a negative effect on student learning in PowerPoint lectures that use a lot of sound and graphics that are unrelated to the text (Bartsch). In terms of teaching, the results are mixed as well. I talked to One professor who rarely uses PowerPoint, but opted to use it this semester. She said that it has helped her to focus her presentation on the salient points, and stay within the time constrictions of the class (Gibson). In this sense, the sequential structure of PowerPoint may, in fact, be useful. On the other hand, she complains that she is often forced to compete with her slides for the attention of her students. In those cases, she is forced to impose herself physically between the students and the projection (Gibson).
PowerPoint, as with any software, has its benefits and its drawbacks, and its effectiveness as a pedagogical tool remains uncertain. However, it is important to note that PowerPoint doesn't determine the style of the presentation, at least with regard to sequentiality. I suspect that this is also true of the other qualities of PowerPoint's “cognitive style” that Tufte lists. As a result, the effectiveness of the software probably has more to do with the style of the presenter and the expectations of the students than it does with PowerPoint itself.


Works Cited
Bartsch, Robert A., and Kristi M. Cobern. “Effectiveness of PowerPoint presentations in lectures..” Computers & Education 41.1 (2003): 77.

Gibson, Jane. "Re: Powerpoint." E-mail to the author. 1 Apr. 2009.

Parker, Ian. “ABSOLUTE POWERPOINT..” New Yorker 77.13 (2001): 76.

Tufte, Edward R. Beautiful Evidence. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 2006.

1 comment:

idyllhands said...

I just went through several months of training at work during which Powerpoint was used. We also had a book that we could generally follow along in. I had to look up "cognitive style" in Wikipedia, but after skimming the entry, I would say that I agree that the medium of PowerPoint does have a cognitive style. I think of it more as an outlining tool; it has basically replaced a presenter's need to have notes to queue himself in presenting. It also allows the audience to follow along in his notes simultaneously.
I feel that some people are not as good at public speaking, and in those cases, PowerPoint is their crutch, allowing them to present a topic twice at once--once in their words, and once on screen. Others who are better at engaging the audience may not need the crutch so much; they are able to emphasize their key points and engage the audience more so that repetition element is less necessary. Not sure if that makes sense, but just thought I'd drop that angle into your comments.

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