PowerPoint vs manipulatives

There is no one right way to teach a subject, writes cognitive scientist Dan Wilingham on Answer Sheet.

Pop quiz. For each of the following pairs, which will lead to better learning?

A verbal explanation of a concept

A verbal explanation with manipulatives

A lecture with PowerPoint slides

A workshop where participants produce a product

The right answer depends on “how effectively the method is used to convey the desired content” and how well the method fits the content and how much the audience already knows.

How could manipulatives not help? They don’t help when they don’t represent that target concept well, or when they have flashy but irrelevant properties that distract the student.

Manipulatives can be great, but they have been oversold. Sometimes they help, sometimes they are irrelevant, and sometimes they actually detract from learning.

In my experience, workshops are quite useful when participants already know something about the subject at hand, and when there is a product to be produced. For example, a workshop is a sensible way for an expert to help people write better resumes.

In my experience workshops are not very useful when people want to learn the ABCs of a subject. They just don’t know enough to get going on a product.

Asked to speak to a group of teachers, Willingham was sent a contract which forbade the use of PowerPoint. The organizer said that “the latest cognitive research showed” that PowerPoint turns people into passive listeners and that participatory activities such as workshops were better.

I said that PowerPoint turns people into passive listeners when it is poorly used. (I also thought “and workshops based on topics that shouldn’t be workshopped will turn people into zombies drooling with boredom.”)

We’ve all been to that workshop.

Update:  Keep thee behind me, PowerPoint, writes Professor Jason Fertig.

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  1. I once sat through a 2 1/2 hour lecture by “education specialists” to tell us why we shouldn’t use lecture to teach our students.

    This was before the concept of “facepalm” became widespread or I probably would have been pantomiming a facepalm through most of that 2 1/2 hours. (It was in an overheated, windowless room, on top of that.)

  2. When I was in grad school, in a practice discipline, the program admitted a student directly from his undergrad program. Although his grades were very good, he had no experience and therefore had nothing to contribute to seminars and had difficulty with experience-based written work. The program decided to require at leats 2-3 years of experience prior to admission.

    Asking ES-MS kids to workshop – or any other groupwork – amounts to pooling their ignorance.

  3. Along these lines, check out Professor Jason Fertig’s recent article on the uses of PowerPoint at nas.org: http://www.nas.org/polArticles.cfm?Doc_Id=1524.

  4. I treated myself a few years back to one of Edward Tufte’s one-day seminars on the visual display of quantitative information. Apart from the fascinating content, it was also a demonstration of the effectiveness of lectures presented by someone who is a master of the art. He kept a couple of hundred people mesmerized for six hours or more, almost entirely “just talk” although with visual and audio displays integrated. He has no use for Power Point, at least as it is commonly used to show slides of talking points the talker is simply going to read.

  5. I’m too old to have experienced PowerPoint in the classroom. However, I watch a lot of college lectures these days via iTunes U and my experience is that PowerPoint is the mark of a poor lecturer. Professor Donald Kagan at Yale, for example, has a compelling series of lectures on Ancient Greece that are given entirely in the old school tradition: a bundle of notes, scribblings and references that are glanced at in real time to keep the lecturer conscious of the structure and main points of the talk. The actual words that come out, however, are extemporaneous and based on the lecturer’s mastery of the content (except when quoting a source).

    Similar lectures on similar topics delivered via PowerPoint are, in my experience, always inferior. Almost invariably, the lecturer experiences the occasional technical glitch that interrupts the flow of the talk. Lights must be brought up and down as the class progresses. A question from a student often causes the lecturer to back up the the appropriate slide – a process that involves hunting out the previous slide and then finding a way back to the present slide. Sometimes a lecturer will forget that a slide has additional content that is to be slowly revealed as points are covered. The compulsion to just read from the slide must be very strong, because even lecturers who try not to seem to stray back to reading their slides. All too often the lecturer will decide to include content not on their slides and pause, leaving up an unrelated slide, and try to deliver an extemporaneous aside to the audience. This usually forces them to completely break into a totally different style of delivery that distracts from the content.

    See: Gettysburg Address as PowerPoint presentation:


  6. Mike Curtis says:

    If YOU are trying to get a point across to a large audience, why would you offer visuals, AKA Powerpoint, as a distraction?

    Too often, “reinforcing material” actually draws attention away from the teacher rather than supporting the lesson. In my world, I prohibit even an open book in front of my students while I’m demonstrating something I want them to learn…I don’t need the competition.

    Powerpoint may have a place in the classroom; but, it’s usually winds up being a condensed version of textbook pages laced with odd noises and cartoons. Why would you use it if your lesson requires student attention on the teacher? My experience has been that , the more technologically enhanced a presentation is, the more one-on-one instruction time is needed after the fact.


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