Guest Post: How to Turn Passive PowerPoints into Interactive Lectures by: Chris Machielse

Avoiding “death by PowerPoint” can be as simple as making class more interactive.
In many circles, slideshows are notorious for so-called “Death by PowerPoint.” The same criticism is applied everywhere from corporate boardrooms to classrooms. For many students, PowerPoint is synonymous with uninspiring lectures, and therefore passive learning.

Despite the passive nature of a slide-based lecture, PowerPoint and PowerPoint-like formats are likely going to stick around for quite some time. While slides often lead to tendencies like lecturing and overloading slides with too much information, a well-done presentation makes it easier for students to follow along.

In the past, instructors outlined important points on the chalkboard, but computers have made PowerPoint and Keynote presentations ubiquitous. Slides make it easier for instructors to logically organize their key points and to share relevant photos, diagrams, and charts. To promote active learning, however, the challenge is to make otherwise monotonous content and instruction more interactive.

There are three keys to a truly interactive PowerPoint presentation, and despite “Death by PowerPoint,” each can be made easier with instructional technologies.

Student response systems can help students self-assess their learning, keep them
engaged during lecture, and make PowerPoint slideshows more interactive.
Instant assessment and student response systems
Clickers are one classroom technology that has been around for quite some time.  With Internet access moving towards ubiquity, next generation student response systems are moving beyond the basic remote-like devices and allowing students to participate using their cellphones, laptops, or other Internet-enabled devices.

Nobelist Carl Wieman found that interactive lectures taught with student response systems not only improved student engagement, but also student learning. New student response systems promote discussion and identify misconceptions with more question types, rather than simply fostering recollection of material. In large classes, it is easier to hear from a variety of students using a student response system. Students also prefer to respond to questions posed by their instructor using technology.

Many student response systems integrate with, replace, or work seamlessly with PowerPoint, making it simple to poll and engage students during a lecture.

Making Q&A a two-way street with the backchannel
For many instructors, posing questions to students is an obvious way to test understanding and make class more interactive, but nearly as important is opening channels for the opposite direction: allowing students to communicate with their instructors.

In a smaller classroom, it is easy for students to raise their hands with comprehension concerns, but in larger classroom or class sessions with a lot of slides to cover in a limited timeframe, opportunities to ask questions are rare.

Technology allows students to submit questions when they arise, rather than waiting for a good opportunity. It also empowers the shy student to ask questions, and allows instructors to see precisely which concepts are confusing.

Many solutions exist to open the classroom backchannel, though some are more elegant than others. In his book, Derek Bruff noted one college classroom where students could text their teaching assistant questions, and the TA would stop the professor if a particularly “good” question came in. Other instructors use Twitter with a class-specific hashtag. Again, some next generation classroom technologies integrate this type of interactive exchange with the instructor’s slideshow.

Monitor comprehension
Posting questions to students and opening up Q&A could be considered explicit interaction, but a third type of implicit interaction is necessary to teach effectively with PowerPoint. For instructors who spend a lot of time teaching in a lecture format, particularly with many slides to cover, it can sometimes be difficult to know if students are understanding any of the material.

Utilizing student response systems are great for engaging students with material, facilitating peer instruction, and providing a self-assessment tool. Opening up Q&A allows students to relay specific concerns and to learn from their classmates’ questions. But monitoring overall comprehension is paramount – it allows instructors to modify class on-the-fly and adjust to student learning.

This type of rapid feedback cycle by nature creates a more interactive classroom and provides more opportunities for student learning as instructors attack problems in new ways when students get stuck.

Chris Machielse is an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan and interns for LectureTools, a web-based interactive presentation tool designed to minimize distractions created by cellphones and laptops during lecture while allowing instructors to teach with real-time feedback.


Mother. Teacher. Keynote. Author

Erin Klein is an award winning educator, national keynote speaker, author, and mother.

  1. Thanks for this post. I'm venturing into using SMART Response "clickers" this year and working to train others in my building. This helps me remember that all the hard work is worth it!

  2. What about using the pen feature with younger students, e,g. for underlining, outlining, circling, filling in answers, etc?

  3. @Jon

    Right now I'm not aware of any student response systems that let students physically underline or circle answers.

    For K-12, interactive whiteboards have this type of functionality. If I'm not mistaken, however, there aren't really any peripherals to give to each student, so the teacher would have to call students up to the board individually to cricle/underline/etc.

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