Show and Tell


I have a confession to make:  I am something of a PowerPoint addict.  I have a second confession to make:  I am aware that not all of my PowerPoint presentations are as effective as I would like them to be.  Having been in the audience during many PowerPoint presentations, I know that slides with too much text are ineffective, and I also know that nothing is more boring than listening to someone read from his or her slides.  Thus, over the past few years, I have tried to make my slides more audience-friendly by reducing the amount of text that I display and increasing the number of visuals.  

I made those changes after doing some reading about learning styles and how the brain processes information.  Though this is a huge oversimplification, I learned that the brain processes verbal and visual information through separate channels, so if we present students with both kinds of information, we can help them improve comprehension.   Other than in Property and Estates and Trusts, when I remember my professors diagramming future interests on the chalkboard, I don’t remember having visuals in my law school classes.  (The fact that I remember those diagrams almost 15 years after my law school graduation probably says something about why I now use visuals in my classes.)

An article I read recently, Legal Education in the Age of Cognitive Science and Advanced Classroom Technology, supports the idea that providing students with more visuals can enhance their learning.  In that article, Professor Deborah Merritt summarizes three “brain basics,” the differences between the brain’s right and left hemispheres; the limitations on working memory; and the concept of immediacy, and then explains how we can use that information about the brain to create more effective presentations.  Though the article includes ten suggestions, I’m going to summarize the four that have had the most impact on my teaching.

1. “Use More Images and Fewer Words”

Images aren’t limited to photographs. Images can include charts, graphs, or any other visual representation of information.  Given the often abstract nature of the lessons we try to teach, Prof. Merritt suggests using a visual to provide students an anchor or reference point as we ask them to build upon their knowledge and synthesize new information.  She suggests, for example, that when discussing Vosberg v. Putney, a battery case about one child kicking another, the professor could use a picture of a kick as a backdrop for the discussion.   

2. “Create Adjunct Working Memory”

Although our long-term memory has tremendous capacity, our working memory is considerably smaller.  In fact, we can manipulate only a few pieces of new information at a time.  Thus, the complex concepts that we try to explain in the law school classroom can tax working memory, which, in turn, can impede learning.   Professors can help students learn new information by using PowerPoint to supplement working memory.  The professor can display a few words or a visual that will help to cue the students’ memories and allow them to integrate new information with material that they learned earlier.  

3. “Plan Outside PowerPoint”

This point was an important one for me.  I had a habit of relying on PowerPoint to create my in-class presentations.  In other words, I planned my class through my PowerPoint slides. That habit tended to result in slides full of text.  I think my presentations are better now that I first think about what information I want to deliver and how best to structure the conversation, and then I consider whether I can incorporate pictures or text to increase students’ comprehension.

4. “Extend PowerPoint Outside the Classroom” 

Prof. Merritt suggests that faculty can use PowerPoint to create tutorials, problem sets, or practice exams for students.  She posits that the benefit of using PowerPoint for those tasks is that the slides can guide the students through the professor’s reasoning process a step at a time.  Last year, I began using PowerPoint to create tutorials on citation, grammar, punctuation, and editing.  I created a presentation, and then I used a screen capture program to add narration over the top.  In the end, I had an audio-visual presentation that students could view outside of class.  Students have responded favorably to those presentations, which allow them to work at their own pace and to review the information once or multiple times, as they see fit.

For the remaining six suggestions about creating effective PowerPoint presentations and for more information about the “brain basics,” I encourage you to read Prof. Merritt’s entire article, which can be found at 14 B. U. J. Sci & Tech L 39 (2008).

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Bruce Boyden

    I agree with everything here, particularly Point 1. I have attended far too many presentations — usually CLE or academic papers — where the presenter is simply reading off the slide. There’s a value to text-dense slides in some cases, e.g. CLE, where the slides serve as take-home materials as well. But ideally the slides and the handouts would be two different things, because I find that listening to someone read a slide is actually WORSE than no slides at all; something about the combination of text and audio both saying the same thing means I pay attention to neither.

    So I use slides in my classes, but I try to limit them to (a) images or graphics; (b) rules or tests; or (c) rarely, a sort of table of contents for the discussion. You’d have to ask my students what they think, but from my end, it works pretty well. Except for the statutes I never read off the slides, and even with statutes I try to keep it short.

    I’m just beginning to explore the idea that the slide doesn’t have to fully capture the point being made, but just illustrate it. I tried using a LOLcat the other day in Civ Pro, but so far I haven’t accumulated enough relevant images to do this on a regular basis.

  2. Andrew Golden

    First, let me just say that as long as I live I’m never going to forget your discussion of why we should never use the “lasagna” style of formatting papers. 🙂

    That being said, I’ll be honest: I’ve grown to hate PowerPoint presentations in my classes because for most professors it is exactly the same as if they picked up the textbook and started reading it aloud. Then, when questions are raised, the professors look startled, and often fumble for an answer because they became engrossed in their own notes and became narrators instead of teachers. And, hey, that works for some students, but those kind of things make me want to say “Hey, just give me the slides and I’ll read them myself.”

    The overall solution — which I suspect you alluded to in point 3 — is to make the PowerPoint PART of the lecture rather than the whole thing. Don’t give me 90 minutes of slides. Or, alternately, if you must, don’t just put what we need to know in the slides. Pictures are good, but humor is even better. For example, in my Crim Law class, Professor O’Hear talked about homicide/manslaughter/attempts by discussing the creative ways in which he could kill Professor Anzivino. I still remember how he put Professor Anzivino’s web site picture in a slide and talked about an unfortunate accident involving (if I remember correctly) a spring-loaded crossbow. Then, in the next slide, he had that same picture with the prohibition slide over it. By that point, we were all engrossed. Is it harder to do with topics like Legal Writing? Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to be funny (especially professors like you who DO have a sense of humor that your students enjoy!)

    Oh, and for everyone’s sake: anyone who uses slides — student or teacher — should practice with them before you bring them to class. Get there a few minutes early and pre-load them onto the screen. Heck, I’m a tech nerd, and even I regularly suffer from snafus with computers. Nothing makes students check out faster than the fumbling of slides; nothing makes students stay engrossed than a professor who can click through slides like it was second nature.

  3. Michael M. O'Hear


    Thanks for commenting favorably on my use of PowerPoint, but (for the record) I was not trying to knock off Professor Anzivino in my hypo, but rather conspire with him to knock off Dean Kearney!

  4. Sue Liemer

    In a prior life, I worked as an advertising writer, and here’s what I learned: A great print or video ad (or a great comic strip) never says and shows the same thing. The reader or viewer has to combine the text and the visual in her mind to complete the communication. That’s what makes it effective. It takes some time to come with ideas for visuals and minimal text for PowerPoint slides that will combine with your oral comments in class and have the same dynamic. But then the presentation as a whole will work.

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