No more the bore

10th September 2004 at 01:00
PowerPoint's potential is huge - and its reputation as a cure for insomnia is ill-deserved, writes Chris Higgins

Despite its enormous potential for selecting, evaluating and communicating, misuse and sheer lack of imagination is transforming PowerPoint from a powerful piece of educational software into a potential weapon of mass boredom.

"Death by PowerPoint" has too often described the experience of sitting through interminable and poorly presented slideshows with little to stimulate an audience, and even less to improve their learning.

But with more selective use and appropriate scaffolding, this software can be a powerful tool to promote interactive learning and higher-order thinking skills.

The key stage 3 strategy has encouraged more rigorous use of the three-part lesson and the use of starter activities and initial stimulus material.

PowerPoint is ideally suited to meet these aims - by helping you to structure lessons more systematically and providing the means to impress students the moment they enter the classroom. There are various ways to do this. For example, in maths it could be by setting a puzzle, or in English an anagram.

If PowerPoint is being used to present information to the class, it is useful to use one slide as a "lesson overview" that sets out the key topic areas or enquiry questions. The use of tables or diagrams to give a lesson overview (on the drop-down tools menu, click "customise" and select the drawing box) will help students chart a path through your presentation and to know where all the information is taking them.

Overview slides provide a sort of writing frame that helps students organise their notes more effectively. Colour-coding is also helpful. In your lesson overview slide, assign a different colour to each key topic or enquiry question so that students will instantly recognise that you have moved on to a different section. Colour-coding can also be used to highlight key words. I always do these in yellow so that students know that this is important vocabulary.

One of the main issues with PowerPoint - and perhaps one reason for its ill-deserved reputation as a sleep inducer - is the tendency to make lessons much too teacher-centred. Teachers need to explore the enormous scope that PowerPoint offers for independent and interactive learning.

Students should be encouraged to provide content themselves where possible.

For example, they could be shown a slide with three or four bullet points and asked to come up with a suitable heading or enquiry question. Or they could be given a heading in the first instance and then asked to select a handful of significant bullet points from a range of sources.

Selecting and evaluating significant points from the mass of information available in books and on the internet is a key skill which PowerPoint is tailor-made to develop, and should be encouraged at every opportunity.

For students putting together PowerPoint presentations, provides step-by-step guidance on what to include and what to leave out.

If "death by PowerPoint" really is to be avoided, regular changes of pace and interactivity are the key. But don't fall into the trap of using too many special effects in a bid to keep your students' attention, they can soon lose their charm. Simple and consistent use of effects is best, so that they don't interfere with the message.

Also, don't be tempted to overload the slide with too much information.

Keep your own notes to jog your memory, but limit each slide to no more that a handful of facts typed in as large a font as possible.

Breaking up presentations with the use of additional stimulus materials such as pictures, artefacts or card sorts provides another focus and an alternative learning style. When you've explained the reasons for the "break from Rome" using PowerPoint, ask students to open the envelope in front of them and read a copy of a love letter from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn. Also, images can be brought to life by recording sound clips on to the slide so that when a quote or speech bubble is clicked, a famous individual suddenly comes to life.

Another way to make learning more student-centred is to allow the class opportunities to explore the presentation or alter it in ways that are shaped by their own ideas - for example, by creating a "virtual tour" as a preparation for, or as a follow-up to, a school visit. Students are given a specific part of a building or site to document in words and images, which are then pasted on to a PowerPoint. Action buttons found on the slide show's drop-down menu can be used to take the viewer around the site. These allow students to draw comparisons between areas of the site, make links with other knowledge and understanding, or provide access to students who were unable to visit a particular part of the site because they were either absent or busy exploring another area. There are some excellent examples of such virtual tours available at

Because of the ease with which information can be added or taken away, PowerPoint can also be used as an IT substitute for traditional classroom displays. Using a digital stills camera, students can record role-plays, interviews and other classroom events, then paste them on to PowerPoint (click the layout button, choose "picture insert" and select an appropriate image).

Once students have a sequence of slides, these can then be made to loop continuously (select "slide set-up" on the drop-down menu and click "loop until esc").

By using PowerPoint in this way, displays can be changed with much greater ease and frequency. As we work through a unit of work, exemplars of work in progress can be pasted in, or questions students have raised, or solutions to problems they have encountered.

Some of the best work shows that far from being a technological turnoff, PowerPoint can enliven classroom teaching and engage students' attention from the moment they enter the room - providing,of course, it is used effectively.

PowerPoint is not a pedagogical panacea, but it is well worth keeping in your medicine cabinet.

Chris Higgins teaches history at Invicta grammar school in Maidstone, Kent

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