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January 4, 2007

Rethinking Powerpoint in the Law School Classroom

Byrne_powerpointIn the fall, I taught two lecture courses, International Finance and the Law of E-Commerce, and one seminar, Jurisdiction in Cyberspace. In Finance, I used Powerpoint extensively, while in E-Commerce I used it sparingly. I did not use Powerpoint in the seminar at all, but almost all of my students used it during their presentations. There must be a vast array of education research on when Powerpoint is effective, but here are my untutored thoughts. First, Powerpoint makes it difficult to communicate context. The levels of discussion are flattened to a single level, which comes in series. I tried to signal subheadings covering groups of slides through a single slide with a heading, but I think this was only partially effective. (This is why Harvard's William Fisher and UCLA's Jerry Kang favor MindManager, I suspect.) Second, Powerpoint makes it difficult to ask open-ended questions. Students are reluctant to answer a question if they might be proven wrong by the next click of the pointer. I tried hard to always state that the answers I suggested were not comprehensive, but I think students hope to offer the preferred answer (rather than feel proud in having innovated a new one). Third, Powerpoint can serve as a crutch to the professor, rather than a learning aid to the student. Any thoughts--from either side of the podium? Do you like watching Powerpoint? How can a person utilize it effectively? When should it not be used at all? Any rules of thumb? I reminded my students that they will likely have to prepare presentations in the future--and to consider carefully whether Powerpoint would serve their purpose most effectively. Any good resources that would help a professor in making the right choices for a presentation? Or help a future lawyer in the same? For professors only--Any thoughts on faculty workshops? Statistically-heavy presentations generally require Powerpoint, but should Powerpoint be used for qualitative presentations? (I don't think that one can have a single rule, but what is your experience?) Anupam Chander

January 4, 2007 in Teaching -- pedagogy | Permalink


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One thing that I have found to be somewhat effective is to use Powerpoint more for focal points of discussion and questions than for bullet-point answers. So, for instance, I often use slides to illustrate aspects of a case -- show the players, photos giving historical context, etc. In environmental law this often means showing pictures of a given species or place, or a diagram of a regulated industrial process. In constitutional law I am more likely to use historical materials. I avoid placing a bullet point outline on Powerpoint whenever possible.

When I feel more ambitious, I've used hyperlinks in my Powerpoint slides to create non-linear presentations. Basically, I put hyperlinks in the slides so I can jump around and show the slides outof order. This enables me to follow the discussion with my slides.

Creating these sorts of slides can be more time-consuming -- tracking down pictures that can be used, or building hyperlinks into slides -- but I'm usually happy with the results, and I've had many students say they prefer these sorts of things to traditional, bullet-point oriented slides.

Jonathan H. Adler

Posted by: Jonathan H. Adler | Jan 4, 2007 8:21:39 AM

Nothing better on this subject than Edward Tufte's Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Plenty of good stuff in the Ask E.T. part of his site, too...


Posted by: Jake Walker | Jan 4, 2007 4:04:08 PM

As a student, my experience with professors using PowerPoint is that it has rarely been done well. The classes I learn the most from are those classes that engage me, and PowerPoint typically (in my experience) makes that much more difficult. I think professors should generally steer clear of PowerPoint presentations in class unless they are very sure that it's contributing to the atmosphere and not taking away.

The best use of PowerPoint I've ever seen: in Contracts, we were talking about the requirements of an offer. While discussing a case about whether a commercial could be an offer, the professor showed the commercial via PowerPoint. It was very effective.

Posted by: Jeremy Masten | Jan 5, 2007 10:06:18 AM

I find PowerPoint often levels presentations: it forces poor presenters to at least have some organization, but it can also drag down otherwise dynamic presenters. (In this I'm speaking more from my professional than student experience). That said, I agree with Prof. Adler that there are many ways to use PowerPoint creatively and effectively. For better or worse, PPT is probably the most accessible way to slap together a multi-media presentation.

In the work that I've done presenting classes over the Web, PowerPoint can be very effective, especially used as Prof. Adler describes. Putting up a single question for students to answer is very powerful. And if students don't like being "wrong" when the next slide has a different set of "answers" -- why put in a slide of answers at all? I can easily imagine a class being organized around a series of questions, which also subtly conveys an emphasis on inquiry and creativity.

I wouldn't underestimate the psychological power of PowerPoint as a visual aid, even if it's "supposed" to be used as an outliner.

Posted by: Gene Koo | Jan 5, 2007 2:00:46 PM

If anyone is interested in reading about how Jerry Kang uses MindManager, a story is available at http://www.mindjet.com/pdf/us/case_studies/Mindjet_UCLA_US.pdf.

Posted by: Hobie Swan | Jan 11, 2007 12:01:34 AM

I have been using MindManager to "explode" my very long and detailed PowerPoint presentations.

I always felt imprisoned by PPt's "linearity". It does indeed "flatten" every point. It allows very little opportunity for spontaneity or framing the various levels and categories of a unit.

Mindmanager allows for that. By collapsing and expanding different levels of the map, you can retain the overall structure of the presentation while you simultaneously drill down into the details of a specific part. It's also possible to make connections at a higher order of abstraction using the hierarchical structure of MindManager. This just isn't possible with PPT.

I have also come up with a nifty way to gain better control and selectivity of my PPT slides. You might want to try this: I export them as JPEGs to Google's Free photo app Picasa. Then I upload them to Picasa Album on line. Then I create subsets of them in different folders on Picasa. Then I get the URL of my mini-albums, then I create a link in my MindManager map to my Picasa album. Voila! When I am discussing that particular topic, I have the freedom to click the link in MM, and I can either display a selected image or images, or I can chose the option of looking at a linear display of all the slides in an online gallery that Picasa constructs on the fly.

BTW,I use a wireless Wacom tablet in class to open and close nodes and open links. Works great. Much easier than being tied to the podium with a PC. I feel like the Wizard in Oz!

Also, I post my MindMaps after class for student reference. Since all my links are absolute URLs, ALL my media are accessible to students. MindJet provides a FREE downloadable file viewer for either Macs or PCs. The maps are fully functional--all links work and all nodes expand and collapse. They are not editable files, of course.

So, there you have it. Now I control PPT, it doesn't control me! I think I have combined the best of both worlds here. Give it a try and feel free to contact me if you have any questions about how all of this works.

PS I am a high school history teacher, not a law professor, so perhaps I have to entertain and amuse my audience a bit more than you guys!

Posted by: David Huston | Jul 5, 2007 9:56:54 PM

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