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Saturday, April 21, 2018

More on PowerPoint

As one of the "Oh, I never use PowerPoint" people Derek mentions, I wanted to add on to a couple pieces of his post. Derek says he uses PP for three things: 1) The text of a rule or statute; 2) Visualizing a concept such as a flowchart; and 3) Photos and other AV material. And he and I teach some of the same classes.

First, not using PowerPoint is not the same as "simply sp[eaking], lectur[ing], engag[ing] in Socratic dialogue." While I (proudly) never use PP, I fill the dry-erase board with flow charts, key terms or phrases, hypothetical problems, and occasionally statutory text, especially if I want to break the pieces of the statute down. I recall a SEALS panel on using AV in class and one of the speakers presented his slide for the Erie flowchart. It was the same flowchart I use, just with more color and boxes and permanency. But the dry-erase board allows me to interact with the visuals, circling and underling things as we go, something that is impossible on the sterile slide (even with a laser pointer).

Second, the drawback to putting text on a slide is that students stare at the slide instead of the text in their books. I want them to learn to read and highlight or underline or mark-up the text as they go, by having the text right in front of them and being able to work with it. I have been aware this semester of how much students jot down what they hear about a statute in their notes and use the remembered language from their notes, rather than going back to the precise text and textual language. This is important when we are jumping around to multiple rules and they have to figure out how to read the rules together and fit them as parts of a whole. I prefer to read the rule together, with everyone looking in her own book, rather than presenting it in one spot for all.

Third, Derek says he does not churn through and read slide after slide. But the temptation to do so is overwhelming and commonplace, thus becoming expected by students and audience members.

Fourth (and this is going to be a matter of personal style), the question must be whether a visual adds something to the presentation and to the students' learning. When teaching Lujan, does it really add to the students' understanding of the case to flash a picture of the Nile Crocodile? It's nice as trivia or cocktail-party conversation--which certainly is important--but does it help the students understand the material? If my answer is no, it is something I leave out of the classroom, but perhaps present on the course-adjacent blog or web site.

Finally, while I believe I shared this story here years ago, it is worth repeating. It involves an academic talk rather rather than class, but it gets at the same thing. I was presenting my empirical study of the infield-fly rule, which had tables with numbers and pictures of fields showing location of batted balls, and the AV system was not working. The moderator told me to "do the best I can," which would have been "not at all," since the talk would have been incoherent without the audience being able to see what I was talking about. (They fixed the system by the time I got up there, so it worked out). That the moderator could believe the talk could work without the visuals tells me that many people are giving many talks using PP that adds nothing of consequence, probably with visuals that contain the text of what the speaker is saying and that are going to be read, but nothing more. If someone can do the same talk and be as understood without the visuals, the visuals add nothing essential and can be discarded.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 21, 2018 at 05:47 PM in Civil Procedure, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics, Teaching Law | Permalink


Rick: PowerPoint forms its own corollary to Murphy's Law.

I was at a talk once where a speaker spent 10 minutes (that is, delayed the program by 10 minutes) to set-up audio so she could play a 3-second clip of Cuba Gooding, Jr. saying "show me the money," rather than simply quoting the line that everyone knows.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 25, 2018 9:29:10 AM

I do not use PP, and while I tell myself that it's because PP is bad, etc., I suspect it's more because I'm scared . . . scared that something will glitch, and I won't be able to fix it!

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Apr 25, 2018 9:24:50 AM

I use PowerPoint, and pretty much all of my students have told me that they appreciate how clear and effective my slides are. As much as many professors think they are speaking in a linear and clear fashion, many do not. The slides keep you on task, and allow students to follow the discussion even if they have missed a word or two of the discussion. I put up hypos on my slides and have students discuss the hypos in small groups; I show videos that demonstrate how things happen in practice; and I show current news clips that touch on subjects in the class and connect them to the legal doctrines that we cover in class. I don't write a bunch of text on my slides, and I follow the normal PowerPoint suggestions.

You have to remember that most of these students are very tech savvy, and they learn through different presentation formats (oral, visual, exercises). I cannot understand why some professors are so opposed to PP other than the general resistance to change and technology that seems to come with advancing age. It can be a very powerful tool when used well.

Finally, the purpose of using PowerPoint in the classroom as opposed to a legal academic talk is very different. The two should not be conflated. Professors are often judging the effectiveness of PP from their perspective as audience members at conferences and workshops rather than that of law students in the classroom.

Posted by: anonjunior | Apr 22, 2018 10:51:36 PM

Jeff: I saw your post and appreciated the comments. It may all depends on needs and personal approaches. If my hypos are that detailed, they have them prior to class; if they are short (showing two parties and their citizenship to consider diversity), it is easy to put up there.

I reiterate the basic complaint that most professors are not as thoughtful about this as you seem to be.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 22, 2018 10:49:24 PM

Howard, thanks for writing this. I have always used PP, so it is good to hear the other side. I posted my own thoughts on the Faculty Lounge, where I am guest blogging, if you are interested. http://www.thefacultylounge.org/2018/04/using-powerpoint-in-class.html

As I say in the post, I actually think the picture of the Nile crocodile does add to the students' understanding. I have only anecdotal evidence for this, but many students have told me that my pictures help them remember the cases. They remember the crocodile, which triggers the memory of the plaintiffs' standing arguments and why the Court rejected them.

The biggest benefit of PP to me, however, is letting me quickly and easily give in-depth hypotheticals that test the legal principles in new situations. My handwriting is terrible, and I can't imagine writing them out on the board in the 10-15 minutes that I often have in the room before class.

Posted by: Jeff Schmitt | Apr 22, 2018 8:32:24 PM

Or get to class early so I can write in the board before class begins. Still inefficient, but the inefficiency affects only me. And I am not wasting class time or talking to the board.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 22, 2018 3:07:14 PM

Writing on the board takes valuable class time. And if the professor is speaking while writing, s/he is usually speaking into the wall. Much more efficient to have pre-made slides.

Posted by: BA | Apr 22, 2018 3:02:08 PM


Looking to your fourth point, I think many people include oddball elements in a presentation thinking that they're adding "memorability" or "keeping the audience interested/engaged." And, adding something that helps the material be better remembered is of course helpful. Unfortunately though, what I've too often seen are cases where only the gimmick is memorable, not the underlying substance.

The examples that first comes to mind is one a ton of people will be familiar with, Franzese's Back Street Boys song and her vodka sauce story. I remember that she sang *something* to the tune of Bye Bye Bye, but I can't remember what it was. I know she claimed her family created vodka sauce, but I don't remember at all what legal principle was involved. And it's not just that I don't remember it now, years later. I recall not remembering what she was on about just later that week.

By contrast, I also remember the image from torts class of a wimp throwing a punch at Superman. The image itself speaks directly to one of the core elements of assault. Is Superman in immediate apprehension of harmful contact (putting the question of offensive contact aside)? It works precisely because of the marriage of image and substance, despite not using an actual visual at all, just a scenario we had to visualize ourselves.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Apr 22, 2018 8:25:22 AM

You can use Microsoft Ink or other features to mark up a blank screen as you go, so it's not as though it's impossible to interact with the slide. For a small class, it might not make a difference that you do it on the board, but when the class gets large, the ability to present on a large screen or multiple screens makes a big difference to the class.

Posted by: Anonymous | Apr 22, 2018 1:23:31 AM

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