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Using PowerPoint in Law School Classes and on the Web
Gregory Sisk, Richard M. & Anita Calkins Distinguished Professor
Drake University Law School

Beginning about three years ago, I developed a series of PowerPoint slides to accompany each day's class session for four of the five classes that I teach (excepting only my small writing seminar). As I began this venture, I shared the general concerns expressed by others that such a pervasive use of visual media in class might skew instruction, suppress discussion or questions, or over-simplify the material. In fact, while those dangers still exist and depend largely upon how the technology is used, I have found that my use of PowerPoint slides significantly enhances learning and also facilitates and organizes discussion.

I have developed a continuing series of PowerPoint slides to provide general summaries and lists of issues or points for discussion in each class. In sum, these visual guides serve as headings to organize class discussion. In fact, given the limited space available for text on any particular PowerPoint slide, it is impossible to be comprehensive or overly detailed. Students thus should be left with no impression that the slides are everything or could adequately substitute for a complete analysis of a particular case or set of materials. For the most part, the slides provide the kind of outlines, charts, or bullet points that I would put up on the chalk-board during a class session, if I had the ability to write that quickly. Indeed, in developing the slides initially, I drew upon my notes from prior years regarding what I planned to write on the chalkboard during a class session. (For that matter, as necessary for variation or to chart something out on the fly or develop a tangent during class, I still resort occasionally to the chalkboard-right alongside the PowerPoint slide being projected on the screen).

PowerPoint slides necessarily are more legible and hopefully are more interesting than chalk-board scribbling (at least with my poor handwriting). By virtue both of the medium and the required preparation time, a set of PowerPoint slides inevitably will be more polished and professional looking than chalkboard notes or even most handouts. In terms of creating a new PowerPoint slide or revising an existing one, I have to give careful thought before each class as to what I will be doing and how class likely will develop. I then continually revise those slides after class (in anticipation of the following year), responding to what actually did happen in class. In terms of adding visual interest, as I have revised the slides from year to year, I have attempted when possible to add images or pictures along with text. For this purpose, I have subscribed to an on-line graphics provider, which offers a searchable database of images that may be downloaded without copyright infringement (thus making it unnecessary even to consider whether borrowing an image would constitute fair-use in teaching).

After each day's class session or after concluding a particular set of materials, I then post the PowerPoint slides on a web page that I maintain for each class. (I post these slides only after the fact, with the expectation that students will not rely upon the general information on the slides as a substitute for full preparation by reading the material. To be sure, there is some risk that a student will gain prior access to these slides by obtaining them from students in last year's class, but little of that appears to have occurred.) Thus, in contrast with chalkboard notes which disappear immediately after class, my students have access to these PowerPoint slides when they review their notes shortly after class as well as later in the semester when studying for exams. Indeed, as I discuss further below, students need not be as concerned to write everything down immediately in class, given that they know it will be readily available to review later from their own computer with internet access when they get home at the end of the day.

By posting these slides to the web, am I giving students too much assistance? Are the posted slides unduly influencing the course of student study before exams? Before I used PowerPoint slides and posted them on the web, I found students spending large sums of money and even more quantities of time on flash-cards, commercial outline books, etc. At the very least, surely it is better that many students now choose to eschew (or reduce time and money spent on) commercial quick-fixes and return instead to the very PowerPoint bullet points and summaries that were used in their classes. In this way, I hope and believe that students are focusing more upon reviewing what actually happened in class and thus that their study approach is more directly tailored to their actual educational experience.

What is the effect of this regular use of visual images on student discussion and participation in the classroom? As noted above, I shared at the outset the concern of some that passivity might result and thus carefully assessed what was happening in each class when I used slides before I continued to devote the hundreds of hours required to calibrate a complete set of slides for the entire semester. Contrary to fears, my perception is that student discussion has increased; in any event, it has not declined. I believe that the visual images often have the effect of provoking a student comment or evoking a question that otherwise might not occur to a student. Even more importantly, for a student who otherwise is reluctant to participate in class because he or she has difficulty organizing thoughts, the slides serve to outline the progression of ideas in our discussion and thereby allow that student to join in with a follow-up comment or question. Moreover, since I can use the slides to deal rapidly with preliminary or basic aspects of a topic or a case, we as a class can then focus upon the more complicated or controversial implications. In fact, as noted above, because I post the slides on my web site after class, I often tell students to put down their pens, stop taking notes, and instead listen, think, and participate. Because they know that the bullet-points of the slides will be available on the web after class, they feel more comfortable in resisting the urge to transcribe the class in their notes and instead are more willing join in the discussion.

Finally, visual technology heightens the educational experience. Research on learning repeatedly confirms the importance of reinforcing oral instruction (even if that aural aspect of learning involves a dialogue) with something visual. For most (if not all) students, I find that they regard class as more dynamic and exciting when visual technology is added, especially for topics that otherwise are dry and technical. If using PowerPoint slides or other visual techniques better maintains student attention, then anything that happens in class is more likely to have a lasting impact. I definitely find fewer students fading or drifting away during a class session; visual technology captures and holds attention more effectively. And, of course, I occasionally vary techniques in class, so everything is not "All PowerPoint, All the Time"; some topics or segments of materials do not lend themselves as well to this technique.

Based upon this successful experience, have my colleagues eagerly followed suit? Not yet, but use of technology in the classroom here at Drake is slowly increasing. (As some have noted, student-pressure also will push more and more faculty to move in this direction, as our students come from undergraduate classes in which PowerPoint and other visual technology is used regularly.) The sobering fact of the matter is that it takes some time (although relatively little) to learn the technology and then takes considerably more time to prepare good slides for regular use. With the many demands on faculty time, it is understandable that most are leery of undertaking such a time-intensive project. Moreover, given the plethora of creative approaches to teaching, other faculty members rightly will make different choices and devote their energies in alternative directions. In the end, technology cannot substitute for careful class preparation and, if done reasonably well, will probably increase the time necessary for preparation. In my initial developments of sets of slides, I devoted at least two and sometimes as many as four hours to preparing slides for a single hour of class. (Of course, once having created a set of slides, the burden for revision when teaching the course again the following year is much lighter.) Yes, that initial investment of time and energy is daunting. But at the same time, I found the time spent to be valuable, as it required me to give more detailed thought to the way in which class study of a topic was organized and progressed through discussion. Not since teaching a course for the first time had I devoted so much time and effort to class preparation. Accordingly, if adoption of some form of technology in the classroom pushes each of us to engage in an intensive re-evaluation of our instruction, that in itself can only be a positive result for educational quality.


Gregory Sisk is Richard M. & Anita Calkins Distinguished Professor at Drake University Law School

JURIST's Lessons from the Web series is edited by Professor Patrick Wiseman, Georgia State University College of Law.

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JURIST welcomes your comments on this column and the issues it raises...

  • Saturday November 02, 2002 at 8:21 pm
    Greg: Thank you for your great description of how you use slide shows to enhance the students' learning experience. For the past five years, I have been using Presentation Slides (the Godly alternative to the Devil's Power Point) in much the same way that you do and, like you, with great pedagogical results. I show the slides for only the first five-to-ten minutes of the class as a way to summarize the previous day's concepts organized in an outline format to help students build their class outline. I don't post my slides because I believe that the mechanical process of writing helps the students' learning process. I also regularly project slides with multiple choice questions so that the whole class can work on applying the previously discussed concepts in a collective way. Like you, I have found that the slides have not only enahanced the classroom experience, but have also helped the students create and build their course outline. Since using outlines, my students no longer find it necessary to purchase commercial outlines or join law school fraternities just so they can get my class outline. Thanks to teachers like you, legal education should catch up with the 21st century at least several years before the beginning of the 22nd century. If you are interested in finding out other ways to use technology to teach, you can read "FROM THE PAPER CHASE TO THE DIGITAL CHASE: TECHNOLOGY AND THE CHALLENGE OF TEACHING 21ST CENTURY STUDENTS," forthcoming this month in 43 Santa Clara L. Rev. 1

    Rogelio Lasso (web page at http://classes.washburnlaw.edu/lass/
    Washburn University School of Law
    Kansas/USA

  • Sunday November 03, 2002 at 11:43 am
    I have been using digital slide presentations for about six or seven years now - first Presentations, then Astound, then finally PowerPoint. There are two things I'd like to add to the very thorough comments by Professors Sisk and Lasso. First, I have found that posting the slides in advance on TWEN (both in presentation and outline format) allows students to download the slide text on to their computer so that they don't have to spend time copying down what is on the screen. Because my slides include very limited detail, the students can use the downloaded outline of the discussion to then take more detailed notes based on class discussion. I think posting in advance allows students a better opportunity to focus on the material actually presented during class time. Second, I just started using PowerPoint projected on a whiteboard this semester, rather than on a pull-down screen. It allows me to write additional comments or make detours in the discussion without being locked into the structure of my slides. I had considered asking the school to purchase an Electronic Whiteboard to allow such flexibility. However, the standard whiteboard with a high quality projector will accomplish the same thing (except it won't allow you to capture in digitized format your additional notes made on the whiteboard). I am still a fan of technology in the classroom, but I cannot over emphasize what Professor Sisk also warns us about. You have to be very careful about how you use this tool in order not to stifle discussion or create a movie theater environment.

    Shelley Saxer
    Pepperdine School of Law
    California/USA

  • Sunday November 03, 2002 at 11:48 am
    Greg: THis is great. I decidedly do not use power point, but what I do use is a word processing package as blackboard. I project the blank page on the screen for the entire classroom to see and lay out the discussion as we go. I find this helpful for a number of reasons including my poor penmanship, the difficulty sometimes in seeing the board, and the need to update written points as other issues are made. I find this to be a helpful way to present the material as well as a mini- and daily instruction in outlining and organizing material. I do NOT post the written material or make it available again for a number of reasons. I want students to pay attention and I want them to attend class. Both lessons are sinking in although the second one is difficult especially during recruiting season. FWIW, I am not a power point fan. It tends to make things too pat. I like approach because it represents the role of law and lawyers as information processors and organizers and allows for a more dynamic process. You can think of this way as the process of creating a power point slide rather than just presenting the slide for consumption.

    Shubha Ghosh
    University at Buffalo Law School, SUNY
    New York, USA

  • Monday November 04, 2002 at 3:24 pm
    I agree wholeheartedly with the many comments above about PowerPoint. It can be a powerful too, but you have to be sure to use it judiciously. I worked in advertising before going to law school, and I was always taught that a good visual presentation does not "say" what it "shows." In other words, what you show on the screen should enhance in some way what you are saying to the class. Your slide may highlight key words or provide a memorable picture, a chart, graph, or outline. But it shouldn't say up there on the screen exactly what you're saying to the class. If it does, your students will tune out and go passive on you. I have used three PowerPoint presentations this semester, and I have been very careful that they not take up an entire class meeting. I teach 1L Lawyering Skills. I find PowerPoint to be best for introducing the concepts behind a new skill, before I make my students work actively in small groups to practice the newly-introduced skill. It is easy to see from the students' reactions which slides work the way I would like and which need to be changed for next year. Now that we have SmartBoards in each classroom, I have discovered that for discussing finepoints of legal writing, projecting WordPerfect onto the screen is actually more useful than PowerPoint for many lessons. I can create a WordPerfect document before class and project it. Then I can write edits on it with the brightly-colored markers. I can do the same with samples of strong student work. And the students can easily type in the results of their small group activities to present to the class. My Lawyering Skills colleagues here at Southern Illinois, Professors Melissa Shafer and Sheila Simon, and I have written an essay about our happy experience projecting WordPerfect onto the screen during class. We called it "Not Ready for PowerPoint?: Rediscovering an Easier Tool." The essay should be in the next edition of Perspectives, the publication on teaching legal research and writing that West puts out. We like WordPerfect because we are so familiar with it and it has so many functions. But for some lesson plans, PowerPoint is definitely better. It all depends on what you want to do. You have to understand what each tool does before you can pick the right tool for the job.

    Sue Liemer
    Southern Illinois University School of Law
    Illinois, USA

  • Friday April 30, 2004 at 2:35 pm
    I found all of the discussions on the use of PowerPoint slides for classroom teaching to be helpful. This is my first year of teaching after 19 years of practicing law. The method I've used in my classes has varied considerably over the course of the year as I've "trial & errored" my was through different approaches. The most effective approach I've employed has been to cover introductory matter on a topic with bullet points on the slides. The remainder of the slides for the class are then scenarios that require the students to work through application of the introductory matter in specific fact situations. Sometimes they'll work in small groups to solve the problems and then the entire class discusses each slide's scenario together. The second best approach I've used has been in my IP class where a picture is worth a thousand words. Being able to show the patented item, the competing trademarks, the allegedly infringing movie poster, etc., brings the cases to life in a way that would otherwise be impossible. Finally, on the subject of posting the slides, I post mine AFTER class and leave them posted for the balance of the semester. I believe students read and think the assigned materials more broadly and critically if they haven't seen the slides first.

    Sheri J Engelken
    Gonzaga Univ School of Law
    Spokane, WA

  • Friday April 30, 2004 at 2:36 pm
    I found all of the discussions on the use of PowerPoint slides for classroom teaching to be helpful. This is my first year of teaching after 19 years of practicing law. The method I've used in my classes has varied considerably over the course of the year as I've "trial & errored" my was through different approaches. The most effective approach I've employed has been to cover introductory matter on a topic with bullet points on the slides. The remainder of the slides for the class are then scenarios that require the students to work through application of the introductory matter in specific fact situations. Sometimes they'll work in small groups to solve the problems and then the entire class discusses each slide's scenario together. The second best approach I've used has been in my IP class where a picture is worth a thousand words. Being able to show the patented item, the competing trademarks, the allegedly infringing movie poster, etc., brings the cases to life in a way that would otherwise be impossible. Finally, on the subject of posting the slides, I post mine AFTER class and leave them posted for the balance of the semester. I believe students read and think the assigned materials more broadly and critically if they haven't seen the slides first.

    Sheri J Engelken
    Gonzaga Univ School of Law
    Spokane, WA

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