Why a neuroscientist doesn’t use PowerPoint

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="125" caption="Dr. Marian Diamond, U.C. Berkley"]Image of Dr. Marian Diamond[/caption]

During my semester studying anatomy for my undergraduate degree, I began downloading podcasts via iTunes U to supplement my own lecture experiences. I came across an anatomy course taught at UC Berkeley by the wonderful Prof. Marian Diamond. While listening to the first lecture in the series, I was extremely impressed with her calm and authoritative demeanor. All at once she exudes confidence and respect toward her students. After a short pause during the lecture to erase the chalkboard, she said, "I have to tell you why I don't use PowerPoint." I was overcome with excitement and anticipation as I waited to hear why this capable teacher purposefully abstained from using a popular technological tool. What followed was a brief yet powerful statement that every teacher who uses lecture slides should consider. I include it here verbatim:

"I have to tell you why I still use chalkboard and do not use PowerPoint. Because I've studied learning mechanisms long enough to know that it takes time to take in the primary information and associate it. I feel if I just flash on things like this you don't get it. If you write, you use your kinesthetic sense. That's one way. It slows me down, it slows you down. And I also repeat all the time, because we know repeating reinforces. First time through you have an ionic exchange, second time through you have protein synthesis. So we're using things that have been shown for learning rather than just keeping up with the technology."

Here is an audio clip so you can hear it yourself. Or you can download the full lecture audio from iTunes U.

© Audio Copyright 2006, UC Regents

I was thrilled with her explanation! It wasn't because she couldn't use PowerPoint, found it too cumbersome, or time consuming. It was simply that there was no pedagogical reason to use it. As far as learning is concerned, using the chalk board and encouraging the students to take notes is far more effective than flashing something up on the screen.

After further investigation, it seems as though Professor Diamond makes a similar statement at the beginning of every semester (see Fall 2007 and Fall 2008). This suggests that it wasn't just a passing thought in casual conversation, but that it is important enough for her students to understand the deliberate choice she made to improve their education.

Now, I am not saying definitively that you shouldn't use PowerPoint. But if you do, there had better be a darn good reason. Don't use it just because it's easier or because you want to look cool using 'up to date technology.' And further more, if you do use PowerPoint, you'd better make them darn good slides. That's what this blog is all about, so be sure to read some other posts. You might like to start with 2 Design Changes That Follow All Brain Rules, since we are talking about neuroscience here.

(Professor Marian Diamond is a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at U.C. Berkeley. Her research includes neuroanatomy, environment, immune functions, and hormones. She has taught all over the world.)