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Last Revised June 9, 2000
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Why Use Presentation Software?, Harry E. Pence, SUNY Oneonta, Oneonta, NY, firstname.lastname@example.org
(This brief article originally appeared in the Fall, 1998 issue of the Computer sin Chemical Education Newsletter.)
Despite the rising popularity of presentation software, thus far there has been mixed evidence that it really improves learning. This shouldn't be a surprise. The software was originally developed for sales presentations, and it has been in use a relatively short time for teaching. The main weakness of the product may well be that it is much easier to master the technology itself than it is to discover the pedagogy that will create the best learning environment.
One of the great advantages of presentation software is that it allows an instructor to combine text and images in a single frame. In the past it was all but impossible for a professor to do this without extensive preparation and cost. Psychological research indicates that the juxtaposition of text and images is an effective educational t echnique, and my students certainly report that the combination of concepts with a related image helps them to remember the material better.
The use of images is particularly valuable for chemists, since a common problem encountered in chemistry teaching is the difficulty students have relating the microscopic world of atoms and molecules to the macroscopic world, which is directly available to the senses. When I ask students what types of pictures are most useful to them, molecular images are invar iably the first choice. Molecular images apparently convert an abstract concept into a form that they feel is easier for them to visualize.
The students become deeply involved in the visuals. Events and processes that were formerly difficult to make interesting now come to life, especially the historical references that many faculty love to use. When I talk about poison gas in World War I or the burning of the Hindenburg, I can show the students pictures of the actual events. Students are very respo nsive to these images. Perhaps the result is best described by quoting what one of my students said on an anonymous survey, "With the computer, the concepts become real. They aren't just notes on a piece of paper. You actually prove that things happen and we just don't have to accept what you tell us."
Whatever the reasons, when presentation software is used well, students report that they very strongly prefer it to other teaching methods, like blackboard or overhead presentations. These f avorable results do require, however, that the images be carefully chosen to relate to the concepts being discussed and also that the students be encouraged to make these associations. I have been using a combination of presentation software and cooperative learning for several years and have found that these two techniques are an excellent combination.
What types of images are best? Although the students indicate that all types of images are useful, molecular images are rated highest. Historical im ages are usually rated lowest, both for interest as well as usefulness. As might be expected, movies create a particularly strong impression. The most difficult part is to select images that are directly related to the concepts being presented. It is a temptation to include "cute" images, especially since most software packages provide a selection of clip art. At best this may represent an opportunity to add some humor to a dry lecture; more often, it is a missed opportunity to clarify and illustr ate the text on the frame.
The cardinal rule when using presentation software must be, "Don't rush!" Don't go on to the next frame until the students have had sufficient time to complete their notes. My surveys suggest that many of the students prefer to a rough sketch of the images in their notes. They have recognized that this is a valid learning technique. As teachers, we need to support this behavior, not make it more difficult.
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