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Published December 8, 2015 | Multidisciplinary

Digital Presentations

Table of contents

  1. Overview
    1. The Ergonomics of Digital Slideshows
    2. Digital Slideshows are Tools
    3. Dynamic Presentations
  2. In Practice
    1. How to Use Presentation Software
    2. The Use of Presentation Software
    3. Making Lectures More Dynamic
  3. Useful References
    1. General Texts on the Effects of Digital Slideshows in Class
    2. Presentation Design and Ergonomics
    3. Should Presentations Be Available to Students?
    4. Use of Clickers
    5. Creating Video Tutorials in PowerPoint


For many teachers, their first foray towards integrating Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) into their pedagogical practice comes through the use of digital presentation software (such as Microsoft PowerPoint) as a visual support for their lectures. Nowadays, these digital slideshows are undoubtedly the most common technology in college-level classrooms. This tool has become the norm and teachers who do not use it are becoming few and far between. Presentation software such as PowerPoint, Apple Keynote, LibreOffice Impress and Prezi all have interesting features (with the last two being freely available over the Internet). That said, they also contain shortcomings and traps that should be avoided. This in-depth report presents various uses of presentation software in class along with tips and advice for using slideshows within an educational context.

The Ergonomics of Digital Slideshows

The following ergonomics rules can help you to optimize your presentation and ensure that it is effective:

For content:

  • Present only one idea per slide.
  • Keep the amount of text in each slide to the minimum.

The Ergonomics of a Presentation: Content

Since students will intuitively read the text projected on screen each time a new slide is shown, they will not listen to you until they are finished reading what is being projected. You will have to resort to reading the text along with them as it appears on the screen. However, given that the speed at which your students read is greater than the rate at which you will be reading aloud, it is preferable to limit the amount of text (as much as possible) instead focusing on the essential ideas you wish to convey.

For layout:

  • Use a maximum of two different fonts: one for the titles and one for the bullet points in the body of the presentation.
  • Choose “sans serif” fonts as much as possible, such as Arial, Verdana or Calibri.
  • Avoid underlining and using italics or drop-shadow effects.
  • Choose a font color that contrasts with the background colour (pale writing on a dark background or dark writing on a pale background).
  • Ensure that the text is large enough to be read from the back of the classroom.
  • Avoid using “busy” backgrounds which are distracting.

The Ergonomics of a Presentation: Examples of Fonts

The Ergonomics of a Presentation: Layout

Transitions and animations:

  • If you choose to use transition effects between slides, pick a discrete transition and stick with the same type of transition for the whole presentation.
  • With Prezi, transitions between different elements of information create a dynamic effect, but they can make the audience dizzy if they are over-utilized. Keep in mind that the disorienting effect of transitions is amplified once your presentation appear on a large screen. Hence, you should choose transitions that do not move too fast, cover too much distance, or that zoom and spin around excessively.
  • Skip the animations if possible. Using animations in a slideshow should always serve a pedagogical purpose.

When you use a slideshow in class, it is tempting to look at the screen to read from your slides. In doing so, you might end up turning your back on the group for most of the class.

To maintain eye contact with your students, there are many solutions:

  • Look at the computer screen instead of the projector screen so that you can still face your students while presenting. (For some software such as PowerPoint, you should use the “presenter mode”, if possible)
  • Print out the presentation with the presenter’s notes you have prepared and consult the document as needed.
  • Use a remote control to change slides from anywhere in the classroom to avoid being tied to the computer.
  • You could also try using a tablet to control the slides instead of a computer in order to increase your mobility within the classroom.

Whether a computer screen, a printout, a tablet or the screen itself is used, a study from the University of Ottawa, the Université du Québec en Outaouais and the University of Moncton demonstrated that a majority of teachers tend to have more substantial and prolonged visual contact with their presentation than with their audience. Students indicated that PowerPoint can be a trap for teachers who focus too much on their slideshow, thus forgetting that the students are right there, in front of them.

Digital Slideshows are Tools

While there is a general consensus on the rules of ergonomics that apply to digital slideshows, following them does not necessarily guarantee a successful presentation. A skilled teacher with a mediocre slideshow can do a much better presentation than a poorly prepared teacher with a great slideshow. The slideshow is one thing; using it properly is another. Using digital slideshows allows a teacher to maintain the attention of their students while also enhancing the content of the class. Presentation software is particularly useful to show images, high-quality animations, figures, tables and graphs.

A slideshow can also help condense information and structure the note-taking process for students. If poorly used, however, digital slideshows can create “boredom, even apathy in students” (Raby et al., 2011). It is therefore the way slideshows are used that makes the difference. Presentation software is useful, but it is not a new pedagogical strategy per se. A digital slideshow used to support a lecture is not fundamentally different from a lecture using acetates and an overhead projector. However, when a digital slideshow is used appropriately, it offers many interesting advantages.

According to Michel Vincent, the Associate Director of Information Technology at the Collège Édouard-Montpetit, presentation software “should first and foremost help us visualize ideas.” For example:

  • An image can be used to illustrate the explanations being offered by the teacher, while helping students to understand. An anthropology teacher running a class about Japanese culture could show various aspects of traditional and modern Japan to illustrate their point, as an example. Only images that are relevant to the topic should be used.
  • A graph showing the evolution of a situation can also illustrate ideas that a teacher is trying to convey while helping the students to understand. That being said, one must also take some time to analyze the graphs being shown to the students in order to develop their understanding of the information.
  • It is important to ensure that the diagrams shown to students are clear and easy to read. Delete superfluous information, if need be. If you really have to show a complex figure (or a table with a large amount of data) to students, print it out for distribution to the students in paper format.

Michel Vincent also notes that “PowerPoint should be used to impress an idea upon the audience, so that they remember an argument or fact more clearly. As such, showing a number to talk about a budget, or showing a video testimonial can leave a mark in the audience’s mind.” He adds that digital slideshows are unfortunately used all-too-often as mere supports for note-taking or as a cue cards for the presenter.

Dynamic Presentations

As with any presentation, a lecture supported by a digital slideshow must be well-structured and organized.

As it is difficult to sustain the attention of students over a prolonged period of time, dividing a presentation into 10-minute blocks and alternating them with periods where students are asked to process the information is recommended. Ulric Aylwin calls these pauses dedicated to information processing “assimilation breaks”.

To help your students to process information, you can:

  • Ask your students some questions. Take some time to plan which questions you want to ask your students. Choose questions that spark some reflection, or even debate, if applicable. Use a visual support as the springboard. Allow your students to respond to the questions. You could also use clickers (more on this below).
  • Put your lecture on hold to assign a short exercise to your students (ask them to solve a problem, or give them a formative quiz, etc.)
  • Ask students to summarize what was just presented to them or ask them to create questions linked to what has been presented, which they can then ask to their classmates.

To prevent your lecture from becoming overly monotonous, consider integrating some demonstrations. For instance, a science teacher could film themselves using lab materials to present a certain phenomenon to students and integrate this video into the presentation.

Of course, you can use the digital slideshow for just a portion of your class (a 10-minute block, for example) without necessarily using for the entire class.

Your slideshow can be paused or turned off at any time during your class. This can be useful if you wish to go on a tangent from the main focus of the lecture, or if you want your students to look at something other than the screen. If you are using PowerPoint or Keynote, you may simply press the “B” key on your computer’s keyboard. The screen will immediately turn white. If you touch the key again, your slide will reappear.

In Practice

How to Use Presentation Software


In order to use presentation software in class, it goes without saying that you must first be familiar with the software. The ICT Profile team has produced several videos on this topic. These videos are available on the ICT Profile YouTube channel.

A video series on the use of PowerPoint for you to use or pass on to your students!

There is also a lot of information on how to use PowerPoint on the Microsoft Office Suite website.


Apple has produced a tutorial on the use of Keynote which can be found on their website. There is also a lot of information on the use of Keynote in text form on the Apple website.

LibreOffice Impress

The LibreOffice suite includes presentation software called Impress with features similar to most commercial presentation software offerings. The LibreOffice suite is free to download and open-source. It provides several useful options for exporting to the web.


Prezi is different from other software because of its non-linear layout; yet its potential for pedagogical applications is comparable to that of PowerPoint or Keynote.

To better understand Prezi, visit the Prezi’s support page for introductory-level tutorials or their official YouTube playlist of Prezi tutorials, here’s a sample:

Tutorial video on the use of Prezi

A lot of additional information, including video tutorials, is available in English on Prezi’s website.

The Use of Presentation Software

Most teachers who use digital presentation software use it as support for formal or informal lectures.

Projecting static or animated images

As mentioned earlier, presentation software is particularly useful to show images that would be difficult or impossible for teachers to draw on the blackboard. The quality of those images can be even greater than those presented using an overhead projector.

What’s more, a presentation software can be used to show students animations and videos (animations that show a particular phenomenon or how a mechanism functions, for example).

Projecting text or equations

Digital slideshows are useful to show text or equations. These elements can instantly be projected without the teacher having to write or draw everything by hand on the board.

Some teachers see this as an advantage, as it leaves them more time for activities in which students actively participate. If students have access to a copy of the slideshow, the time dedicated to the students transcribing the information on the screen to their notebooks can be invested elsewhere, such as participating in activities or exercises.

Should presentations be made available to students?

Some teachers choose not to make their slideshows available to students, while others upload them to the web. Contrary to popular belief, the absence rate of students does not necessarily increase when teachers upload their slideshows to the web. In the case of Luc Thomas, a teacher from Collège Édouard-Montpetit, he noticed that not only did the attendance rate remain stable, the overall success rate for his groups actually increased!

Even Levasseur and Sawyer noted in their study Pedagogy Meets PowerPoint, in cases where teachers use slides with lots of text, the fact that the students have access to a copy of the slideshow is the only valid reason they have a positive impact on learning. In other words, in cases where the slides are full of text, the benefit of using PowerPoint can be attributed to the fact that the students have access to a complete, organized set of notes that they can review at will. Otherwise, students confronted with these slides will franticly try to copy the notes as they appear on screen (while not listening attentively to the teacher).

When a teacher wants to use their slideshow as a visual support to illustrate their ideas with images and graphs, or as a way to impress the audience with powerful arguments, they also need to limit the amount of text on their slides. This helps them to maintain the attention of students, since they are not busy trying to transcribe the notes from the screen. Using a digital slideshow does not prevent a teacher from distributing paper copies of some relevant graphs and figures that might be too difficult to transcribe to a notebook (or laptop).

Using digital slideshows = more organized teachers?

Some experts agree that PowerPoint helps organize content efficiently and that teachers who use this tool seem more organized in the eyes of students. Indeed, since teachers must prepare their slides ahead of time, there is a greater chance that courses will be more structured.

In a Real Life Story on Profweb entitled PowerPoint Redux, a teacher named Karen Tee mentions that her students feel she has become more organized as a result of using presentation software in class. That being said, using slideshows doesn’t necessarily result in time being saved. The slideshow is a polished product that involves a substantial amount of prep time. Of course, it is not the only way to ensure a structured class! A teacher who uses PowerPoint as an “organizational support” tool - using it as a crutch to avoid drawing occasional blanks in class - may have very different results from a teacher that is more adequately prepared…

Annotating a Digital Slideshow

Showing slides in class can sometimes have a negative effect on a student’s perception of the course content. When ready-made slides are presented, students might have difficulty following the teacher’s cognitive process. When a teacher writes on a traditional blackboard with chalk, students can easily follow the progressive development of the concepts seen in class.

Considering this, using a tablet to “manually” annotate slides has some interesting potential:

  • Students like when teachers share their thought process in the annotations.
  • Students are more likely to pay attention during a lecture if the teacher spontaneously annotates the slides.

Whether it is on a tablet, on an interactive white board or using the mouse of the computer, the “stylus” and “highlighter” tools available in the “slideshow view” in PowerPoint allow you to:

  • Underline elements
  • Highlight elements
  • Add brief comments

A clicker (Photo credit : Acroamatic (2007), Clickr, seen on

Tutorial – Annotating PowerPoint slideshows during a presentation

Using an interactive white board or a tablet makes a lecture based on a slideshow more dynamic. Instead of simply delivering a lecture, the teacher who uses an interactive white board can have students come to the board to ask them to solve a problem or fill in blanks on a slide. Those teachers using a tablet can pass it around in the classroom.

Making Lectures More Dynamic

One of the frequent criticisms of the use of presentation software in class is that digital slideshows focus on the presenter and the content rather than on interaction with students. Digital slideshows would seem to encourage lectures that are more traditional in nature. However, there is much more that a teacher can do with digital slideshows.


Clickers are tools that are meant to be used in conjunction with PowerPoint. As explained by Luc Tremblay in his story Télévoter pour une physique plus conceptuelle, clickers can be used in class to incite students to think about the concepts presented in class.

After installing the clicker software from the manufacturer, a teacher can prepare slides with a list of answers.

When a slide containing a question with a list of answers is presented in class, students can use the clickers to share their answer with the teacher. When students have made their choice (a, b, c or d, for instance), they press the corresponding button on the clicker (a small device that looks like a remote control). Teachers can then instantly see what their students have answered. They can also project the results on a screen in real time in the form of a histogram, if they so choose.

Example of graph created using clickers

One of the best known ways to use clickers in class is the one presented by Eric Mazur, a teacher from Harvard University who pioneered the use of “peer-teaching.” The diagram below shows the method created by Mr. Mazur.

Figure showing the peer-teaching method developed by Eric Mazur

PowerPoint just celebrated its 25th anniversary, but it’s never too late to try it out (or try it again) … as long as it is used in the right way!

Useful References

General Texts on the Effects of Digital Slideshows in Class

  • Hamel, R. (2011). Des diaporamas pour une meilleure supervision individuelle. In Profweb.
    Real life story of a teacher using PowerPoint.
  • Tee, K. (2011). PowerPoint Redux. In Profweb.
    Real life story of a teacher using PowerPoint.
  • Hébert, M., Boulet, A. & Baudoin, R. (2010). La présentation électronique en ses paradoxes : regards d'étudiants et de professeurs universitaires. Revue internationale des technologies en pédagogie universitaire 7 (2), 20-34.
    Study based on a mixed research strategy on PowerPoint presentations established by 12 Canadian university professors, their perceptions and pedagogical intentions, as well as their students’ perceptions of the impact of PowerPoint in their learning process.

    A very critical study on the use of PowerPoint in class:
    • Digital slideshows create a distance between students and teachers that is detrimental to learning.
    • Insightful excerpts:
      • “Almost all teachers explained that they used digital slideshows out of habit or to meet student expectations, mentioning that they could easily do without it. Students, on the other hand, have the opposite perspective: they believe that teachers create the slideshow for themselves first and foremost and that they could easily do without it!”
      • “The presentation that was most appreciated by students and that they described as helpful in their learning process is the one that [“at least respected the common rules of ergonomics and the “pedagogical efficiency” guidelines”]. In the classroom, the teacher was observed using the slides merely as a visual cue to help students identify the most important points in long texts they need to be acquainted with. When reviewing the video that had been recorded of the teacher, a greater number of visual contacts with the students was observed. This teacher might be an exception to the rule, but this example nevertheless supported the students’ perceptions on the human factors related to the teacher in their classroom.”
  • Levasseur, D. G. & Sawyer, J. K. (2006). Pedagogy Meets PowerPoint: A Research Review of the Effects of Computer-Generated Slides in the ClassroomReview of Communication6(1-2), 101-123. DOI : 10.1080/15358590600763383 
  • Raby, C., Karsenti, T., Meunier, H. & Villeneuve, S. (2011). Usage des TIC en pédagogie universitaire : point de vue des étudiantsRevue internationale des technologies en pédagogie universitaire 8(3), 6-19.
    Study based on data with regards to the general use of ICTs collected from more than 10 000 university students in Quebec. As might be expected, the topics covered in the study include digital slideshows.

    • The majority of surveyed students (78.6 %) confirm that PowerPoint boasts interesting features such as visual support, but only when used appropriately
    • The use of PowerPoint allows to:
      • Maintain students’ attention;
      • Condense and structure course notes.
    • The integration of graphs, images, animations and short videos in PowerPoint presentations can enhance the content and make it more dynamic while allowing for a better understanding of the course content.
    • If used inappropriately, PowerPoint is a merely a crutch for some educators and becomes boring and demotivating (spontaneity is replaced by rigidity)
    • “Among all the ICT uses mentioned by the students in the survey, PowerPoint presentations are both the most likely (13.8%) and least likely (9.8%) to encourage learning. The difference seems to lie in the way the tool is used.”

Presentation Design and Ergonomics

Should Presentations Be Available to Students?

Use of Clickers

Creating Video Tutorials in PowerPoint

  • Viger, C. (2012). Old Fashioned Technology. In Profweb.
    Real life story from a physics teacher who uses PowerPoint to create video answer keys for some of the exercises she assigns to students.

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