Sick of bullet points

There is a plague that has infected higher education over the past decade. One that has been so invasive that it has changed the habits of teachers and the expectations of learners in ways that are quite profound, but have gone largely unnoticed. I am talking about the infestation of lectures with bullet points.

It is a hobby-horse of mine, but I am sick of watching bullet points (especially when presenters think it is cool to have them zooming in from the side of the screen, one-by-one), and I regard it as a sickness among our colleagues that needs to be treated.

Students have asked me if university teachers are instructed to read out bullet points during their lectures. I obviously say, ‘no’, to which the students reply, ‘so why do they do it?’. Everyone I speak to tells me that reading points to students in lectures is bad practice, and yet there appears to be a form of pedagogical paralysis that prevents some colleagues from breaking free of this affliction.

There are a number of assumptions that I make in my mind (fairly or unfairly) about presentations that consist of nothing but bullet points. I assume that the presenter lacks the imagination to offer anything other than bullet points (the greasy-spoon mentality of ‘chips with everything’). I assume that the presenter is lazy, and cannot be bothered to present materials in a more engaging way. I assume that perhaps the presenter doesn’t know the content well enough to transform the content into a different format. I presume that the presenter has not been able to construct a coherent schema in his/her mind and so has to work with atomised chunks of content – whilst expecting me to generate some coherence from the presentation.

I even think there is a direct correlation between the extent of bullet point usage in a presentation and the level of teacher dynamism and audience engagement, the “bullet point effect”:

The bullet point effect

The bullet point effect

 PDF of figure:  The bullet point effect

For these reasons, I have all but given up going to keynote lectures at conferences. By the time I get to the third or fourth slide of bullet points I have switched off. And I am not alone. I make a point now of sitting near the back of the audience during these sessions; partly so that I can make a quick getaway if it gets too boring. But more interestingly, so that I can observe the audience to see what they are doing. From the speaker’s perspective, it often looks like the audience is engaged and they are busy typing down the pearls of wisdom on their laptops and tablets. From the back what you see is a sea of screens on which the audience are busy responding to their e-mails.

I was sat in the audience of a keynote a few years ago next to a colleague who knew of my hatred of bullet points. Six slides in and we hadn’t seen anything but bullets. Then the presenter announced the next slide as “the triangle of research”. My ears pricked up and I looked at the screen in anticipation of a geometric depiction of said triangle. What did we get? Three bullet points. To which I said to my colleague, “where’s the triangle?”. His response, “I suppose we have to presume it is in his head – so I wonder who the slide is for?”.

There are exceptions. There are presentations that have been really good. But there seems to be a correlation (at least in my mind) about the quality of the PowerPoint and the quality of the presentation. Some excellent presentations have used PowerPoint, but to show things that cannot be adequately summarised in bullets. Things like graphs, maps and photos. I have even been to presentations where PowerPoint has not been used at all. Imagine! Yes, it can be done. One of the best presentations I have been to recently used a single slide – an image that was the focus of the lecture. Also, colleagues need to remember that PowerPoint can be turned off for part of a presentation – just press ‘B’ on the keyboard and the screen will go black.

I was recently unable to attend a presentation in London. One that sounded potentially very interesting and was to be led by the great and the good. Although in the end I couldn’t go, I was pleased that the organisers would send me copies of the presentations from the day. When the files arrived in my e-mail, I was eager to see what I had missed. Unfortunately, all I got was a lot of bullet points. From this I was unable to determine if there was any coherence or innovation in the ideas that had been presented. It was like seeing the chapter headings from a book. Useless!

One year, a group of us did hatch a plan to produce Tee shirts for a conference with the logo:

“STOP USING BULLET POINTS – THEY RESULT IN NON-LEARNING”.

Perhaps next year, unless a cure is found in the meantime.

 

Reference

Kinchin, I.M., Lygo-Baker, S. and Hay, D.B. (2008) Universities as centres of non-learning. Studies in Higher Education, 33(1): 89 – 103.

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Sick of bullet points

  1. Suzana Martins Zamora

    I must confess that it was the first time that I read someone writing about the plague of bullet points. This article made me reflect about my own teaching and presentations. I´d say that I always thought that power point and bullet points were a great way to present a topic.

    From now on, I will for sure think how I will prepare my next presentations and I will look for alternative ways to organize them in a more engaging and less boring way! It is going to be challenging, but worth it!

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  2. Iana Chaves and Ronise Correa

    Dear Professor Kinchin,
    This is a very interesting approach about something that has been used and seen a lot in our academic daily life as the bullet points. After the reading your post we were thinking about our power point past presentations and we agree that as much as we know and feel comfortable to talk and teach the content more different formats ( as graphic and schema) has been used in our presentations. We also agree that reading points to the audience in lectures is not a good practice. However, what about the use of bullet points as a reminder of topics that should be talk in the presentations? We feel that preparing a power point presentation with an image or graphic only, it won’t be helpful to remind all the important comments and informations that must be mentioned in this slide. Don’t you think that a balance or a moderate use of bullet points, instead of non use can be a good option?
    Best Regards,
    Iana and Ronise

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    1. ikinchin Post author

      Dear Iana and Ronise.

      There are a couple of points here. If the bullets are only to remind the presenter what to say, there are better ways than projecting them on the slide. The notes view of ppt allows you to print prompts and commentaries without projecting it on the slide. Or, as in the pre-digital world, you could just have note cards to remind yourself of important points.

      If the notes are for the students, then ppt has been shown to be a very poor format to offer notes.
      A handout of text (or an academic paper) is far better to give the notes to students.

      Also, if you have a VLE on which you provide students with the slides for revision, the set of slides on the VLE can be more expansive than the set you use in the class to support the lecture.

      See my article in Journal of Further and Higher Education for references to follow up on these ideas.

      Many thanks for the comment,

      Ian

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  3. Luciana Lorandi Honorato de Ornellas

    We are two PHD students that are attending conceptual map classes with professor Paulo Rogério Miranda Correia from USP.
    We have read your text and we discuss about our experiences with and without power point.
    We could conclude that professors are numb in relation to teaching and learning, when they use power point as the only way to teach.
    Below, each one of us, describe a class experience with and without power point:

    Ornellas´s experience:
    Two years ago I asked to myself the same questions: Why do we have to use power point in lecturers and presentations? Why do people don´t know how to make a presentation and so they use bullet points all the time? Why do students (in seminars) and professors just read the bullet points instead of explain it?
    So I decided to present to my students the concept maps and the program Cmap tools. I knew that this tool was not created for presentations but I was sick of boring presentations. I asked to my students to prepare a presentation using a concept map built with Cmap tools. For my surprise, the presentations became better and I could notice that students felt more confident to speak. The map was just a summary of the subject presented, the focus was not the map but the speaker.
    I could notice that our problem was that we were using powerpoint as a walking stick. Actually, the students didn´t understand the subject they were explaining, but the focus was on the bullet points not on the speakers, so they feel confortable to read. So, using a tool that promote learner´s understanding improve their ability to expose their ideas in an objective, clear, coherence way, without reading.
    So, I agree with you that one reason that people use bullet points is to hide that he/she doesn´t know the subject well enough to transform it into a different format.
    As a professor, I admit, sometimes, I use the bullet points in a lazy way, it is easy, simple and fast, but I really don´t think it generates learning.
    I was so glad in reading this text, because until now I have never heard someone (in Brazil) questioning the excessive and lazy use of power point with the horribles bullet points.

    Barbosa´s experience:

    Currently, I asked to myself the same questions: I actually need to use power point in my lecturers? It would be possible to generate learning based on the use of only one technological resource?
    Those reflections started on my Anatomy classes, when I used to use bullet points. At the exam time, I observed that students had a lot of difficulty to answer the exam, so this semester, I decided to change my strategy education. I have stopped to use power point and I have started to use a 3D App during the classes. With this App it is possible to show, for example, the heart, its beating, its working, its parts, but to give this lectures I observed that it is a big change in the preparation classes, because it demands a bigger domain of subject. Fortunately, I know this subject in a deep way.
    For my surprise, after the exam time, students have had a better performance than students from other semester when I used power point. Now I can admit that the bullet points has been used as a confortable device from my classes, and I stayed numb using just power point.
    So, I agree with you that one reason that can explain the use of bullet points as an only resource could be some difficult or lack of knowledge from teacher, that can be hidden using bullet points. When we don´t use power point, it is necessary to read more, to get better prepared for the lecturer, it takes the person off his “comfort zone” and requires a change in attitude.

    Thanks for the text and the reflections!

    Luciana Lorandi Honorato de Ornellas (PHD student – USP – Universidade de São Paulo) – lucianalorandi@usp.br
    Luciene Rodrigues Barbosa (PHD student – UNIFESP – Universidade Federal de São Paulo) – lucienerodriguesbarbosa@gmail.com

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  4. Paulo Eduardo Costa

    Dear Professor Kinchin,

    I always thought of bullet points as being an evidence that whoever is using them is lecturing about something they have not mastered yet. It kind of tells us what to expect from that presentation and, as you said, it will not be engaging at all. So in order to move forward and trying not to make everything pointless, we come up with a filter, as in making an effort to absorb whatever is being presented and discard what we may consider not useful. After reading your topic I thought that perhaps this filter that we had to come up with is more a non-learning mechanism than something that might help us learn, because we definetly waste more time ditching all that ‘noise’ only then to focus on what is important. I couldn’t agree more with this subject.
    Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us, I really appreciate it.

    Best regards,
    Paulo Eduardo Costa

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  5. prmc

    Nice topic to be discussed by anyone interested on education.
    The use of bullet points by an expert (teachers, professors, researchers) hinders the representation of his/her knowledge structure (experts have a network knowledge structure at his/her field of specialization). Despite the presentation narrative must be sequential (topic 1, topic 2, topic 3, and so on), the conceptual organization must be planned to facilitate the understanding of the specialized knowledge by the audience (usually less expert in the topic than the presenter). Any presenter must deal with the challenge of presenting network knowledge structures in a friendly and engaging way considering the audience’s current level of understanding. The disposition to invest time to get a great level of conceptual clarity (e.g., what are the threshold concepts embedded into the content I will present) and to prepare a suitable material (beyond bullet lists) is critical to overcome this challenge.
    The bullet list represents the minimum amount of energy that an expert needs to invest to prepare a good presentation. Any creative innovation beyond them will require more energy… and only a few of experts considers the need of improving the communication to make clear the value of his/her expertise.

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