July 1997 // Featured Products
PowerPoint and Cooperative Learning:
An Ideal Instructional Combination
by Harry E. Pence
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Harry E. Pence "PowerPoint and Cooperative Learning:
An Ideal Instructional Combination" The Technology Source, July 1997. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Computer lecture presentations, using software such as Microsoft's PowerPoint, are becoming increasingly widely used in college classrooms throughout this country. Judging from the response in the classes I have been teaching, students are extremely enthusiastic about this type of technology. Many faculty appear to be equally satisfied, as evidenced by the fact that they are choosing to invest considerable amounts of time and effort into revising their courses.

Despite the rising popularity of presentation software, thus far there has been very little evidence that this technology can improve learning. This should not be surprising, inasmuch as the technologies have been used for a relatively short period of time, and it is not yet clear how to maximize their usefulness. It is probably true that learning to master the technology itself seems to be much easier than discovering the pedagogy that makes the best use of the technology for learning.

For the past three years, I have enjoyed considerable success using a combination of cooperative learning and presentation software in my general chemistry classes. Based on the research that has been done on the advantages of multimedia presentations, it would appear that the combination of these two approaches, even though it occurred by accident, is a particularly valuable educational technique.

For the past six years I have been using technology in three of my music courses at the University of Delaware. Two of my courses are in opera; one is in music history. "Opera 103" and "Opera 104", "Introduction to Opera I and II," have no prerequisites--no need to read music or have had music appreciation. In "Opera 103," we study six Italian operas; in "Opera 104," we study examples of verismo, opera comique, music drama, singspiel, and operetta. My students are general university students, freshmen through seniors. Enrollment limit is 40, and we turn away between 70-90 students each semester. Enrollment in my "Music History 313: Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Music," is limited to 30 university students, music majors and minors. The course is very "information intensive."


In the fall of 1990, it had became clear that student performance in my general chemistry course was declining. Although the failure and withdrawal rates had been relatively stable for a number of years prior to this, these measures of student performance had been decreasing significantly for the previous three years. To counteract this trend, I implemented a revised lecture plan combining cooperative learning with multimedia, such as computer simulations, laserdiscs, and videotapes. This combination had the desired effect of decreasing withdrawals and failures.

My original plan was to present a short (10-15 minutes) lecture segment, followed by a visual presentation, consisting of either a live demonstration or a video (e.g., videotape, laserdisc, computer simulation). Next I asked pairs of students (lecture partners) to discuss and/or explain what they had seen. I projected a set of questions on the overhead, and after allowing time for discussion, I called on individual students and asked them to answer the questions. Often, when one student answered a question, I would ask his or her lecture partner to explain the answer. This insured that the students would discuss the questions with their partners. When the questions were completed, I began the process again with another short lecture segment.

By the beginning of the 1994 academic year, I had experimented with several different ways to present lectures from the computer, including hypertext, a word processor, and presentation software. Based on these experiences, I determined to use PowerPoint, and during the 1994-95 year I revised my notes. This approach has proven to be extremely successful. Three articles are available that describe the progress of this work (Pence, 1993, 1996, and 1997).

PowerPoint allowed me to continue many of the techniques I had been using with the overhead projector. Previously I showed a script of questions for each cooperative exercise. As each question was discussed, I would slide down a cover sheet to reveal the correct answer. This type of validation is especially important for successful cooperative learning. Of course, the ultimate goal is to give students the confidence to trust their own opinions, but initially students need to be reassured that they have obtained the right answer. The build function in PowerPoint accomplished the same goal very well. If the questions are written on the title space, a careful alignment of the text body makes it possible to reveal each answer right beside the question.

PowerPoint also made it very easy to maintain the color coding that I had used on the overheads. I wrote key ideas in red and used green text to designate the cooperative exercises, and white or yellow to present the main body of material. Students found this approach especially useful, and anecdotal evidences indicates that students continue to use color coding in other classes as an effective method for recognizing the important material in their notes.

As Neil Postman points out (1992), every new technology has pluses and minuses. Wise technology implementation focuses not only on what the new technology will offer but also on what may be lost when the old methods are abandoned. The addition of PowerPoint lectures maintained much that was good from the previous presentation methods and also provided new capabilities that were very exciting.


Continuing student assessment, both formal and informal, is a vital part of the multimedia development process. Instructors can never allow themselves to become so engrossed in the technology that they overlook instructional problems. I used several methods of assessment, ranging from informal discussions with students through anonymous surveys that I administered at least twice a semester. Often the surveys focused on issues that we had mentioned during the informal interviews.

The combination of multimedia and cooperative learning has proven to be consistently popular with the students. For example, in the Fall 1996 survey, student response to the statement, "The combination of hearing about a concept, seeing a demonstration, then talking about it seems to be the best way for me to learn," was 60% strongly agree, 38% agree, 2% neutral and none of the students checked disagree, or strongly disagree.

Informal student comments also demonstrated the popularity of multimedia. In a number of cases, students commented on how much they had enjoyed the videos and movies. For example, when I showed a video of the burning of the Hindenberg to demonstrate the properties of hydrogen gas, four or five students stopped to say how much they were impressed by the movie. Similarly, the first time I showed a short movie on molecular rotation in class, the students were so fascinated that they asked that the movie be repeated. It is very unusual to obtain this level of response with even the best projecturals.

Although the student reaction to the use of presentation software was not particularly favorable the first semester that I used it, each semester since then eighty to ninety percent of the students have indicated that they preferred or strong preferred PowerPoint. There are several possible explanations for these improved responses, the most important of which is probably the fact that I learned to use the technique better.

Informal student comments on presentation software were also very favorable. The images included in the notes were especially popular, and many students commented that they associated the concepts with the images in order to remember the concepts better. I did not distribute copies of the notes to the students, but many students accessed the copies of the presentations that were available on computers at the chemistry/physics computer center.


It is interesting to examine the reasons that students gave for preferring computer presentations. Three of the most often cited reasons were legibility, organization, and the use of color coding to indicate the relative importance of the material. Even though it is true that PowerPoint, or any other presentation software, does make it more likely that notes will be presented legibly, that the material will be well organized, and that important information will be flagged by the use of color, none of these really requires the computer. Faculty were presenting clear, well-organized notes, highlighted in colored chalk on a blackboard, long before the computer was available.

The unique feature of PowerPoint is the ability to closely integrate text and images. The educational power of images is well established. Although there is disagreement about the mechanism, educational psychologists seem to be in agreement that pictures improve the ability to remember text, especially if the pictures and text are presented together (see references in Kulhavy, R.W. et al, 1993). Mayer and Anderson (1992) have obtained research results that show the importance of contiguity, that is, the text and the images must be presented simultaneously. PowerPoint makes it possible to combine text and images on the same frame and so should offer many students a more effective environment for increasing the possibility for remembering concepts than the use of text alone.

Shortly after I began to use PowerPoint, I realized that students were taking a longer time to record their notes than I might have expected based on my past experience with overhead projecturals. When I questioned my students about this, I was surprised to discover that many of them were copying both the text and a sketch of the images into their notes, even though I had not suggested that they should do this. During informal interviews, a number of my students, including some who did not attempt to include the images in their notes, reported they used the images to help recall the concepts.

Images seem to be an especially important part of chemistry (Kleinman 1987). Chemistry is dynamic; molecules are constantly moving, even when they are not reacting. In the past, aside from an occasional movie or demonstration, lectures about chemistry have mainly been static. When I combined presentation technology with molecular modeling software, it became possible to show how chemical reactions happen, both at the macroscopic and the molecular level. Beyond this, historical images can offer a context for historical references that in the past might have simply passed over the heads of the students.

Even though PowerPoint does make it possible to present contiguous text and images, this provides no guarantee that students will use this capability effectively. Obviously the teacher must select images that are closely related to the concepts being presented. Unless the images complement the text, there is little possibility for interaction. Beyond this, what can the instructor do to maximize the educational benefits of combining images and text on the same frame?

Although presentation software does create an image-rich teaching environment, it can also create problems. There is a tendency for students, based on their previous experience with television, to become passive observers, rather than active participants. For example, Casanova and Casanova (1991) reported that their students encountered problems of this type when taught with multimedia.

Cooperative learning methods can help to avoid these difficulties and are an excellent complement to PowerPoint lectures. It is well known that cooperative methods are an excellent way to engage students as active participants in the learning process. When used with appropriately designed scripts of questions, this approach can also encourage effective interaction between text and graphics. The combination of PowerPoint with lecture partners, as described earlier, seems to accomplish this quite well, and no doubt other types of cooperative learning would also be effective. When the two teaching methods are combined, they create an especially effective educational environment.


The new educational technology represents a special challenge to the current generation of college teachers. Traditionally, most college teachers have basically continued to teach the way they had been taught when they were students. As a result, change in teaching has been incremental at best. Now teachers are being called upon to learn how to teach in totally new ways. Although much has been learned about the learning process in the past decade, our understanding is still far from complete. For the time being, instructors must follow the development of educational theory, share the experiences of colleagues, and use student evaluations to determine what will work best in their classrooms.

This lack of hard knowledge is particularly prevalent in the use of images for instruction. Previously, few faculty had a convenient way to incorporate images into their lectures. Even those who used slides or videos may not have completely understood the best ways to use this visual material. Now presentation software, like PowerPoint, doesn't just allow for the creation of lecture presentations that are rich in images; it also brings together text and images in ways that have significant educational benefits.

Images are widely recognized to be powerful educational tools, and PowerPoint makes it easy to add visual material to lectures. All disciplines may not benefit equally from the enhanced use of images for lecture, but there are many situations where the synergy described here can be useful. Many professors like to include historical references in their lectures, but many students lack the background to fully understand the comment. My experience has been that adding appropriate images to the presentation can not only broaden the students' overal knowledge but can also establish cross-discipline relevancies, and thus produce strong reactions from students.

New tools require us to rethink our approach to the educational process. Even though no single teaching method, with or without technology, may be equally applicable to all educational situations, the new technologies, including the combination of PowerPoint with cooperative learning, open new possibilities for the educational process. The real challenge is not to learn the technology, but to find the pedagogies that use technology to give our students an improved learning environment.

Perhaps the best summary is to quote the response that a student gave on an anonymous survey:

With the computer, the concepts became real. They weren't just notes on a piece of paper. You actually prove that things happen and we don't have to just accept what you tell us. As long as technology creates the opportunity to offer this kind of experience to our students, it is well worth pursuing.

* This is a revision of a paper entitled "Using Presentation Software for General Chemistry Lectures," which will appear in Technology Tools for Today's Campuses [CD ROM], Microsoft Corp., Redmond, WA.


Casanova, J., & Casanova, S.L. (1991). Computers as electronic blackboard: Remodeling the organic chemistry lecture. Educom Review Spring, 31-4.

Kleinman, R.W., Griffin, H.C., & Kerner, N. K. (1987). Images in chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education 64, 766-700.

Kulhavy, R.W. et al. (1993). Comparing elaboration and dual coding theories: The case of maps and text. American Journal of Psychology 106, 483-498.

Mayer, R.E. & Anderson, R.B. (1992). The instructive animation: Helping students build connections between words and pictures in multimedia learning. Journal of Educational Psychology 84, 444-452.

Pence, H.E. (1993). Combining cooperative learning and multimedia in general chemistry. Education 113, 375-380.

Pence, H.E. (1995). A report from the barricades of the multimedia revolution. Journal of Educational Technology Systems 24, 159-164.

Pence, H.E. (1997). Using presentation software for general chemistry lectures. Technology Tools for Today's Campuses [CD ROM] (in press), Microsoft Corp., Redmond, WA.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York.

Whitnell, R.M. et al. (1994). Multimedia chemistry lectures. Journal of Chemical Education 71, 721-725.

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