Using Presentation Software for General Chemistry Lectures

Harry E. Pence
Professor of Chemistry
SUNY College at Oneonta
In the fall of 1990, I changed the lectures in my general chemistry course by adding cooperative learning and multimedia. This approach was successful, and in 1994 I began giving all the lectures with presentation software from a computer. Presentation software, such as Microsoft's PowerPoint, combined the least preparation time with the greatest flexibility. This method allows a close integration of text and images, which helps the students to better understand and remember the concepts. Student response to these changes has been very positive, and I am still learning better ways to teach based on these new capabilities.
By the fall of 1990, it was 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 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 had the desired effect of decreasing withdrawals and failures, and in the 1994-5 academic year I expanded the project by converting my lectures from overhead projecturals to computer presentation software.

There were several advantages to combining multimedia and cooperative learning. Chemistry, like other sciences, has a strong visual component, and multimedia presentations made the material more realistic as well as easier to understand. Cooperative learning forced the students to respond actively rather than sinking into the passive mode that they may have learned from a lifetime of watching television. This combination proved to be successful, and two articles describing the project are available (Pence, 1993, 1996).

During this initial phase of the project, I evaluated several different methods to improve the integration of the multimedia into the lecture, including giving the lectures in hypercard or from a word processor. By the fall of 1994, I had concluded that presentation software was the most practical way to accomplish this, and I began converting the lectures into PowerPoint.


The general chemistry course discussed in this paper is a traditional preparatory course for science majors. The enrollment ranges from 60 to 100 students, depending on the semester. I had previously lectured from overheads prepared before class. To help freshman identify the important ideas, the overheads were color coded. Key concepts were written in red; regular notes were in blue; worked sample problems were in black; and real-world chemical applications were in green.

My original plan in 1990 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, using a set of questions that I projected on the screen. After allowing time for discussion, I would ask individual students 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 were accountable for discussing the questions with their partners. Then I would begin the process again with another short lecture segment.

The multimedia workstation consisted of a Macintosh LC-III, equipped with a laserdisc player, a CD ROM drive, and a VCR. All of these could be projected on a large rear-projection screen. Beginning in 1994, I used PowerPoint as the presentation software. I have found Quicktime to be a flexible and simple way to create and show movies, including those created with a shareware molecular modeling program, MacMolecule.

There are several reasons why I chose to add presentation software to this plan. Compared with hypercard or a word processor, the presentation software combined the least preparation time with the greatest flexibility. PowerPoint made it easy to color code the notes, as I had done in the past, and the ability to build text, line by line, was convenient for cooperative learning scripts. The combination of the build and transition made it possible to guide the students' eyes through each frame much easier than with any other method, including overhead projecturals. Perhaps most importantly, presentation software allowed me to establish a close physical relationship between the text describing a concept and the images that showed the application of the concept.

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. I feel that the addition of PowerPoint lectures maintained much that was good from the previous presentation methods and also provided new capabilities that were educationally beneficial.


Continuing student assessment, both formal and informal, is a vital part of the multimedia development process. It is all too easy for an instructor to become so engrossed in the technology that instructional problems are overlooked. To prevent this, I used several methods for evaluating student reactions. The simplest method is to observe how the students respond during the lecture. For example, if more than one or two students were squinting, it was obvious that the fonts or colors needed to be changed to make the presentations more readable. In addition, I would often chat informally with individual students during lab or after class. These conversations gave me a general sense of what they liked and did not like about the lecture. I used anonymous surveys at least twice a semester to obtain a broader view and especially to probe questions that individuals had raised during the informal interviews.

Based on both formal and informal surveys, the combination of multimedia and cooperative learning is very popular with the students. The results from the fall 1996 survey are typical. 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, and 2% neutral. None of the students checked disagree, or strongly disagree.

Informal student comments also demonstrated the effects of multimedia. In a number of cases, students stopped after lecture to comment on how much they had enjoyed the multimedia, especially the videos and movies. For example, when I showed a video of the burning of the Hindenburg to demonstrate the properties of hydrogen gas, four or five students stopped to say how much they "enjoyed the movie." Similarly, the first time that I showed a short movie on molecular rotation in class, the students were so fascinated that they asked that the movie be repeated.

Initially, the student reaction to the use of presentation software was not as favorable. When I introduced computerized lectures in the fall 1994, only about half the lectures had been converted and the rest were still given from overheads. At that time, the students indicated no strong preference between the two methods. When asked "Which method did you prefer, overhead transparencies or the computer?" the response was 12% strongly preferred the computer, 14% preferred the computer, 45% were neutral, 19% preferred the overheads, and 10% strongly preferred the overheads.

The next semester (spring 1995), however, student preference shifted strongly to presentation software, even though many of the students had continued from the previous semester. In the spring 1995 survey, 73% of the students strongly preferred the computer; 16% rated the computer as somewhat better; 7% indicated they were neutral; 4% preferred other methods; and none strongly preferred other methods. Each semester since then, the results of student surveys have indicated a strong preference for the use of presentation software.

There are several possible explanations for these changing responses. I did change the wording of the question slightly, but it seems unlikely that this could explain the magnitude of the change. Of course, as I became more adept with PowerPoint, my lectures would be expected to improve. In particular, I felt that I learned to avoid lecturing too rapidly, which is a serious temptation with presentation software.

Just as it takes time for the instructor to become accustomed to presenting lectures from the computer, it also takes time for the students to become accustomed to taking notes from the computer screen. Surveys taken several different semesters have found that even though many students quickly became accustomed to taking notes from PowerPoint, some required at least a week or so before they were comfortable, and a few never did feel comfortable.

Another possible explanation for the changing student response is that after the first semester I didn't use overhead projecturals very much, so the students didn't have a good basis for comparison. Students often mention color coding as one of the things they like about the presentation software, and they probably don't see this in most of their other classes. Regardless of the factors involved, the students seem to be very satisfied with lectures based on PowerPoint.

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 them better. I did not distribute copies of the notes to the students, although the presentations were available on computers at the chemistry/physics computer center. Many students reported that they often included at least a sketch of the images in their notes. Almost none of the students reported frustration or problems with the use of images, and two thirds or more of the students indicated that the images "helped me to understand the concepts being presented" or "made the notes more interesting."


Probably the greatest educational advantage that presentation software provides is the ability to closely integrate text and images. This can have both long term and short term results. Research indicates that the sophisticated use of images is an important characteristic of professional chemists (Kleinman, 1987). My surveys indicate that students use the images to both understand the concepts and also to serve as a cue that will help them recall the information later. To help this process, the instructor must be careful to select appropriate images. Unless the images complement the concepts, the software simply becomes an expensive substitute for an overhead projector.

Using images for chemistry education can be particularly effective. 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 the presentation technology is combined with molecular modeling software, it is now possible to show how chemical reactions happen, even at 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.

It is now possible to readily convert still pictures, movies, and sounds into digital format, and all of these can be inserted into a PowerPoint frame to complement the text. Of course, teachers have been using slides, movies, and tapes to do all of this in the past. The important change is the ease of combining all these into a single visual unit. We are still in the early stages of learning how to make the best use of this capability to improve education.

Some of the early groups to use multimedia for chemistry education report results similar to those discussed above. Casanova and Casanova (1991) indicated that their students encountered problems adjusting to multimedia organic lectures and also observed that the students are the best judges of what actually works. Whitnell and co-workers at the University of California at San Diego (1994) have constructed lectures for a multimedia physical chemistry course. They suggest that the most successful multimedia lectures are usually quite different from traditional lectures.

Students' acceptance of multimedia instruction. As noted earlier, not all students are prepared to make full use of multimedia instruction. Even though the majority of students may prefer the visual learning style, few of them have been trained to use images effectively. Their previous experience with television may have led them to expect to be passive, rather than active learners. Most students will probably need to greatly expand their skills as note takers. Cooperative methods, such as those described earlier, offer an excellent avenue for developing these new skills and making the students active participants in the learning process.

Pitfalls of software use. There are, however, some pitfalls when using presentation software. It is most useful in cases where the material is well-organized and reasonably linear. It is possible to build in opportunities for asides and tangents, but if an instructor wishes to be totally spontaneous, presentation software is probably not a good choice. In addition, it takes time to learn to use the several software packages that are needed to both manipulate images and create the presentations. It usually takes longer to prepare a lecture unit than would be the case with overheads or blackboard presentations.

It is probably easier to produce a readable product with presentation software than by writing on the blackboard or an overhead, but problems still can occur. Font selection and color choices must be designed for the specific system and room where the presentation will be given. It is always a good idea to do a dry run, testing the presentation under the conditions that will prevail in the classroom. Otherwise you may find that your favorite font is not available on the classroom computer, or the projector you are using does a terrible job with the color selection that looked so good on the machine in your office.


Based on this on-going project, I would suggest several conclusions are justified. First, and perhaps most important, it is possible for a single individual working with moderate support to develop multimedia presentations for teaching. Both hardware and software are now relatively inexpensive, and the main deterrent is the time required. Even though the results may not be as impressive as those obtained by larger groups with greater financial support, individual faculty members can make meaningful contributions.

The new educational technology offers a special challenge to the present generation of college teachers. For many years, college teachers have basically taught the way they had been taught themselves. Change in teaching has been incremental at best. Now teachers are being called upon to use new technologies in unprecedented ways. Relatively few instructors at the college level have taken courses in pedagogy, and most of them have taught themselves how to use technology. The success of these efforts will require that all of us share what we are learning, and also that we all become more aware that the students are not merely the recipients of the new methods, but also important evaluators of how successful the methods may be.

Technology offers no universal solution every teacher can adopt. Just as students have different learning styles, instructors have different teaching styles. Each of us must find the technology that best supports the way that we teach. In some cases, the best solution may still be blackboard and chalk. Many teachers will find, however, that new technologies, including the combination of multimedia and cooperative learning, open new possibilities for the educational process.

We must all recognize that these new tools require us to rethink our approach to the educational process. Like most new technologies, our first response is to simply try to do the same old things in a slightly improved way. In the long run, however, we must find new ways to teach that full exploit the capabilities that are available. The real challenge is not the technology, but finding pedagogies that use technology to give our students an improved learning environment. Perhaps the best summary is to quote the response that one of the students 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 provides the possibility for offering this kind of experience for our students, it is well worth pursuing.


The author wishes to express his appreciation for a Classroom Scholarship Grant from the Joint Labor-Management Committee of United University Professions and the State of New York, which was used to purchase software and video materials for this project.


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, 766-800.

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

Pence, H. E. (1996). A report from the barricades of the multimedia revolution. Journal of Educational Technology 24, 159-164.

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

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