Powerpoint – a scaffolding tool for academic writing.

The invention of Powerpoint caused a sigh of relief for presenters who previously had painstakingly prepared overhead slides for their talks. It also caused derision in some circles of adult education, generating the critical comment ‘Death by Powerpoint’ , which could indicate the death of the reputation of a speaker as a result of a poor, and often overcrowded or overlong powerpoints; or the death of the audience through boredom.
In the dissonance which occupies the fors and againsts of Powerpoint, it is easy to overlook that Powerpoint also serves a purpose beyond presentation skills.

At the Academic Writing Theory and Practice in an International context conference in Coventry in April 2012, I listened to Mike Smith and Mary Deane discuss the way Mary, as a tutor in the Coventry University Academic Writing Centre worked with Mike, a Neophyte writer and tutor in Sports Psychology, as a co-author, and used Powerpoint as a pre-writing tool for developing a journal article about using Powerpoint for writing scaffolding.

The authors suggest that because of its linearity, Powerpoint can be a used to help people to construct academic text in the pre-writing stage, by providing a visual aid to structuring an argument. It also has the added advantage of making it possible to move the text around with ease.
When they first met they used Powerpoint as a devise for collecting a range of information from various sources. Relevant content could be copied straight into Powerpoint and with the linear function on Powerpoint, material could be moved around as the overall structure of the paper unfolded. Not only did this help them to scaffold the journal article, but it allowed them to electronically correspond about the paper with an easily transferable document. Each author could add in slides related to their field of expertise as they worked together to explore both the scientific support from research in psychology of how the Powerpoint scaffolding frees-up working memory capacity (Mike), and different forms of writing support (Mary). As the number of slides grew they added in additional slides which were sub-headings in the developing article. The notes section of Powerpoint was used to convert points to full text, and then this text could be copied into a final version of the paper.
This let them develop the first working text, after which they used track changes to continue in the co-authoring.

Another possible academic writing use for Powerpoint is when a research student or author appears blocked in the traditional text development. A research supervisor can suggest that they begin work on their oral presentation and this, because of its visual cues, may unblock their related writing. Sometimes Powerpoint makes it evident that a dissertation is in need of a model, because the student finds that it is more effective to describe something pictorially than in words.


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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4 Responses to Powerpoint – a scaffolding tool for academic writing.

  1. David Mathew says:

    Hi Geof. Nice to find you here.

    I also saw Mike’s presentation; in fact, I presented straight after Mike and the first thing I said was something along the lines of: “Depending on your opinions of what you’ve just heard from Mike, I have some good news or some bad news. I don’t use Powerpoint.” And I don’t. The only time I’ve used it in fairly recent days was when giving a lecture in Brazil last year, when I worried (unnecessarily as it turned out) that some of the delegates might struggle with some of my pronunciation. Although Mike helped me to understand ways that Powerpoint could be used with creativity (and hats off to him for that), my objection remains the _uncreative_ use of Powerpoint, where it has become a kind of default position. With whiteboards (and yes, with blackboards too: I’m no spring chicken anymore), there was constant creativity – redirections, re-establishments, fresh thinking – but all I have seen with Powerpoint in recent years is (ironically, perhaps) the very thing that it was invented for: a business presentation. Not a lesson.

    Best wishes

    • Thanks for this Dave.
      Powerpoint, like many inventions, may have more uses than it was initially invented for. I saw what Mike was presenting was a profound way to support academic writing, whether or not you actually use Powerpoint for your presentations.

  2. Hi there,

    I was also at this conference but I missed this session! However, for about a year, I have been using a similar technique (which I independently called the PowerPoint technique) to teach dissertation students how to connect paragraph writing to argument structure. The points I make are:

    1. Think about your chapter / section in terms of giving a PowerPoint presentation to a small group of people (e.g. your peers)
    2. Sketch out one or more slides with bullet points
    3. The bullet points become the topics of your paragraphs
    4. Evaluate their order and relative importance – does your argument ‘flow’?
    5. Remember: writing is a social process

    Seems like we have a very similar idea.



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