Technology Integration

Creating Better Slides for Elementary Math

When it comes to Google Slides and PowerPoint, less is more—a simple design allows students to focus on the math without distraction.

July 9, 2024
monkeybusinessimages / iStock

A friend of mine retired recently and left me a present on my desk. It was an unopened package of the plastic sheets we used to use to make slides for the overhead projector. I haven’t seen an overhead projector in a classroom for years, but it certainly brought back memories. For a good portion of my career it was the only way to prepare a visual for class.

The old overhead is no more, and its replacement is much more versatile. And as the tools used for projecting images have improved, so has the potential to produce more complex and lively presentations. As someone who spends a lot of time observing and coaching elementary school math teachers, I‘ve seen a rise in the use of PowerPoints and Google Slides, many produced by the publishers of curricula. But we often undercut the power of visuals by trying to make them entertaining. Slide presentations would be so much more effective if we followed one cardinal rule: Keep it simple.

What good slides do and don’t do

Good slide shows support the goals of the lesson. They help reinforce oral directions and content. Slides can help a student follow the organization of a lesson, cueing a student about what is coming next and reminding them of predictable classroom routines. They also allow a teacher to include images and video they might not otherwise bring into the classroom without an awkward transition. 

However, too often the slides that come from publishers or are crowdsourced from teacher sites have serious flaws. Many are cluttered with irrelevant cartoons and pictures, too much text, and sometimes marketing icons. Worse, in an attempt to be helpful, they often over-scaffold a lesson by giving too much information or suggesting questions that might not be useful in a real discussion. In this way, slides with too much information actually make it harder for a teacher to respond to student thinking because they are built around a script that anticipates a small range of student responses. 

There is another, less obvious reason to use unadorned slides. If your slides are simple, you are more likely to use them regularly. Complex slide shows take up teacher preparation time. But slides are an opportunity to rehearse the lesson, which doesn’t happen if you don’t create them yourself. Less perfect, simpler slides that you make, rather than using ones provided by the publisher, will work better for you. 

How to create better slides 

Use only a few words: Every slide should be easy to read with as few words as possible. This is especially true of directions. It is good practice to support instructions visually, but if the students can’t read the slide, it defeats the purpose. Often the slides I see in class (and sadly at meetings) have text that is too small or too crowded to be easily parsed. The younger the students, the fewer the words and the bigger the type. As a general rule, if you have to use anything smaller than 24-point type, you have too many words on the screen. 

Make sure numbers are readable: For math classes, numbers can be especially tricky. Fonts often form numbers in ways that make it hard for younger students to recognize them. Again, the simplest fonts are the easiest to read.

In Google Slides, there‘s no way to insert an equation unless you download a third-party extension, which makes it more difficult to include properly formatted fractions, exponents, and division symbols. The easiest work-around is simply to take a screenshot of a Google Doc and place it on the screen. Although this involves a little extra effort, it makes the slide easy to read and is worth the time. You don’t want students spending their time trying to figure out what’s on the screen—you want them to focus on the math. 

In this way, slides with too much information actually make it harder for a teacher to respond to student thinking because they are built around a script that anticipates a small range of student responses.

steven goldman

Limit the color scheme to black-and-white: One of the biggest benefits of using slides is that they provide cues to students who need support for their attention. But if our goal is to help students zero in on what’s important, we need to keep the slides as simple as possible. Anything that is not relevant on a slide makes it harder for a student to focus on the content. Plain black text on a white background might look boring, but it is not distracting.

Eliminate distracting and superfluous imagery: The only images that appear on the screen should be the ones that are absolutely relevant. Everything else detracts from clarity. GIFs, balloons, and floating words do not support attention; they draw attention away from what the student should be focused on.

math slide
Courtesy of Steven Goldman
A slide like this could help teach students to identify the quality of coins without additional distracting information.

Use a clicker or a remote to advance the slides: Sometimes it’s not what’s on the slide but how the teacher interacts with the computer that becomes the distraction. Remotes are now inexpensive and require no setup, but they’re still a rarity in elementary school classrooms. Without a remote, teachers have to either keep returning to their computer to advance a slide or stand stuck in one place for the whole lesson. A remote makes using slides a more natural part of the class. 

It is rare in education for anyone to argue that a teacher should do less or produce something that is less complex, but for slides, the simpler the better. Fewer slides that convey only the necessary information with no fancy transitions or adornment serve the students best. In the classroom, slides are useful tools. They shouldn’t be the show.

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Filed Under

  • Technology Integration
  • Math
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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