On my 'quest' to understand how universities have changed over the past decade(s), I'm curious as to how teaching in lectures was done before the days of PowerPoint (which as an undergraduate is seemingly the only thing I see all day, but I am sure it was not used anywhere near as extensively a decade or two ago).

Needless to say I've still seen plenty of chalk use when calculations need to be done, but there is still not a lecture without PowerPoint.


  • Did they flip through the slides with a bit of narrative like they do today?
  • The 'you don't need to take notes, slides are on online' mentality of today must have been different.
  • I've gathered overhead projectors were the tool of the trade and handouts where more common.
  • Most old lectures on YouTube (being taught by well known professors) never seem to use any PowerPoint. However, they seem to in general cover topics that deal more with theory and calculation than real examples and practical uses.
  • Would the professor during a e.g. an engineering materials course (i.e. mostly content stuff) just go through slides on the overhead? The quality of what you can share seems pretty limited as opposed to full color images, or would they actually have more tools at their disposal?
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    What did Universities use in lectures before they starting using PowerPoint? — The chalk board, overhead, brain, etc.
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 18:43
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    @YviDe In 2013 I still had CS (i.e. math was involved...) lectures only using the blackboard and rightfully so. Projectors and PowerPoint are nice tools, but not for every task. A hammer is a nice tool as well, still I don't use it when I want to paint my walls.
    – dirkk
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 20:51
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    I almost can't believe this question and all the comments. "You can see blackboard lectures in old movies"? Every lecture I've given (in math, at a major US private university) has been with chalk on a blackboard, and most of my colleagues do the same.
    – user34397
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 4:46
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    How did people ever ask questions about academia without Academia.SE?
    – user541686
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 10:39
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    It's very sad that so many comments (and answers) here and in the chat are attacking the OP because all of their math/CS lectures were done with a blackboard. There are also other subjects! In philosophy/lingusitics (and in all high school subjects except maths) I did never see a lecture which made substantial use of a blackboard.
    – guest3
    Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 10:13

15 Answers 15


I can go back to 1989, when I enrolled at the university (engineering). The first two years were mostly devoted to mathematics, physics, chemistry and circuit theory. No overheads were employed in those courses, just plain old blackboard. There was just a course on Fortran and Pascal where the professor probably employed overheads, but I skipped all the lectures so, well, I'm not sure about that.

Overheads really started to appear from the third year on, mainly for engineering courses about algorithms, digital circuits or solid state physics (alas, these were abysmal). Lecturers would deposit a printed copy of the handouts at a local photocopy shop, so that everyone could buy a copy. Certain courses had packs of around 1000 handouts, and frequently the handouts were not available till the end of the course. Luckily, most of the courses about analogue circuits, advanced electromagnetics and quantum physics were still delivered through the blackboard.

It is worth recalling that at the time "overhead transitions" were implemented by means of patches and adhesive tapes. When printed, these "effects" would leave black marks of various shapes on the handouts.

Overheads were typically in full colours when handwritten, but the handouts were of course black and white, and writings in lighter colours were barely readable. Program listings were instead printed with black and white printers: no syntax colouring at the time.

Edit: I've just found under a pile of papers one of those packs of handouts. Here is how one of the pages looked like (two overheads per page; the pack is dated 1987):

Old style handout

The first overhead, on the left, is the text of an exercise ("Design a circuit with three inputs x,y,z [...]"), the overhead on the right is part of the solution. You might notice that on the upper right corner of the left overhead there are two page numbers: probably the overheads had been renumbered along the years.

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    This is so radically different compared to what I have experienced that I would have loved to experience a day back then and compare it to now (for better or worse). Seems like considerably more work/care needed to be taken since students just did not have the option to fall back easily to the internet for information like they do today most of the time when teaching material is insufficient. Thanks for sharing :) Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 20:09
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    @MikeFoxtrot I got my BS from 99-03; the handful of classes I had that posted lecture notes online were (at least superficially) much easier to blow off attendance of. Reading them on my own time never resulted in as complete of retention as going to class did. Partly that was the lecture itself, and the annotations I'd make to the printouts. However another major factor was generally a mismatch between the way the professor laid out the content and what was most natural for me, and would waste space on things I felt were obvious while giving short shrift to others I needed more detail. Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 21:46
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    These remind me of the overheads from a course where he stopped us on the first day and said "we have a lot of material to get through this year and there is no way we can cover it all if you people insist on taking notes." Really. This was perhaps 1979? 1980? Anyway we arranged to mimeo (the purple stuff) his notes at student expense and after that we were all happier. (And I still recall some of that material.) Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 17:49
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    @KateGregory: your comment taught me a new, old, word of which I didn't know the meaning, even in my language, and picked up another memory. The word is mimeo, corresponding to the Italian mimeografare, which I didn't know either, because we used the more common ciclostile, cyclostyle. The memory is that when I was young, many people printed notes or other stuff like dazebaos by means of cyclostyle, but to avoid paying a specific tax, every sheet had the following footnote: "cyclostyled by own means" (rough translation, i.e., printed without resorting to a typography). Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 19:15
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    @KateGregory I got the same thing from one of my CS professors (around 2007), but he added some extra explanation: Some students kept wanting him to slow down because they were straight copying all the slides verbatim. Especially with the way he taught, that's way too slow - they'd be writing so intently that they'd ignore what he said aloud, and ask questions that were already answered. We were encouraged to pay attention instead, and only take notes on the important parts to act as reminders for our memory.
    – Izkata
    Commented Nov 5, 2015 at 21:44

I studied for my bachelor's degree in mathematics from 1967 to 1970. The main form of instruction was the lecturer writing on blackboards and the students desperately trying to take the proofs down in our notebooks.

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    Well, I studied mathematics from 2002 to 2007 (BS+MS), and it was basically the same. :) Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 23:04
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    I've had math professors tell me that they don't want to convert to slides simply because writing their lecture on the board presents the material at a pace where students can copy it into their notes. There's something to be said for giving the students the material at a more regurgitatable pace, and having them write it down instead of just passively staring at it.
    – J.R.
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 10:00
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    I can't think at the same time as writing. If I am copying down material from the board, I have to wait until I read over my copy later for any thought or understanding. Fortunately, the digital camera was invented between 1970 and 2002, when I started on my PhD. Being able to think about the material while I could ask questions about it was wonderful. Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 10:26
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    @J.R. It's not just about the pace. Writing it on the blackboard forces the lecturer to think through and fully understand the material again, and makes his exposition much clearer. It's all too easy to accidentally gloss over a detail that you think you fully understand when in fact you'd need a few minutes to clear it up in your head again if asked a question about.
    – Szabolcs
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 15:02
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    I've never seen Powerpoint used in any mathematical lecture. Where in the world is this common?
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 15:08

The things I've seen in use:

  • Blackboard
  • Whiteboard
  • Overhead projector (writing in real time)
  • Overhead projector (prepared slides)
  • Slide projector
  • Paper board
  • Professor just talking
  • Talking and using objects (e.g. tennis balls) to demonstrate something

Course notes were sometimes available for purchase. Sometimes the course notes were similar to slides, sometimes they were like a book (except cheaper), sometimes like a book with exercises, sometimes the course used an actual book.

Blackboard was the most common in my personal experience. Quite a few professors never touched a projector even when it was available.

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    This is my experience as well (math, chemistry and cs 2006-2012 in Germany) and I prefer writing in real time on the overhead projector and then after the lecture scanning the overhead slides and making them available to the students online. This is a nice compromise between pacing for students who learn better when they take notes and students who learn better when they don't have to concentrate on writing. Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 19:22

I remember some professors used transparency with an overhead projector. Sometimes the professor had enough transparencies photocopies for each student for free, sometimes we had to buy them.

An advice: you should always pay attention and take some notes, it's more important what have been discussed on class and not just what a ppt have

  • I had a professor not that long ago that was still using transparencies. He often pointed out that, while people have problems with their ppt file or the projector regularly, he had never had a problem getting his transparencies to work. (But I guess that's because he never had them out in the rain!)
    – DaoWen
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 13:54

We used the blackboard and paper hand-outs, as well as overhead slides and photo-type slides. I only started to use overhead slides around 1999 when there was a budget crunch and we had to reduce the number of handouts. But I don't need to point to color photos or things of that nature in my field, so the motivation for PPT is quite field-dependent.

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    Your field-dependent remark is spot on. I can remember humanities professors who never used a chalkboard, but simply talked for 50 minutes, math professors who used chalkboards relentlessly (to write definitions, solve problems, and write out proofs), electrical engineering professors who used the boards (mostly for circuit diagrams), physics professors who solved problems but also drew diagrams depicting angles and such. Whether the advent of .ppt files improved or degraded instruction, I think, often depends on one key question: does the professor use their slides as a tool, or as a crutch?
    – J.R.
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 21:46

What did Universities use in lectures before they starting using PowerPoint?

  • human voices
  • real examples
  • chalkboards
  • dry erase boards
  • overhead projectors
  • paper/markers
  • handouts
  • etc.

Did they flip through the slides with a bit of narrative like they do today?

I'm sure some did but Powerpoint has obviously made that a habit.

The 'you don't need to take notes, slides are on online' mentality of today must have been different.

Yes, there was a time when we took notes. :)

Remember, PPT is more of a crutch than a useful way to make a presentation. People that use PPT to enhance their lecture can do good things. But most people just use PPT as a teleprompter. Which is just pointless. Just email it to everyone and save everyone the hassle of sitting through a boring hour of someone reading a PPT deck out loud.

  • The last is true even without powerpoint slides. E.g. profs reading books at verbatim. Still, there does seem a disappropriate number of ppt users which use the tools wrong.
    – Hennes
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 12:04
  • Can you explain the term "real examples"?
    – guest3
    Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 10:17

Studying Engineering in late 70s early 80s.

All material or information you needed to understand concepts or methods were presented at the lectures on a blackboard. The Prof / lecturer would write it up on the board while explaining.

As students you were expected to take notes and decide for yourself what was important enough to record. On the very odd occasion there would be printed handouts with information in support of the lecture.

There were also tutorial sessions where students were given a series of problems to solve and older students were present as tutors to assist.

Only ever saw or used an overhead during the presentation of my thesis in final year.


One thing I believe the other answers are missing is that we relied a lot more on the book. I studied Chemical Engineering from 2000-2007 (B.S. and Ph.D.) and only had two courses that used powerpoint slides (a seminar course and a biochem course). The rest used the blackboard/whiteboard, lectures, or overhead projectors with the occasional slide, usually for diagrams or pictures, but every once in a while, for text.

We had to write notes down based on what we would guess were the most important things, and/or what we thought we would have trouble remembering. Usually though, the result was that everyone would just try to copy down everything that went on the board, whether it ended up being important or not, and not much else. As you can imagine, that method didn't work out very well for people who were not skilled note-takers in classes where the instructor was not a skilled note-giver. So, we relied on the book. The book contained all the information we needed, for the most part, and the lecturer's role became to explain the more difficult concepts, or elaborate where the book was lacking. This also left less time for working through example problems in class, which meant sample problems in the book were even more important.

After graduation, I taught for a couple of years. I used power point slides in my classes (Chemistry) for two reasons - it let me focus on explaining things and solving problems on the blackboard rather than trying to sketch all the pictures myself, and it gave me a way to summarize the important points in a reusable format that the students could just download, which usually meant they didn't have to try to copy everything down, and could instead listen to what I was saying. I think it was effective, and my students seemed to agree - but the key was to make the slides mostly pictures, with key points to move the "story" along. Otherwise, students would "zone out" and think they didn't have to pay attention in class.

Powerpoint (or really any type of slides) have made it possible to teach more effectively, if they are used appropriately. This is mainly because you can use more effective graphics, and it reduces the amount of time you need to spend writing notes, which gives more time for example problems and in-class exercises. On the other hand, a bad lecturer with slides is still going to be less effective than a good lecturer without them. For example, I had one course where the instructor literally hand-copied text from the book onto overhead projector slides, and would just read it. Lectures were an almost complete waste of time. Doing that with powerpoint instead would be just as ineffective.

A side effect of this is that students are seeing less and less of a need to use the books for courses. When they believe that all the necessary material is available in slides online, they naturally want to take the easier route and skip reading the book. I had to work pretty hard in the classes I taught to get my students to think of the book as a primary resource.


In the university I attended in the early 80's (before PowerPoint), professors also used 3 things in lecture I haven't seen mentioned already:

  1. There was a department that produced (beautiful, color) slides to be shown with overhead projectors. Few professors used them, mostly for sciences, especially Biology. I forget the name of this department.

  2. There was another department (Engineering Shop?) that made, among other things, equipment used to demonstrate the principles being discussed. Especially in Engineering and Physics, this was very helpful.

  3. Larger auditoriums with high ceilings had a motorized system with 3 blackboards: when the professor filled one up, it was raised (out of reach) and a clean one brought in its place. That way, he could fill 3 blackboards, and we could still see them all.

Even in the early 80's, many classrooms had whiteboards.

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    "Reprographics" was probably the name of the department. Mostly used for external talks given at major conferences. (3) was still in use in 2014.
    – Calchas
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 1:16

When I was an undergraduate between 1982 and 1985, there were two principal ways to show stuff during a lecture - blackboard and chalk, or acetate and marker pens on an overhead projector. The acetate could be individual sheets or on a roll.

Anything prepared in advance would be acetates, but the lecturer could doodle on them during the class.

Lecturers might hand out photocopied notes, but you were also expected to take notes yourself during the class.


I studied Biology between 1979 and 1982. Therefore, by definition, no personal computers, no Microsoft Windows, no powerpoint,

The lecturers just wrote everything out longhand on blackboards or whiteboards depending on the size of group and would often back this up with slides on an overhead projector and sometimes with handouts.

We students then took notes, written longhand on paper because no personal computers, no Windows, no laptops....


Árpád Kucsmann the professor of organic chemistry projected b/w slides in 1972-1973. I do not know how he made them but his slides were not crowded. The contained simple formulas of reagents, product and intermediate complexes. He handed out the copies of hi slided after each lecture but I could buy a five volume book made of the only two weeks before the final exam on organic chemistry, in 1974. Ferenc Nagy, former chemistry student of Eötvös University, Budapest, Hungary.


Starting uni in the late 90s I saw the first data projectors appear in the big lecture theatres and they were rubbish. You couldn't have copied down an equation much more complex than E=mc² without sitting in the front row.

Almost all my lecturers used OHPs*. The majority used pre-prepared handwritten slides and clearly reused them. Some wroe on the fly (OHP film on a roll attached to the projector) which I saw quite a bit of in school as well. A few used inkjet-printed, laser-printed or photocopied OHPs.

With the handwritten ones it was possible to edit them and to use them in a fill-in-the-blanks style as pens are avilable in both water-soluble and "permanent" alcohol-soluble versions. I took advantage of something similar by mirror-image printing my inkjet OHPs for presentations, then putting them on the OHP face down so I could mark up on the back and remove the markup -- something that's still hard to do with powerpoint unless you project onto a whiteboard.

Of course black/white boards were commonly used as well, but handwriting OHPs in the lecture can be clearer (it's easier to write nicely normal size).

Handouts were uncommon, and when they did appear, tended to appear after the material was shown -- sometimes photocopies of the slides on request, but you might need a reason. I still actually prefer not to have the slides printed in front of me in a lecture if I want to understand the material, I'd rather take notes of the important stuff.

*Overhead projectors


My experience from mathematics and philosophy programs in the early 1990's:

  • Textbook
  • Chalkboard
  • Some paper handouts
  • Some bound copies of papers

One math professor had an overhead projector with transparent material on rollers. He would write with wet-erase markers and then scroll the material once he had filled up the visible area.

No one ever used film slides or the like.

(P.S.: I currently teach at a large urban community college where the math department has actually blocked installation of whiteboard/overhead projectors in the classrooms we control, still holding onto chalkboards in those rooms. Personally I'm unique in switching over to digital overhead usage, and have a standing request to put my classes in rooms outside the usual math wing.)


I hadn't realized that Powerpoint was that prevalent, but I guess it might depend on where you are. Perhaps I am unusual, but as far as I can remember I have never used Powerpoint in a lecture. Sometimes it is useful to demo things on the computer, sometimes I use the old slide projector for pictures that would be difficult to draw, but usually I just write on the board.

So maybe I am a living fossil, useful for teaching today's kids how things were back then when we all lived in a shoebox on the motorway. Example video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtXVe0pDILM

Me, writing on the board

And one from a bigger lecture hall, with multiple boards: https://youtu.be/i7Q3QhBVEpo?t=24m21s

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