why instructional design doesn’t typically work with students, or anyone’s learning for that matter, when you teach with PowerPoint—as well as how you can avoid it. It all begins with a little concept called “cognitive load.”
Cognitive load describes the capacity of our brain’s working memory (or WM) to hold and process new pieces of information. We’ve all got a limited amount of working memory, so when we have to handle information in more than one way, our load gets heavier, and progressively more challenging to manage.
In a classroom, a student’s cognitive load is greatly affected by the “extraneous” nature of information—in other words, the manner by which information is presented to them (Sweller, 2010). Every teacher instinctively knows there are better—and worse—ways to present information.
A study in Australia in the late 1990s (the 1999 Kalyuga study) compared the learning achievement of a group of college students who watched an educator’s presentation involving a visual text element and an audio text element (meaning there were words on a screen while the teacher also talked) with those who only listened to a lecture, minus the pesky PowerPoint slides.
Researchers including John Sweller and Kimberly Leslie contend that it would be easier for students to learn the differences between herbivores and carnivores by closing their eyes and only listening to the teacher. But students who close their eyes during a lecture are likely to to called out for “failing to paying attention.”
Richard Mayer, a brain scientist at UC Santa Barbara and author of the book Multimedia Learning, offers the following prescription: Eliminate textual elements from presentations and instead talk through points, sharing images or graphs with students
a separate Australian investigation by Leslie et al. (2012), suggest that mixing visual cues with auditory explanations (in math and science classrooms, in particular) are essential and effective. In the Leslie study, a group of 4th grade students who knew nothing about magnetism and light learned significantly more when presented with both images and a teacher’s explanation than a separate group which received only auditory explanation.
Limit yourself to one word per slide. If you’re defining words, try putting up the vocabulary word and an associated set of images—then challenge students to deduce the definition.
Honor the “personalization principle,” which essentially says that engaging learners by delivering content in a conversational tone will increase learning. For example, Richard Mayer suggests using lots of “I’s” and “you’s” in your text, as students typically relate better to more informal language.
An article in The Conversation recently argued universities should ban PowerPoint because it makes students stupid and professors boring.
Originally for Macintosh, the company that designed it was bought by Microsoft. After its launch the software was increasingly targeted at business professionals, especially consultants and busy salespeople.
As it turns out, PowerPoint has not empowered academia. The basic problem is that a lecturer isn’t intended to be selling bullet point knowledge to students, rather they should be making the students encounter problems. Such a learning process is slow and arduous, and cannot be summed up neatly. PowerPoint produces stupidity, which is why some, such as American statistician Edward Tufte have said it is “evil”.
Of course, new presentation technologies like Prezi, SlideRocket or Impress add a lot of new features and 3D animation, yet I’d argue they only make things worse. A moot point doesn’t become relevant by moving in mysterious ways. The truth is that PowerPoints actually are hard to follow and if you miss one point you are often lost.
Courses designed around slides therefore propagate the myth that students can become skilled and knowledgeable without working through dozens of books, hundreds of articles and thousands of problems.
A review of research on PowerPoint found that while students liked PowerPoint better than overhead transparencies, PowerPoint did not increase learning or grades
Research comparing teaching based on slides against other methods such as problem-based learning – where students develop knowledge and skills by confronting realistic, challenging problems – predominantly supports alternative methods.
PowerPoint slides are toxic to education for three main reasons:
students come to think of a course as a set of slides. Good teachers who present realistic complexity and ambiguity are criticised for being unclear. Teachers who eschew bullet points for graphical slides are criticised for not providing proper notes.
Slides discourage reasonable expectations
Measuring the wrong things
If slide shows are so bad, why are they so popular?
Exams, term papers and group projects ostensibly measure knowledge or ability. Learning is the change in knowledge and skills and therefore must be measured over time.
When we do attempt to measure learning, the results are not pretty. US researchers found that a third of American undergraduates demonstrated no significant improvement in learning over their four-year degree programs.
They tested students in the beginning, middle and end of their degrees using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, an instrument that tests skills any degree should improve – analytic reasoning, critical thinking, problem solving and writing.
The bigger problem, however, is our mental limitations in both teaching and thinking visually. Most classes that “teach” PowerPoint gloss over the narrative changes that it imposes on us through its transition from a linear textual narrative to a nonlinear visual one. They also fail to examine the information transfer capacities of various media. PowerPoint is software that complements a performance and often fails as a container for information. It needs to be augmented by more persistent visual and textual media. I’ve worked around this by creating websites as a mechanism to gloss my presentation; provide background linkages; and to create a persistent, living complement to what happens live. Slideshare fails to do this because it only gives you half of the presentation, the visual part, which may or may not stand on its own. Part of visual literacy is understanding how visual media complements other media, such as audio and text.
Finally, we need to start embedding design thinking into our processes. Design thinking is, by its very nature, closely tied to the visual.