Boosting the Power of Presentations to Enhance Learning

Think about the many PowerPoint presentations you have sat through. Add the PowerPoint presentations that you yourself have given. I am pretty sure the total is quite high. Now try and remember the most recent presentation you attended—and the key concepts that were presented. In most cases, you may remember the topic . . . if that. I doubt that you remember much else. I know that has often been my experience. But why?

Unfortunately, the slide decks we create with presentation software (Microsoft PowerPoint, Apple Keynote, Google Slides, Prezi, and more) are too often driven by the features of these software tools as well as our excitement of sharing the content instead of focusing on the principles of how individuals learn new concepts. Yes, there may be some overlap between features, content, and the enhancement of learning. But I am sure that it is safe to say that most presentations would be improved by a deeper focus on the principles of how individuals learn.

So what principles of learning are essential to consider when designing presentations?

Research shows that our working memory can only hold 3−5 chunks of new information at a time and only for a limited duration (approximately 30 seconds. In order for those chunks to move into long-term memory, the content needs to be processed. Based on Cognitive Load Theory, those who are designing instruction must find ways to remove extraneous information, limit the number and duration of new concepts given at one time, and find ways to attach those new concepts to existing knowledge in long-term memory so that more complex concepts can be developed.

What does that mean for our presentations? First, remove any images, design elements, animation, text, and other information that are not absolutely necessary for understanding the new concepts. Secondly, make sure to have participants “do” something with the new concepts to process the concepts into long-term memory. The cognitive load should remain at no greater than 3 concepts at a time. Also, remember to chunk information together. If you can chunk a new idea with an existing one, you have a greater chance of it moving from working memory into long-term memory.

Nelson, Reed, and Walling discovered that pictures were retained better than just words. For example if I use the word “dog” on my slide, the symbolic representation of the concept of a dog would be understood by many. However if I use an image of a dog, such as this picture of my dog Epona, the image accesses deeper meaning for most participants and is more easily recalled than words which need to be “translated” from the alphabetic symbols to the concept they represent. In addition, pictures are more perceptually unique than words, thus they stand out on slides from other images better than words do from other words.

What does this mean for our presentations? Whenever you can, use images or diagrams instead of words. Make sure those images are meaningful for your content and they represent what you are trying to convey. Try to avoid clip art and instead use actual photographs. Even better if they are photographs that you have taken. This is especially true if the image is of your cute little pup! The SmartArt tool in PowerPoint is a great feature that supports this principle because it allows you to easily create diagrams to convey concepts with minimal words.

How many times have you gone to a presentation and experienced something like this: The presenter is speaking about something you really want to hear, while a significant amount of text is also shown on the slide. Your eyes go to the screen to read the text, but you also want to hear the presenter. You read some, then you listen some, then you read some. You think you are multitasking, but actually your brain cannot multitask cognitive tasks. Instead, your brain is “task switching” rapidly. And that “task switching” is expensive to your brain’s function. According to psychological research on this phenomenon, this switching takes longer than if the two tasks were done separately and there is a greater chance for errors.

What does this mean for our presentations? Remember that slide decks are not ideal for text. Use text bullets with a limited number of words if you must use text. Otherwise, use diagrams, and images to convey ideas instead of writing a paragraph. If you have text that you need participants to read for some reason, pause and give them time to read. Model reading to yourself while you are waiting. Then begin speaking. Provide information that you want participants to have for further reading in a handout or a web link.

Well, there are my three new concepts for your working memory. Now it is your turn to process the new information and move it to your long-term memory. Think about the three principles we just reviewed. Which of them will most affect the next slide deck presentation you need to develop and why? How will you make sure that your presentations enhance learning?

Lara EnglishHill


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