Have you experienced death by PowerPoint? Have you been in the middle of a lecture when you gaze across the room and, instead of seeing bright-eyed students taking notes, you see blank expressions of confusion?
By gaining a little background knowledge on how the brain learns from words and pictures, and by applying tips from the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning1-7 you can avoid death by PowerPoint and foster a more engaging learning experience for your students.
Your brain treats pictures and words differently.
Your brain tackles pictures and words using different regions. Your eyes take visual information and send it to your visual cortex in your occipital lobe at the back of your brain. Your ears send verbally- presented information to your auditory cortex in your temporal lobe, on the side of your head. Words then go on to language processing regions, such as Wernicke’s area, located between the auditory cortex and the visual cortex 8. All of this information eventually makes it to the frontal lobes where complex learning and thinking take place.
Your brain also contains somatosensory cortices responsible for processing information via taste, touch, and smell, but we will assume these sensory modalities are not in play for most of our classes. (Students after all rarely learn by tasting our lectures.)
So, in the case of a classroom lecture accompanied by PowerPoint, students will utilize their eyes to see and process images/pictures on your slides and at the same time employ their ears to hear what we are saying (as opposed to reading long PowerPoint text or instructions).
Your cognitive system has a limited capacity.
Breaking news: Students have a limited attention span. I know, my fellow instructors are probably not shocked by that. How often do your students remember 100% of class material? Likely, never. Since the brain processes words and pictures separately, packing your slides with long sentences from top to bottom and speaking while your students are trying to read will set up your students for failure.
Their brains can only handle so much information at a time 9-10. When designing presentations, consider this limited processing capacity to avoid overloading students. Cognitive overload occurs when students are presented with more information than they can attend to at a given time, resulting in poor learning outcomes.
Aim for presenting a few pieces of information at a time, for example, your slide might focus on a simple bullet point, such as one word or one piece of information 5-9. Keep in mind that you have more knowledge than your students do and that one piece of information to you may be several new pieces to comprehend for your students. A well-designed presentation should account for limited cognitive capacity. When longer, more complex bullet points are necessary to fully explain a concept try to keep them to several words and no more than six points.
Stimulate cognitive engagement.
Learning does not mean just passively taking in information. In order for students to learn, they need to be cognitively active and make sense of the soon-to-be-learned material. They must select relevant words and pictures, organize them, and then integrate them with other pieces of information, including what they already know 1-7. By presenting your material in a clear, organized way that uses words and pictures effectively and accounts for limited cognitive capacity, you will help your students become better learners.
Place words and pictures near each other.
When you see a picture, it is sent to your occipital lobe and from there it takes one of two pathways in your brain: The “what” pathway (ventral stream) or the “where” pathway (dorsal stream) 11-13.
Ideally, you want your students to see that your images clearly and directly relate to the class topic so that the information takes a ride on the “what” stream for further learning. For example, if you have a PPT slide picture on the lower right corner of a slide and the relevant words on the upper left of the slide, the “where” pathway will be activated. Students will have to expend extra effort to figure out which text is relevant to the image and will be less likely to learn the material.
Keep in mind that these neural pathways are related to how you want to direct your students’ attention to your learning materials. In some cases, the “where” pathway may be very important, such as learning anatomy or how an engine works. The key is to design your learning materials based on which attentional resources are most important for the material you are teaching.
Present words and pictures simultaneously.
Your brain also has a “when” attentional pathway that is sensitive to whether the information is presented simultaneously or successively 13. If your PPT has words and pictures separated, the “when” pathway will be activated and students will struggle to make sense of how the words and pictures are related. This unnecessarily taxes the brain’s limited cognitive resources.
By presenting words and pictures together, the brain immediately begins to make sense of how they are linked. If you separate words and pictures by 30 seconds, students must remember the words for that duration, wait for the picture, and then try to make a connection. To foster more meaningful learning, present words, and pictures together.
Exclude extraneous material.
We all love pictures of puppies and kittens, but unless you are teaching in a veterinary tech program, keep them out of your slides. Irreverent pictures, quotes, sounds, words, and cartoons can be fun, but detrimental to your goal.
Research actually shows that adding these extra images causes students to learn less, not more 1-7. You have a hot, emotional brain network involving your limbic system that responds quickly and can quickly overpower your cold, cognitive network, which is required for meaningful learning. Presenting emotional distractors, those cute kitten and puppy memes disrupt the cognitive network and activates the emotional network 14. The presence of heartwarming or funny, but irrelevant, the information will impair your students’ ability to learn the material. To ensure that your students are learning what you want them to learn, exclude extraneous words and pictures on focus on the core elements of your lesson material.
Pictures + Verbal Discussions are better than Pictures + Printed Words
Printed words and pictures both go to the visual cortex for immediate processing, whereas spoken words or verbal discussions go straight from the auditory cortex to the brain’s language processing centers. Combining printed words and pictures sends two streams of information to the same place, taxing the brain to process both at the same time. Separating the two streams of incoming information will expand students’ cognitive capacity.
To maximize this separation, be sure not to speak while your students are trying to read from your slides. Your brain’s language processing centers overload when attempting to simultaneously process information from two sources (images and verbal discussions), resulting in impaired learning. They can only process one source of verbal information at a time: either what they hear you say or what they read on the slides. When possible, opt to show your students a visual image and then, after a brief pause, discuss or describe the image in class.
Teaching with these principles requires careful planning but it can help maximize your time with your students and lead to significant gains in improved student learning. The ideal PowerPoint slides also depend on the learning environment.
- Face-to-Face Classes - slides should have minimal text and the words should be located nearby relevant images.
- Online Classes - students in this learning environment do not have the benefit of you directly speaking to them. As a result, slides for this type of class can contain more text because they will not have competing verbal information.
Stick to the principles above and you can avoid death by PowerPoint and provide your students with a rich learning experience.
1 Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. John Wiley & Sons.
2 Mayer, R. E. (2002). Multimedia learning. In Psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 41, pp. 85- 139). Academic Press.
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5 Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning (2nd ed). New York: Cambridge University Press.
6 Mayer, R. E. (2011). Applying the science of learning. Boston: Pearson.
7 Mayer, R. E. (2017). Using multimedia for e‐learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 33(5), 403-423.
8 Vigneau, M., Beaucousin, V., Herve, P. Y., Duffau, H., Crivello, F., Houde, O., ... & Tzourio-Mazoyer, N. (2006). Meta-analyzing left hemisphere language areas: phonology, semantics, and sentence processing. Neuroimage, 30(4), 1414-1432.
9 Finc, K., Bonna, K., Lewandowska, M., Wolak, T., Nikadon, J., Dreszer, J., ... & Kühn, S. (2017). Transition of the functional brain network related to increasing cognitive demands. Human brain mapping, 38(7), 3659-3674.
10 Hearne, L. J., Cocchi, L., Zalesky, A., & Mattingley, J. B. (2017). Reconfiguration of Brain Network Architectures between Resting-State and Complexity-Dependent Cognitive Reasoning. Journal of Neuroscience, 37(35), 8399-8411.
11 Milner, A. D. & Goodale, M.A. (1995). The Visual Brain in Action. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 248 pp. (paperback 1996).
12 Santangelo, V. (2018). Large-scale brain networks supporting divided attention across spatial locations and sensory modalities. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 12, 8.
13 Battelli, L., Pascual-Leone, A., & Cavanagh, P. (2007). The ‘when’ pathway of the right parietal lobe. Trends in cognitive sciences, 11(5), 204-210.
14 Dolcos, F., Kragel, P., Wang, L., & McCarthy, G. (2006). Role of the inferior frontal cortex in coping with distracting emotions. Neuroreport, 17(15), 1591-1594.
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