eLearning Technology Blog

Avoiding Junk Food at the PowerPoint Features Buffet

by WSU Online 21. May 2012 08:18

In the late 90’s, Microsoft PowerPoint had well begun its campaign to dominate the world of presentations, but the software was not yet well-known among students at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, where I was teaching a graduate course in the teaching of English literature.  One student supported an important class presentation with PowerPoint slides, offering his classmates their first exposure to the now-ubiquitous presentation tool. 

The students were quite impressed with the colors, the clip art, the transitions and the animations-- the presenter had used every crayon in the box, had sampled every dish on the buffet.  And when the presenter used a “grow-and-turn” transition to bring some text onto the screen, another student turned to me and exclaimed, “I want to learn that!”  

As the evaluator, all I could do was nod and smile at the admiration, but inwardly, my heart sank.

Clearly, the admiring student was referring not to the content of her classmate’s presentation, but to the software.  Clearly, the software had stolen the show, leaving the presenter’s content in the wings. We can’t afford to let our slides’ features distract our students from the content.  Instead our slides should help us “connect with” our students, “direct and hold attention,” and “promote understanding and memory” (Kosslyn, 3). 

Every element included in a presentation slide should support student learning. 

So the question is: how?  How can PPT’s many features be employed so that our students pay attention, understand and engage critically with our material?

Stephen M. Kosslyn, chair of Harvard’s Department of Psychology and a respected researcher in human perception and cognition, has written an entire book to answer the question.  I can refer you to this highly readable, directly applicable discussion, Clear and to the Point:  8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations (Oxford University Press, 2007).  But let me see what I can do to summarize his points here.

Kosslyn assumes that presenters have three main goals: connecting with the audience, directing and holding their attention, and promoting their memory and understanding.   Then he associates these three goals with eight principles derived from current scientific research into how the human mind and human eye focus attention and understanding. 

The Principle of Relevance:  “Communication is most effective when neither too much nor too little detail is presented” (4).

As human beings encounter information, we unconsciously try to organize it into structures, such as narratives.  As we do this, a plethora of details can overwhelm our efforts to organize them into a framework.  Conversely, insufficient details also frustrate this effort in leaving us without enough information to build a meaningful structure.  Don’t miss the forest for the trees; be judicious about details.  Know what the important or real purpose of your presentation is and then pare away unrelated details.

Do’s and Don’ts

·         Perhaps you’ve heard a rule of thumb saying, “Don’t use too many words on a slide.”  Examine the details on those wordy slides or multi-slide segments of your presentation with this question in mind: “what is my main message, and does this detail support it?

·         Use the “fade” animation: when presenting a bullet list, first present all the bullets for the audience to review, then partially fade all the bullets but the one you’re speaking about. 

·         Use bullets only for topic sentences; keep them brief.

The Principle of Appropriate Knowledge: “Communication requires prior knowledge of pertinent concepts, jargon, and symbols.” (5)

Again, as human beings unconsciously work to organize new information into structures, they build these structures on a foundation of information they already know.  Understand what your audience does and does not know, and choose the appropriate language, concepts, and symbols.  

Do’s and Don’ts

·         Build your audience’s understanding of new concepts through analogies to known concepts.

·         Analogies can be visual as well as verbal: use graphics that communicate the similarities between known concepts and new ones. 

The Principle of Salience:  “Attention is drawn to large perceptible differences.”  (7)

Humans have a built-in attention reflex.  Our attention shifts to whatever stands out significantly; if something is larger or darker than what surrounds it, or if it moves when other details of its surroundings are still, our brain can’t help but pay attention to it.

Do’s and Don’ts

·         Use devices of emphasis, such as bold, italics or change in color, only to call attention to something new. 

·         Use animations and transitions judiciously and, again, only to direct your students’ attention. 

·         Animations and transitions, both involving motion, ideally are used when motion itself is part of the teaching content. 

·         Draw attention to slide titles by making them different in size and color from the slide content.                

Principle of Discriminability:  “Two properties must differ by a large enough proportion or they will not be distinguished.”  (7)

This principle is rooted in the way neurons in our brain fire.  Strong contrasts, such as the edge of a black capital B on a white paper, provokes different neuron activity than a baby blue capital letter B on a lighter blue paper.  Significant contrast is essential.

Do’s and Don’ts

·         Use visually simple, easy-to-read fonts.

·         Don’t change fonts in a presentation, and don’t mix serif and san serif fonts.

·         Avoid busy background on slides; these make the text difficult to read.

·         Don’t limit your options by using all capital letters, all bold, or all italics; save those tools for emphasis.

·         If you choose designs or colors for the bars in a bar chart or sections in a pie chart, make sure the  designs or colors are sufficiently distinct so your audience can see differences.

The Principle of Perceptual Organization:  “People automatically group elements into units, which they then attend to and remember.”  (7)

The scientific research into human processes of perception has resulted in a complex understanding of this principle.  Kosslyn identifies the laws by which humans group visual items: proximity, similarity, continuation, common direction, and common form.  He identifies characteristics of our “input channels,” such as the tendency to pay attention to details of an object when it is close but not when it is distant.   Finally, he defines limitations of perception, characteristics of an object that our visual perceptions integrate or don’t integrate, and aspects of our perception capability that are imprecise.   There are many implications of the Principle of Perceptual Organization for PowerPoint slide design.

Do’s and Don’ts

·         When creating charts, graphs and tables, take care to associate labels with their elements.

·         If a graph or a chart is complex, consider showing gridlines to make it easier to read. 

The Principle of Compatibility: “A message is easiest to understand if its form is compatible with its meaning.” (9)

Again, this principle is complex and also can be applied to many aspects of PPT slide design.  First, we have trouble when the form and the content are at odds, such as difficulty identifying blue as the color of text when the text reads “red.”   Second, more is more: we expect wider or taller bars on a graph to represent greater quantities.  Third, the form used to communicate a message should consistent with cultural conventions: donkey images representing Democrats and elephant images representing Republicans, not vice versa.  Finally, design decisions should take account of human perceptual distortions: horizontal lines appear shorter to us than vertical lines, for example. 

Do’s and Don’ts

·         Make sure that what you are speaking of is related to the current slide.

·         Avoid special icons for bullets unless they are clearly relevant to the content. 

The Principle of Informative Changes: “People expect changes in properties to carry information. “ (10)            

Unlike the two previous principles, this one is very straightforward:  a change in form, such as color, shape, or size, is perceived by the human mind to signal a change in content, such as class, quality, or characteristics.

Do’s and Don’ts

·         Use the same master slide design in all the slides in a single presentation, or shift design slightly (such as changing tones of background color) only when moving to a new unit of content. 

·         Avoid extreme motion capabilities, such as blinking on and off, choosing more subtle tools of emphasis.

·         Use different colors of font only to indicate differences in meaning. 

The Principle of Capacity Limitations:  “People have a limited capacity to retain and to process information and will not understand a message if too much information must be retained or processed. “(11)

The human mind has inherent memory limitations.  Short term memory can hold about four units (chunks) at a time.   Hierarchical organization can exploit this limitation, as can effective use of the positions of beginning and endings, and building by analogy on already-knowns.  Long-term memory retention is increased by asking the audience to engage in active critical thinking about a concept, or by exploiting multiple memory categories, such as visual and aural, when communicating. 

Do’s and Don’ts

·         Show no more than four items in a bulleted list.

·         Use no more than two lines for each bulleted item

·         Include introduction and summary slides in each presentation, and also to open and close significant units of a complex presentation. 

Check out these handy tips in a quick PDF format: PPT Tips.pdf (300.69 kb)


Charmaine Wellington

Putting Lectures Online: Beware of PowerPoint Phluff

by WSU Online 2. May 2012 16:36

In my previous blog, I promised to explore cognitive science research findings that can be applied to instructors’ design and use of the ubiquitous presentation software, Microsoft’s PowerPoint.  The WSU Online instructional design team was recently surprised to hear that over 100 online instructors each semester are adding new narrated PowerPoint files to move their standard face-to-face lectures online.   If narrated PowerPoint lectures are a significant element of our online courses, as they seem to be, we eLearning Consultants want to make sure we have mastered the scientific research about the visual element of these lectures, the PowerPoint slide itself. 

Edward R. Tufte, whose publications on information design have earned him a distinguished reputation among statisticians and information design scientists, has also authored a critique of PowerPoint.  The title itself suggests his conclusions:  The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within (Cheshire, Conn,: Graphics Press, 2006, 2nd ed.)   Tufte argues that, by conforming analytical information to the template, format and features of PowerPoint, a teacher undermines, rather than enhances, the student’s analytical engagement with the actual content.   Says Tufte, PowerPoint evinces “a distinctive cognitive style that reduces the intellectual level of the content passing through the program.” (4) 

Readers of The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint soon discover why Tufte is so adamant.  Tufte, along with such notables as Richard Feynman, explored the communication gap between the Thiokol engineers and the NASA managers that led to the disastrous explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger shortly after take-off on January 28, 1986.  Tufte has also famously published a critique of a key PowerPoint slide in Boeing engineers’ presentation to NASA managers regarding thermal foam debris that broke off and hit the outer shell of Space Shuttle Columbia in January, 2003.  Because of weaknesses in the Boeing engineers’ PowerPoint-structured slide, he argues, NASA did not act to inspect and repair damage to the spacecraft’s hull, a failure that led inevitably to Space Shuttle Columbia’s ignition upon re-entry into the atmosphere.  

Tufte argues that the hierarchical style of bullet points followed by sub-bullets, followed by sub-sub-bullets, and so on in fact obscures, rather than elucidates, the relationship between facts.  True?  And if so, how do his arguments apply to teaching?

Let’s look at a contrast Tufte sets up between, on one hand, PowerPoint’s cognitive style, so like both computer programming and marketing rhetoric and, on the other hand, the cognitive style of a well-designed table of experimental data, necessitating the critical engagement characteristic of good teaching/learning: 

PowerPoint Cognitive Style

Experimental Data in Table Form

Sequential presentation

Factual data, rather than summary


Relational thinking required: drawing connections

One short line at a time

Analytical thinking: i.e. inferring, generalizing

Slogan-like phrases

Timing is open-ended: as long as discussion requires

Fast paced


Advocacy rather than analysis



In the case of the Space Shuttle Columbia, PowerPoint kills.  Students, too, may die a slow death (speaking of the intellect) by PowerPoint poisoning. 

Is there an antidote?  Tufte prescribes awareness of and resistance to the cognitive style implicit in PowerPoint slide presentation:  “formats, sequencing, and cognitive approach should be decided by the character of the content and what is to be explained, not by the limitations of the presentation technology” (4).  

In other words, academic presenters should resist PowerPoint’s seductive format of bulleted points and clip art.  Instead, effective teachers should compose visual materials that reiterate and reinforce the intellectual content of their lecture, and include nothing else.  In designing visual materials to support a lecture, the effective teacher should ask: What aural content requires visual reinforcement?   How can I best provide that reinforcement?  Will specific imagery or graphics, rather than textual elements, elucidate specific content?   Should I provide visual materials, such as tables, and then in my lecture enact the critical thinking process, rather than presenting my summary conclusions?  What in my materials is irrelevant to my teaching goals?  In sum, is this PowerPoint slide element necessary?

Think Outside the Slide

Need help figuring out how best to use PPT in general, or how to break away from PPT?  WSU Online’s eLearning Consultants are here to help. It’s just one area of expertise available to WSU instructors. 

Charmaine Wellington

Tufte, Edward R.  The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within.  2.  Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press LLC, 2006.  Print.

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