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4 tips for better PowerPoints in the classroom

4 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory
  • The science of learning

Big changes have occurred in the classroom over the past 20 years. None arguably more so than the shift away from traditional chalkboards (or even whiteboards) to the use of Microsoft PowerPoint.

As with all technology, there are always pros and cons. But do PowerPoint presentations actually help learning? What are the common mistakes often made? And what does the research suggest are the most effective ways to use it? We dove into the research to find four great ways to use PowerPoints effectively and support your students’ learning…

4 tips for better PowerPoints in the classroom

1. Give students copies of the PowerPoint slides

An interesting research paper looked to investigate whether giving students printed copies of the PowerPoint slides that they could write on and annotate would have an impact on learning. The researchers found that this option offered students a more efficient way of learning.

It meant that they could spend more time listening to what the teacher was saying whilst summarising the key points in their own words. Having the opportunity to engage more deeply with the material helps them make create more connections in their brain, strengthening their memory of the topic.

2. Avoid excessive animations

It’s tempting to spend a lot of time jazzing up your PowerPoint slides by adding sounds, background music, animations, etc. in the hope that it will make your lesson more appealing and entertaining for your students.

However, as stated by Cognitive Load Theory, the brain can only process a certain amount of the information at the same time. One study found that adding unnecessary or irrelevant stimuli takes up some of the available space that could otherwise be filled with valuable content.

The authors of this study set up a series of experiments to find out whether all the “extras” actually help improve learning, and they found that students recalled 76% more information when their lesson had no background music or sounds compared to when they had both.

Students who had lessons that had background music learnt less than those who did not. The former were able to recall 11% more and performed 29% better on subsequent tests.

The results for students who had sounds as part of their lessons were mixed. Sometimes they did better, and sometimes they did worse. The authors note that the key was how these sounds were used, as “the more relevant and integrated the sounds are, the more they will help students’ understanding of the materials”. Another interesting point is that students who liked listening to music and background noise did not do any better if their lessons had these. This suggests that their preferences do not accurately predict what will help them learn more.

This study is a potential huge time saver for anyone designing or delivering a lesson that uses a PowerPoint. Software may offer a range of appealing and enticing animations, but their implementation should be treated with caution. Essentially, the question to ask yourself when creating new material is: If it does not enhance learning, is it worth it? Unless the answer is a definitive yes, it is probably best to save yourself the time, effort and energy you would have spent on it. Not only does it appear that less is more, but on many occasions, silence is in fact golden.

Maximise your students’ learning efficiency with Cognitive Load Theory training for your school staff.

3. Segment your material

Research has shown that students experience enhanced learning when teachers do not include too much information on one slide, but instead break their presentations down into bite-sized segments. Students need time to select the relevant words and images they need to process to access the information they’re supposed to learn. If teachers don’t present bite-sized segments and instead offer students new information before they have finished fully processing the previous set, they may struggle to transfer the content to their long-term memory.

4. Don’t read every word on your slide aloud

Both showing PowerPoint slides and reading aloud the text written on them at the same time may cognitively overload your students. This is because simultaneously presenting the same information in two different forms can ask too much of your students’ working memories, as they are required to listen and read at the same time. Therefore, to avoid creating this cognitive overload, teachers should privilege either reading the text aloud without presenting the slide or allowing students to read and process the slide independently, rather than trying to do both themselves. This is also known as the Split Attention Effect.

Final thoughts

PowerPoints can be an effective method for educators to use to aid their teaching and improve learning in the classroom – if they are integrated well, that is.

To do so, we advise teachers to:

  • Give students the opportunity to annotate copies of their slides as they go along
  • Avoid distracting them with irrelevant stimuli such as music or animations (except when necessary, of course)
  • Break down the information on their slides into bite-sized chunks
  • Avoid reading the content written on them aloud before students have had a chance to process it
  • Check out our Cognitive Load Theory CPD workshop

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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