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The one about sound in PowerPoints: Studies every teacher needs to know

The one about sound in PowerPoints: Studies every teacher needs to know

2 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed
  • Cognitive Load Theory
  • The science of learning

Why this study

It is almost frightening to think how many hours are spent adding sound to PowerPoints. These, done with the aim of making the lesson more fun or more engaging, often include adding background music and sounds. But does adding “bells and whistles” actually improve learning?

To test this, researchers ran a series of studies that taught students about various new concepts, such as the formation of lightning or the operation of hydraulic braking systems. Some of the students received lessons that had background music, some had sounds (i.e. the sound of lightning would play when an image of it appeared on the slide), some had both and some had neither.

Sound in PowerPoints: Studies every teacher needs to know

The main findings

#1 Students who received no background music or sounds were able to recall 76% more than those who had a lesson that had both.

#2 Groups who had lessons that had background music learnt less than those who did not. The latter was able to recall 11% more and did 29% better on subsequent tests.

#3 The results for students who had sounds as part of their lessons were mixed. Sometimes they did better and on others did worse. The authors note that it is how these sounds are used that is key. “The more relevant and integrated sounds are, the more they will help students’ understanding of the materials”.

#4 Students who liked listening to music and background noise did not do any better if their lessons had these. This suggests that there preference do not accurately predict what will help them learn more.

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Related research and classroom implications

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that adding elements into a lesson that are intended to be entertaining, known as ‘seductive details’ actually hinders students’ learning and subsequent performances. This is likely because students will only remember the fun bits and not the important part, as well as overloading their working memory capacity.

This study is a potential huge time saver for any one designing or delivering a lesson that uses a PowerPoint. Just because software offers a range of appealing and enticing animations, their implementation should be treated at best with caution and at most with cynicism. Essentially, the question everyone should ask themselves when creating new material is ‘if it does not enhance learning, is it worth it?’ Unless the answer is a definitive yes, best to probably save yourself the time, effort and energy you would have spent on it.

The authors of the study end on a defiant note by saying teachers “should carefully limit the amount of auditory material in multimedia lessons rather than add auditory materials for reasons of appeal and entertainment”.

This study is from our book, The Science of Learning: 99 studies that every teacher needs to know.

Reference: Moreno and Mayer, 2000, Journal of Educational Psychology

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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