Three ways in which the science of learning can help
Since the launch of PowerPoint in 1987, it has been a significant part of our lives. During the last 25 years, PowerPoint has also found its way into educational contexts and is now widely used as a presentation tool in the classroom along with the likes of Prezi. In an interview with one of the creators, Gaskins, he noted that PowerPoint was at one stage considered a primary catalyst in the decision to buy a Windows 3.0 machine. How then did the very same software end up as the subject of the popular phrase “death by PowerPoint?”
In an evolution of the original idea of A. E. Housman the phrase, some people use PowerPoint like a drunk uses a lamppost – for support rather than illumination, is an apt reflection on how presentations, in general, are missing the point. In an educational context, it is especially important that learning is enhanced or illuminated by the presentation and not stifled by it. From the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology, we can learn some valuable lessons in using presentations to enhance learning in the classroom.
Respect the limits of working memory
According to Miller’s Law, our working memory is determined by the “magical number seven, plus or minus two.” In other words, students are generally able to absorb seven to nine new pieces of information into their working memories. Good educational presentations will keep this in mind and not overload students’ working memories with slides that are filled with large amounts of new information. In preparing a presentation that functions within the limitations of working memory, rather present the information in smaller chunks that include material which relates to each other.
Understand the importance of attention
From the sciences of learning, and especially the work concerning the process of memory and consolidation, we know that attention is critical for effective learning. The working memory discussed above will not even be a relevant factor if students do not pay attention to what is being presented. Luckily presentation software offers a multitude of tools to help grab the attention of students. An uncomfortable truth is that despite the ease of use that presentation software offers, good educational presentations require a lot of time and hard work to be effective. The tools available in enhancing the attention-grabbing potential of your presentation, need to be used effectively and simply adding “appearing” and “disappearing” text does not equate to a successful and effective presentation.
Provide a visually appealing presentation, not a visual overload
We tend to think that a random colourful stock picture thrown into the mix will result in a fantastic presentation. This cannot be further from the truth as visual media can just as easily distract from learning as it can enhance it. When using pictures and video, we want to enhance the process of learning and therefore the media must support the aim of the information being presented. When media is used in a way that does not fit with the information being presented, it is distracting. When students are distracted they may struggle to focus their attention on the desired aspects of what is being presented and therefore have less effective learning experiences. As Weinstein and Sumeracki report, it is possible that our understanding of visual stimulation in students stems from an overcorrection on the theory that sensory deprivation leads to decreased learning.
Presentations in an educational context need not be “death by PowerPoint” or a similarly damning situation. With a good grasp of the fundamentals of how students learn, presentations will change from a supporting function for the educator to an illuminating function in the learning journey of students.
Would you like to learn more on the use of PowerPoint in an educational context? Speak to the Professional Development team at ITSI and find out how you can re-imagine your presentations for the 21st-century classroom.
 Miller, G.A., 1956, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, in Psychological Review 63(2), 81-97.
Nicolas Matthee is an educational researcher at ITSI. His work focuses on Cognitive Psychology, Educational Neuroscience, and Pedagogy. He further specialises as a Ritual Studies specialist with a focus on Ritual, Liturgical and Thanatological Studies and how they relate to different technologies and cyber contexts.
He is a research associate at the Department of Practical Theology at the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Pretoria. Non-academic related expertise includes game and 3D graphics development for computer and mobile environments.