The Cognitive Science of Powerpoint (Pedagogy)


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How should teachers re-engineer their Powerpoint slides to support learning?

A minority of schools stipulate a Powerpoint format all their teaching staff have to work from. Whether staff report a reduction in workload, improved autonomy or better exam results, we don’t really know.

The cognitive science of PowerPoint

I have evidence on my hard drive of using PowerPoint teaching in my classroom dating back to 2003; it was never imposed. However, what if a school leadership team offered a research-informed approach to teaching-by-Powerpoint, is there scope for schools to adjust their whole-school [whiteboard] pedagogy?

In an 8-page paper published by the University of Manitoba, The Cognitive Science of PowerPoint (Paul and Cicek, 2021) discuss cognitive load theory and its significance for the classroom.

“The paper aims to be a ‘Why-to’ as well as a ‘How-to’ guide for improving visual pedagogical aids” in an engineering classroom.

If we place the using PowerPoint in our classrooms to one side, there are opportunities for teachers to think carefully about how curriculum sequencing and lesson resources can support teaching and learning.

Cognitive load by slide design

This research provides an overview of cognitive apprenticeship, cognitive load theory, dual coding, gestalt principles and constructivism; example diagrams are provided to explain how information is processed. The researchers offer relevant theories to demonstrate how a teacher can reduce cognitive load created by poor slide design.

Two examples are provided:

There is no need to add unintended complexity through slide design (Paul and Cicek, 2021).

The researchers make reference to Make It Stick (Brown, Roediger and McDaniel, 2014) and highlight the learning must be desirably difficult to initiate effective learning. The teachers goal should not be to eliminate necessary cognitive load but “to eliminate unnecessary cognitive load.”

Testing theories by Powerpoint

The researchers in this paper introduce theories that addresses a specific aspect of cognitive load, highlighting how application makes a difference to each slide.

Cognitive apprenticeship is first considered, where the teacher (expert) supports the student (novice) to move from novice to expert in their ability. The challenge for teachers to consider (who are developing the course material) is to be aware of their (own) intrinsic competency.

Meaning, a teacher with the established subject knowledge, “their slide is cognitively simple, however, to the student, the slide may have numerous chunks of information, and it may be cognitively overwhelming.”

One image (figure 4) was introduced at the start of every lecture, supported with animation to “highlight which phase of the model” would be developed. Fewer than 20 per cent of students could recreate this model. The second slide (figure 5) “reduces the cognitive load on the novice as it includes less unfamiliar or new information.”

Some teachers will find the use of a graphic organisers are useful way of presenting information.

Dual Coding and Gestalt Principles

The phonological loop and the visuospatial sketchpad are also presented as methods used to support cognitive overload. First, the researchers recommend that you should use images and text which are “directly related to reinforcing the message.”

The Gestalt Principles are also referenced. Gestalt meaning ‘configuration’ or ‘pattern’, first hypothesised to highlight perception.

I’m sure like me, you can remember a time when you first started to use PowerPoint: One would add animations, sound effects and GIFs to make the presentation ‘more snazzy’. How foolish we all were! I can already see how I have adopted the way I work on PowerPoint in the last 10 years. Just take a look at the slides below that I use on my teacher training travels comparing one slide from 2016 to 2021.

The ‘human icon slide’ I have created for this blog post to demonstrate how I may have/have not used Gestalt theory in my slide organisation.

What should teachers consider?

  1. You should avoid text heavy slides where the [teacher] read the bullet points out loud.
  2. Written text and speaking voice use the same phonological loop; when both are active cognitive load ensues
  3. Use Gestalt principles to group visual objects of similar characteristic; colour, size etc – “This grouping reduces cognitive load.”
  4. Unguided discovery can place a high cognitive load on a student (constructivist theory). Instead, a teacher must guide this discovery.

Poor designed slides can lead to low engagement. However, students are learning new material most of the time and therefore are placed under high cognitive load and are required to use their working memory.

The research recommends that teachers need to:

  1. Understand the expert-novice divide
  2. Use dual coding to ensure working memory is not overloaded
  3. Organise information [Gestalt theory] in groups by colours, size, shape, proximity etc. Although information may be larger on one slide, it can be grouped into smaller chunks.
  4. Use slides to encourage guided discovery. “All knowledge and learning is independently experienced and created based on one’s own existing knowledge.” Using a slide to pose a reflective question will help students connect new information with their own existing schema.

A Four-Pronged Powerpoint-Pedagogy approach?

Reading this paper, I’d be happy to promote a set of Powerpoint templates that teachers should use, coupled with training teachers on ‘how to’ apply these 4 recommendations in their classroom. Perhaps a ‘one-size-fits-all’ isn’t the right term to use. Instead, we need a ‘four-pronged Powerpoint-pedagogical’ approach.

It may not sound as popular, but it’s more likely to reduce teacher workload, drive teacher-autonomy and raise standards in the classroom. Amen to that!

Applying cognitive load and working memory to classroom slides can reduce the unintended complexity of presentation, and thus, enhance student learning and engagement (Paul and Cicek, 2021).


One thought on “The Cognitive Science of Powerpoint (Pedagogy)

  1. Thank you so much for your post. I find your points helpful. We as teachers, are trying to do our best in the classroom. However, we still need to improve our practice. Simple PowerPoints with proper information can be useful than complex ones. I had the same thoughts regarding students’ achievement by developing more complex slides. PowerPoints as resource is useful but it needs to be used properly. Your points related to unnecessary cognitive load were amazing. Thank you again.

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