Tip #259: Bullet Points and PowerPoint Design

In his article: The Cognitive Load of PowerPoint: Q&A with Richard E. Mayer,” “Cliff Atkinson poses two questions which I have combined for our discussion purposes:

“The use of bullet points in PowerPoint presentations has been widely criticized. Based on your research, what effect does on-screen text have on learning- and what are the characteristics of a PowerPoint that is compatible with the way people learn from words and pictures?”

I have adapted the following from Richard Mayer’s responses to both questions:

“Bullets don’t kill learning, but improper use of bullets kills learning. In order to create effective PowerPoint presentations, it is important to understand how people learn. In particular, cognitive scientists have discovered three important features of the human information processing system that are particularly relevant for PowerPoint users:

1. Dual-channels: people have separate information processing channels for visual material and verbal material.

PowerPoint design should take advantage of the dual-channel structure of the human information processing system by presenting complementary material in words and pictures. In presenting a graph, for example, it is useful to have labels on the slide pointing out the main points.

2. Limited capacity: people can pay attention to only a few pieces of information in each channel at a time.

PowerPoint design should take into consideration the limited capacity of the information processing channels, by minimizing the chances of overloading the cognitive system. One technique is to eliminate extraneous material. Thus, a bar graph should not be presented with three-dimensional bars and lots of cute, but irrelevant, clip art.

3. Active processing: people understand the presented material when they pay attention to the relevant material, organize it into a coherent mental structure, and integrate it with their prior knowledge.

PowerPoint design should promote active cognitive processing, by guiding the processes of selecting, organizing, and integrating information. For example, arrows can help highlight the main things that the audience should attend to, an outline can help people organize the material, and concrete examples- perhaps as video clips- can help people relate abstract concepts to their concrete experience.

The implications are that:

1. PowerPoint presentations should use both visual and verbal forms of presentation;

2. filling the slides with information will easily overload people’s cognitive systems; and

3. the presentations should help learners select, organize and integrate presented information.

Next week, we will discuss my recent insight on learning versus training.

This week, we look at the difference when we focus on learning rather than training.

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