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Updated: Dec 21, 2022

DB Roberts

Probably everyone’s experienced at some time ‘Death by PowerPoint’: a presentation that, rather than engaging your attention, makes you want to run away. Slides packed full of bullet points ‘organizing’ text that appears as a wall of words, and to add insult to injury, the speaker is often duplicating the text. PowerPoint has become a source of ridicule, with Google’s former Research Director, Peter Norvig, declaring it to be more dangerous that a loaded AK47, because it harms more people.

He isn’t alone: a distinguished Professor Emeritus famously declared that ‘power corrupts, and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely’. But behind the satire there’s a serious point: according to recent and ongoing Multimedia Learning (MML) scholarship, we’re pedagogically problematic in at least two ways: we’re overloading lecture slides with text and we’re not using images effectively, if at all. Most of us probably recognize the first issue, but the second is paramount.

We seem to have forgotten the widely-received that a picture paints a thousand words, and that images help us see what people mean. They can be of inestimable value in teaching social sciences. We live in a visual era. Hundreds of millions of images are daily uploaded to the web through an ever-expanding range of visual platforms. People get knowledge and understanding from images long before coming to University. They communicate with images from very early childhood; babies learn from seeing before reading.

This generation of students expects imagery when they enter Higher Education. Marc Prensky calls them ‘digital natives’, representative of a visual turn enabled by digital photography and dissemination across the Internet. They are, but you don;t have to have been born after a certain year to 'get' digitization. Tietje and Cresap argue that academia is ‘marketed overwhelmingly to… young adults [for whom] visual media dominate’ (2005), and that was 10 years ago.

But we’re still eccentrically text-centric, digitally dated and pedagogically pauce. More importantly, we're missing out on a cognitive architecture common to all sighted people. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology tells us about half our brains are given over to visual processing, and 70 years of research in cognitive psychology identifies specific, biologically-inherent channels we all possess that process audio-textual and visual material distinctly. We are ALL visual learners, form the moment we begin to see, and long before we learn to speak, read and write. It is a natural, biological construct to learn visually; text is a socially-constructed, and important, latecomer. It's really important to take this on board: it doesn't matter what we study, who we are, what language we speak or where we live. We all learn through a combination of words and images, but we don't treat the latter as seriously as the brain science says we should.

When we combine images and text, it is referred to as Multimedia Learning, and it is the basis of a substantial tranche of contemporary and historical scientific research. MML is defined as ‘building mental representations from words and pictures’ (Mayer, 2014, p. 2). It revolves around the idea that ‘people can learn more deeply from words and pictures than from words alone’ (2014, p. 1). This MML research tells us to balance the flow, matching how we send to how our students' brains receive: images for eyes, words for ears. It often instinctively feels right. Here's a visual representation of the 'dual processing' concept. The left side of the road represents the audio-textual channel, leading to the brain. The right side of the road represent audio-visual data making its way to the brain. Once there, a more relevant delivery is easier for working memory to handle. This means cognitive load is better balanced and we are able to process the material better - and the result is increased engagement and learning.

It doesn’t mean doing away with text. It means not overloading ears and under-utilizing eyes. If we’re not talking to our students with words and images, we’re not talking to half their brains. The formula is simple, the intellectual context solid. Mayer’s work, underscored by decades of research into cognition and memory, is widely-recognized and published by Cambridge University Press. And beyond the Ivory Towers, others like Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds and Guy Kawasaki are are making leaps and bounds in improving audience engagement with presentations.

We’ve tested the method scientifically using longitudinal randomized control trials and the outcomes are worth noting. You can see the peer-reviewed results in the 'CV and Publications' tab. We're extending testing now to disaggregate engagement into its affective, behavioural and cognitive elements; the raw unpublished data appears below. Across the bottom are the statements we asked the students to consider as they viewed a short recorded online video with text, or text and images. The statements are extracted from the scholarship on engagement. The orange columns represent the reactions of students exposed to MML methods. The blue column represents those int he control group exposed only to text. The research methods have ethical and intellectual approval.

Students were between 40% and 60% more engaged when images were used in conjunction with non-redundant audio-textual material, than with slides with text only. Among students exposed to this method of presenting for a semester, the percentage of coursework ‘firsts’ rose by 33%. Dyslexic students surveyed, unanimously declared a preference for image-text slides over text-centric slides.


It’s clear that we use lecture slides in ways that haven’t kept pace with the world from which our students come. But we also use them in ways that are counter-pedagogical. The good news is that it’s easy to fix: reduce visible text, increase use of apposite images. It isn’t PowerPoint; it’s how we use it.

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