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This is one of a number of posts exploring multimedia learning. I have been reading research on this topic with an eye toward improving my presentations and other multimedia instructional material. Here are earlier posts in order of creation:

In my previous post, I  outlined Clark and Lyons’ categorization of the communication roles of graphics in their book Graphics for Learning:

This graphic activates prior knowledge for those who read the earlier blog post.

Decorative graphics are to be avoided as they don’t support learning and can actually decrease performance. The explanatory graphics help learners construct mental models. All graphics should be aligned with learning objectives.

The authors continue their discussion of graphics by examining their psychological roles in facilitating learning:

  • Support Attention
  • Activate of Build Prior Knowledge
  • Minimize Cognitive Load
  • Build Mental Models
  • Support Learning Transfer
  • Support Motivation

Support Attention

Graphics that support attention help the learner help focus on what is important. The authors draw upon parallels in text: bold, italics, colors, headings, bullets, etc. as examples of effective in directing attention. Such cues, in text or graphics, are particularly effective when the material is more complex. Their suggestions come down to two of Mayer’s principles:

  • Signaling: “People learn better when cues that highlight the organization of essential material are added.”
  • Contiguity: “Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.”

There are many ways to support users using signaling in graphics including placement on the page, color, contrast, and graphic elements such as circles or arrows.

This graphic signals important content in three ways: It dims extraneous content, enlarges the relevant material and uses a red circle to highlight a specific element.

Contiguity makes it easier for learners to focus on important material because it puts text close to the graphic:

The top triangle graphic applies the principle of contiguity

Call outs are another example of applying contiguity to a graphic.

This image demonstrates use of callouts that apply the contiguity principle (Credit NASA)

Finally the authors re-emphasize the importance of eliminating decorative graphics and advise caution with animations.

Activate or Build Prior Knowledge

People learn better if they can relate new content to their existing knowledge. Learning outcomes are improved when we activate prior knowledge. Those without significant prior knowledge can benefit from building background knowledge that applies to the content to be learned.

One way to activate or build prior knowledge is to provide an advanced organizer for the lesson. An advanced organizer gives the learner an overview of what they will be learning making it easier to integrate the details that follow.

The first graphic in this blog post activates prior knowledge for those who read my previous blogpost by reviewing the communication role of graphics–information that appears again in this posts and is related to the new content. A lesson that develops the ideas of a food web or trophic levels (i.e. primary and secondary consumers) would benefit learners by activating their prior knowledge about food chains.

This graphic activates knowledge about food chains before learning more complex food webs.

Comparative advanced organizers are recommended for individuals without significant prior knowledge about a topic.

This graphic of a narrowing in a pipe is used to help understand an electronic resistor.

They caution that one should implement graphics that activate appropriate prior knowledge and to avoid graphics that activate the wrong or irrelevant prior knowledge.

Minimize Cognitive Load

Cognitive load can be reduced in many cases by simply using graphics in place or in addition to text. For instance a photograph of installing RAM is probably has a lighter cognitive load than a verbal description.

Credit: Flickr user lymang

A line diagram could further reduce the cognitive load by excluding extraneous visual content. A line drawing is simpler than an actual photograph; hence, reducing cognitive load.


Build Mental Models

Graphics that help learners build mental models brings us back to the beginning of this post and to the material of my previous discussion about the communicative role of graphics. Explanatory graphics, organizational, relational, transformational, and interpretive, better support building mental models than decorative, representative, and mnemonic graphics.

Graphic organizers like that found at the beginning of this post are found to be more effective in promoting learning than text, even when the text uses signaling such as bold and italics. It has also been demonstrated to be more effective than outlines. Tables and matrices can also  serve as organizational graphics.

Charts and graphs function as relational graphics. The text discusses different kinds of charts and graphs and when each is most effective. That will be the subject of another post in the future.

One interesting point made by the text about transformational graphics. those that show changes over time or space, is that static depictions teach as well as animated ones.

Support Learning Transfer

The author discuss two kinds of transfer: near and far. Ability to preform simple tasks that are done the same way each time are termed near transfer. Those that require the learner to adapt to a unique situation each time to succeed at a task are called far transfer.

Near transfer would apply to simple and routine tasks such as launching a word processor and saving the file. In this case realistic representative graphics are important. In the case of software, a screen capture would serve well. The graphic below depicting changing copyright settings on a Flickr pages is a representative  graphic It also reduces cognitive load by signaling while still providing context which is also valuable in near term transfer.

This graphic illustrates how to find open licensed material using Google's search. In the advance search click Date, usage rights,…

Far transfer success requires building mental models which are best created by explanatory graphics. These graphics can facilitate understanding by making abstract ideas more concrete such as a number line.

They can show a process with a transformational graphic:

Transformational graphic (Credit )

Far transfer is also supported by giving a number of examples in different contexts applying the same skill. Someone wanting to demonstrate the design concept of contrast could provide examples of contrast in color, size, typography, etc.

Support motivation

Motivation varies with learners. Clark and Lyons counsel avoiding graphics that use emotional interest to motivate. They recommend adding cognitive interest by using familiar and easy to understand materials. Graphics that depict relevance is also important. No matter what one’s personal interest materials that are coherent, familiar, and easy to grasp are motivating to all learners.


Again, having learned more about how graphics can better support learning, I have a more critical eye regarding graphics in presentations. As a side product, I have also learned more about learning research in general.

Part of the problem becomes how to create some of these graphics. The explanatory graphics are complex and do not often lend themselves to simple photographs. Clearly, to create quality learning graphics requires the proper tools and techniques. I plan to explore this area in the near future.

It is time to re-examine my presentations and improve them with more effective use of graphics. More importantly, I am increasing my focus on how all all elements–graphics, text, audio, video, etc. support learning objectives. Clark and Lyons go further in exploring effective ways to plan for the use of graphics in learning.

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As I grapple with research trying to improve my instructional presentations, I have learned about Richard Mayer’s assertion that people learn better with words and graphics than just words alone. As a result, I have been investigating information about the role of graphics in learning. One natural extension of the reading that I have done thus far is Graphics for Learning by Clark and Lyons. Ruth Colvin Clark co-authored e-Learning with Richard Mayer.

The authors cite evidence that lessons with graphics that were appealing, yet did not support the learning objectives, hurt performance on tests. Graphics should be included with an eye to the instructional goal. In Graphics for Learning, the authors classify graphics by their communication functions:

  • Decorative
  • Representational
  • Mnemonic
  • Organizational
  • Relational
  • Transformational
  • Interpretive

Decorative graphics are, at best, tangentially related to the learning goals. At worst they have no relation. They may be added for aesthetic reasons or they may be intended to be humorous or motivating. The authors refer to decorative graphics as eye-candy and research shows that they can actually interfere with learning.

Eye candy does nothing to promote learning

Representative graphics are realistic depictions of something related to the learning objectives. Examples given by Clark and Lyons include screen captures or images of equipment.

Representative graphic of Ferdinand and Isabella

Mnemonic images can be used to help learners remember information. The authors regard these as powerful tools.

This depiction of a race car helps learning Morse Code for "R"

The next four types of graphics are referred to as explanatory graphics. They help learners construct mental models. They show relationships more effectively than words alone.

Organizational graphics show qualitative relations between content in a lesson. These would include most mind maps, organizational charts, tree diagrams, etc.

Organizational Graphic

Relational graphics illustrate quantitative relations between variables. Examples of relational graphics include line graphs, bar graphs, pie charts etc. Any graphic output from a spreadsheet program would be relational.

This graphic shows the relationship between 3 variables

Transformational graphics are used to show changes over time or space. These could include flow charts, step by step procedures, timelines, or animated graphics depicting changes. Arrows are a common characteristic in transformational graphics.

Illustration of process of photosynthesis (Credit Wikimedia Commons)

Interpretive Graphics show more abstract constructs such as a theory. They can also include cause and effect models.

Graphic illustrating impact of constant speed of light in Einstein's Theory of Relativity: If speed of light is constant, then time must slow down for the person on cart (Credit Wikimedia Commons)

Now that I have learned these distinctions among graphics, I examine those in my presentations and multimedia in a different way. It is not so important that we sort our graphics into neat categories, but it this serves as a way to think about our use of graphics. Clearly, the decorative graphics are best minimized. While representative graphics support learning, they do not help learners construct mental models as effectively as the four explanatory types.

In Multimedia Learning by Richard Mayer, the author surveyed the function of graphics in math and science texts and found that the overwhelming majority were either decorative or representational. Only a small percentage were explanatory.

We need to examine our work and consider the communication goal our graphics fulfill. I know that I need to find a way to integrate more explanatory graphics. These are more difficult to create than finding a CC licensed image and labeling it. I also wonder if some of the representational graphics that I use truly support my learning objectives. For example, does it matter what Ferdinand and Isabella looked like?

Clark and Lyons go further in exploring research regarding graphics for learning. They also explore the psychological function of graphics. This helps determine how to make our graphics more effective in meeting learning objectives. I plan to explore more of their ideas in future posts. Meanwhile, if you consider their ideas valuable, consider reading more work of their work:

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The animated Chinese timeline shown my previous blog post was a demonstration of a workflow using proprietary software to make a stand alone animated timeline. While viewing the timeline several times, I started examining it through the prism of the research on multimedia learning that I have been reading–particularly that of Richard Mayer.

One learning principle that I have not touched upon earlier posts is segmenting. According to Mayer: “People learn better when a multimedia message is presented in user paced segments rather than as a continuous unit. (Mayer, 2009, p. 275)” The timeline in its nature divides the information into segments.

One of the main goals of that post was to create a timeline in which the user controls the pace of the events in the animation. As it turns out, research has shown that user control of pacing has a positive impact on learning. Mayer cautions to keep navigation simple as is the case with the timeline.

Arousal Theory tells us that animations would grab users’ attention and improve learning. Others argue the animation between events on the timeline may add load to the visual processing. It could be seen as a distraction. While not conclusive, researchers found that  learners performed better learning from a series of static images than animation. On the remaining four there was no difference. Animation did not improve results in any of the studies (Mayer, Hegarty, Mayer, & Campbell, 2005). They caution that their research was restricted to college students. Further, the pacing of the animated presentation was not user controlled. It could be argued that the timeline animation shows relationships and context, but is it any better than a static timeline? Further, animations take more time, effort, and money to produce. On the other hand, I think they would be better than a series of static slides as the transitions do show relationships. We should, at least, not assume animated treatments are better.

Context or visual overload?

The modality principle suggests the timeline could be improved. As it is, the timeline has images with written text. The modality principle tells us that learners perform better with images and narration, than images with text.  This indicates the timeline would be improved with voice narration and reduced text. I was able to insert audio files in keynote and export successfully into QuickTime.

Finally the images must be examined. In most cases the images are representatives of art of the period had nothing to do with the  text. In this case, the image is merely decorative.

Decorative image

In next instance, the image could be described as representational as it illustrates the oracle bones discussed in the text.

Representational image

The coherence principle stating extraneous materials should be excluded suggests that decorative images should be excluded. Images should enhance understanding not just interest.

Overall, the animated timeline is appealing.  I have used them in instructional presentations in my classroom and, they are popular with my 10-11 year old audience. A classroom differs from a controlled experimental testing facility. The classroom is filled with distracting elements. Could it be argued that the animation directs attention to the lesson rather than what a classmate is doing, what they are daydreaming about, or what they see out the window? I plan on further exploring what research can tell us in this area. I am not sure what impact the animation truly has on learning in this case, but research points to ways in which it can be improved: adding audio narration, reducing text, and choosing images that matched the instructional message of the accompanying text. Research also affirms that adding user control to the timeline is worthwhile.

Richard Mayer is one of the leading researchers on the impact of multimedia on learning. However, in his two books, Multimedia Learning and e-Learning (coauthored by Ruth Colvin Clark), slideware is not often mentioned. Multimedia Learning he simply mentions PowerPoint presentations as an example of multimedia. Since I have ben exploring his research as a means of improving my instruction delivered with slideware, I am interested to see what he says about it. In order to find this out, I had to go beyond his books and explore his papers and interviews.

In 2004, Mayer was interviewed by Cliff Atkinson, PowerPoint consultant and author of Beyond Bullet Points. Atkinson asks Mayer directly if his research applies to PowerPoint (and I assume other slideware). Mayer replies,”Research on multimedia learning is highly relevant to the design of PowerPoint presentations.” He continues by listing several key concepts from his book Multimedia Learning that are particularly relevant to slideware:

  • Multimedia Principle: “People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.”
  • Modality Principle: “People learn more deeply from pictures and spoken words than from pictures and printed words.”

These two principles tell us that slideware using spoken words and images can be an effective instructional approach. At very least, it is superior to straight lecture. Multimedia theory proposes that using auditory and visual channels is superior to just one or the other.

Mayer also deemed the following as particularly relevant:

  • Coherence Principle: “People learn better when extraneous material is excluded rather than included.” In other words, any material that does not support the desired learning outcome should be avoided.  Processing extraneous diverts capacity to process to irrelevant material.
    In the slide above from a Powerpoint template, the tangram shapes and the rabbit contribute nothing to the message and according to the coherence principle should be eliminated.
  • Signaling Principle: “People learn better when cues that highlight the organization of essential material are added.” Highlight that which is most import. If extraneous information cannot be eliminated use signaling cues to denote that which is most important.

    Dimming the background and circling the tangram elements is an example of signaling. It focuses attention on the desired material (which in this case is not desired). Another example of signaling would be physically pointing to the tangram elements.

  • Contiguity Principle: (Spacial Contiguity) “Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.” (Temporal Contiguity) “Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively.”
    The diagram of the triangle on the top reflects spatial contiguity. which according to the contiguity principle better supports learning than the triangle below it.

  • Personalization Principle: ”People learn better from multimedia presentations when words are in conversational style rather than formal style.” Use informal conversational style of speaking or writing when presenting.

Mayer regards slideware as he does any other medium. When asked about criticism of Powerpoint , he replies:

I am not sure what is meant by the assertion that “PowerPoint is rarely a good method.” If this statement means that PowerPoint is often misused, I wholeheartedly agree. However, I do not think it makes sense to refer to PowerPoint as a method. Instead, based on the distinction I made in a previous answer, PowerPoint is a medium that can be used effectively — that is, with effective design methods — or ineffectively, that is with ineffective design methods. We would not necessarily say that books are rarely a good method, because books can be designed using effective or ineffective methods. In my opinion, the same principle applies to PowerPoint. (Cognitive Load of Powerpoint, 2004)

Here are a number of online resources that Mayer has authored or coauthored in this area:

I will continue to investigate the work of Mayer and others with several more posts exploring many of the principles outlined above, as well as others. I also plan to examine research that challenges some of his ideas as they apply the the classroom and instructional presentations. I find that reflecting upon this research helps fine tune presentations well beyond what I gain from business oriented books on making better presentations.

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My presentation design has been greatly influenced by Nancy Duarte’s book slide:ology and Garr Reynolds, the author of Presentation Zen. I have integrated their ideas in both my conferences and instructional presentations. Their advice has dramatically changed my practice from bullet points to slides that are more graphically oriented with much less text.

Both Duarte’ and Reynolds are focused on business presentations, whereas I am interested in instructional presentations. Reynolds talks about the importance of graphics as mnemonic devices that help retention of ideas. I wonder how these ideas would apply to an instructional presentation and how research should inform my practice. Having applied their ideas, I know my presentations look a lot better. I know the students enjoy them more, but I am not sure that the instruction is more effective.

In the first chapter of Presentation Zen, Reynolds quotes University of New South Wales Professor John Sweller saying, “The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster. It should be ditched.” He discusses this point in some detail in this blog post. He also quotes Professor Richard Mayer, author of Multimedia Learning. These have been the starting points of my inquiry.

I have found several papers authored or coauthored by Mayer. I have since purchased a copy of Mayer’s Multimedia Learning and Efficiency in Learning coauthored by Clark, Nguyen, and Sweller.

Mayer creates a cognitive model of the standard text bullet point presentation as shown below.

Illustration based upon Mayer’s Multimedia Learning p. 124

Mayer contends that using both spoken and written text in a presentation overloads the visual channel and interferes with the processing of the picture. My personal experience is that trying to listen to a speaker and read the printed word on a slide is very distracting. Mayer refers to this a the redundancy principle:

…eliminating redundancy is a useful way to reduce cognitive load. We refer to this result as a redundancy effect: Students understand a multimedia presentation better when words are presented as narration rather than as narration and on-screen text.  (Mayer & Moreno 2003)

Mayer asserts that the best approach is to use spoken words directed toward the auditory channel and pictures and animations for the visual channel.

Illustration based upon Mayer’s Multimedia Learning p. 124

This approach provides two sources of sensory processing without overloading either channel. Mayer refers the superiority of of simultaneously using words and pictures than just words as the multimedia principle (Mayer 2009 p. 223). More specifically, he speaks of a modality principle asserting that, “People learn more deeply from pictures and spoken words than from pictures and printed words” (Mayer 2009 p. 200). Using spoken words with pictures avoids the redundancy effect.

This is a rudimentary description of part of the theory behind some of the best selling books on presenting. I am reading Mayer’s Multimedia Learning and look forward to reflecting upon my instructional presentations. His book outlines eleven principles which, at first glance, are likely to help optimize my practice.

The work of Duarte and Reynolds have been a great starting point and have helped me hone my craft. I believe that classroom practitioners can benefit by digging deeper and exploring into this area of research. I plan to share my thoughts as I read more. I look forward to your thoughts.

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