PowerPoint – a software package designed to create electronic presentations consisting of a series of separate pages or slides.
– Lexico, 2021

For over 30 years PowerPoint (and similar products, like Prezi) has provided a means to present visual and graphical information for business, education and beyond. In the classroom, PowerPoint has easily replaced the much-loved over-head and slide projectors and made it possible to have many segments of text readily available for learners to read without waiting for it to be copied to a board. At times this leads to the instructor becoming its puppet, serving only to voice the presentation. This technology should be used as a tool to assist the instructor. Instead its improper use is a deficit to learning as presentations are overloaded with extraneous information and delivered in a way that is not conducive to memory and learning. Many times problematic presentations are the result of last minute instruction, time poor instructors in a Training Establishment (TE) or sometimes a rushed attempt to cover bulk information during briefing in an inadequate window of time. This article hopes to provide some guidance and considerations on ways to improve the use of presentation to aid learning and maintain ownership of your instruction.

Death by PowerPoint

A common cause of 'death by PowerPoint' is the impossible demand for learners to multitask during presentations by constantly switching between reading and listening, often with great speed. For this information to be retained, learners are required to form connections between the new information and existing knowledge. This puts a huge load on the learner and can leave them lost and overloaded during the lesson. Our brains are not able to multitask, not when attention is required. Research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology has shown that this is overwhelming and can cause what is known as cognitive overload (Lovell, 2020; Mayer & Moreno, 2003) where, quite simply, the brain is not able to process all the information effectively. Ultimately, this leads to chunks of a lesson being lost on the learner. Understanding how to avoid this cognitive collision and careful planning are important steps towards more effective use of this technology.

Problem: text and speech

How many readers have attempted to read the news or their social media feed while also watching the TV? How many have also experienced the need to reread the text after paying attention to the TV, or rewinding a program after reading the text? Despite our best efforts, we are not able to effectively read and listen at the same time. In our brain, listening and reading tasks are processed as auditory events (Cooney Horvath, 2019) as shown in figure 1. When we read the words are ‘spoken’ in our head, sometimes without notice and other times quite deliberately. When we try to read something (PowerPoint or handouts) while trying to listen to another source we activate the same part of our brains. As a result, we either focus on one source at a time or switch between a choice that could affect what information is retained. The solution is not to provide a script on screen for learners to read along with, but rather to carefully consider the use of text, speech and images used so that the presentation supports the instructor and the intended learning.

A graphic displaying student learning

Reducing the amount of text in a presentation does not mean reducing the content or information delivered. If a passage of text is required to be read then there should be time provided to the learners to read the text during the lesson, in silence, so that their attention is focused on the text alone. Areas of a presentation can be supported with short key points that are spoken to. Using the animation functions on PowerPoint to present key points before explaining them or using short lists can make it is easier for the learner to reference what you are referring to without needing to split their attention between the text and the instructor speaking. If text has been included in a presentation to support the instructor then it is suggested that the excessive text be moved to the notes section and printed or presented in ‘presenter mode’.

Consideration: Speech and images

Some things cannot effectively be summarised using text. Too much text, even without the instructor speaking, can still be overwhelming and requires time to read and understand. Addressing this issue does require a greater investment of time, and the issue of text and speech, but can be achieved through the use of images. While text and speech compete for attention in the brain, speech and images activate separate areas, meaning that they are able to be processed concurrently (Cooney Horvath, 2019) as shown in figure 2. This also complements research in cognitive psychology, through the dual-coding theory (Clarke & Paivio, 1991) which notes that information received through both auditory and visual process systems is retained more effectively than that processed via only the one system.

A graphic showing student learning

A picture is said to tell a thousand words, so it is crucial that the instructor carefully selects images that say the right ‘words’ and not much more. For a lesson covering a weapon system, a simple image of the weapon would be used for the instructor to talk to. When covering smaller parts of that weapon a close-up image of that part would be effective, perhaps with some clear and simple labels, if required, linked to the relevant area/s. A lesson on obstacle crossings may simply show icons representing obstacles and the parties involved in the scenario and use animation or transitional slides to demonstrate how the crossing is made. This section of the presentation may not require any text at all, except for a title denoting the obstacle or crossing. Images and visuals, like simple graphs[1], icons and videos are great at supporting the instructor’s key points and learning objectives but require attention and planning from the instructor to ensure they deliver the intended teaching points.

Planning is key

One of the most important considerations when using a PowerPoint presentation is the planning of how it is used to support the lesson, not drive the lesson. The PowerPoint should not replace the instructor, it is the instructor’s tool. Planning should be conducted as to how the presentation will be used in the conduct of the lesson. Perhaps it will include key points and images or perhaps it will provide prompts for discussions and activities, to make sure instructions are clear. Time is required to ensure that the structure of the lesson and presentation activates a leaner’s prior knowledge and is sequenced to help build upon what they have learnt. With planning and consideration an instructor may also decide that the use of a PowerPoint presentation is not required and may chose an alternative method to convey the teaching points in the lesson. This could include the use of a student-centred learning activity, which are taught on the Military Instructor Course.

PowerPoint can be an effective tool for delivering a presentation; however, without careful consideration and planning, presentations can detract from the delivery of key information. Unnecessary text, confusing structure and sequence, and irrelevant content can distract, confuse and overwhelm learners. Ultimately, keep presentations simple. Draw the learner’s focus to one source at a time, while avoiding speech and text being delivered concurrently.

Overall, planning is important, and time should be allocated to ensure that presentations, if used, are clear, concise and the information included is purposeful and deliberate. Education officers at Army Education Centres are experienced and knowledgeable in instructional methodologies and learning science; they are available to help develop your presentation and instructional techniques.