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Abstract

The ubiquitous nature of PowerPoint begs the question, does PowerPoint enhance learning? This narrative explores the evidence for the effectiveness of PowerPoint and multimedia presentations in learning and information processing. Practical recommendations are provided for presentations.
Does PowerPoint enhance learning?
Rick Penciner, MD
ABSTRACT
The ubiquitous nature of PowerPoint begs the question, does
PowerPoint enhance learning? This narrative explores the
evidence for the effectiveness of PowerPoint and multimedia
presentations in learning and information processing.
Practical recommendations are provided for presentations.
RE
´
SUME
´
L’utilisation ge´ne´ ralise´e de PowerPoint soule` ve la question
suivante: PowerPoint facilite-t-il l’apprentissage? Le pre´ sent
article fait e´ tat des donne´ es probantes sur l’efficacite´de
PowerPoint et des pre´ sentations multime´ dias dans l’appren-
tissage et le traitement de l’information. Il contient e´gale-
ment des recommandations pratiques sur les pre´ sentations.
Keywords: effectiveness, learning, multimedia, PowerPoint
EDUCATION SCENARIO
You are asked by your chief to present emergency
medicine grand rounds next month. You are quite
excited at the opportunity as you have just attended
a faculty development session on effective use of
PowerPoint. You are looking forward to trying some
of the new techniques that you learned in the work-
shop, but you ask yourself the question, ‘‘Does
PowerPoint really enhance learning?’’
BACKGROUND
PowerPoint (Microsoft Corporation) has been used
everywhere, from grade school classrooms to board-
rooms and lecture halls. PowerPoint and its cousin
Keynote (Apple Inc.) have become the predominant
technology used with all presentations. There are also
many newer forms of presentation software, which
collectively can be referred to as slideware. For the
purposes of this review, PowerPoint and slideware are
interchangeable. The ubiquitous nature of PowerPoint
begs the question, does PowerPoint enhance learning?
This narrative, nonsystematic review provides an
overview of the literature on the effects of PowerPoint
and multimedia presentations on learning and infor-
mation processing.
THE PROBLEM WITH POWERPOINT
There are many books, articles, websites, and blogs on
how to use PowerPoint effectively; however, there is not
very much scientific evidence on the effectiveness of
PowerPoint. This ‘‘how to’’ advice, although profuse,
tends to vary greatly and even to be contradictory. In a
study on PowerPoint use textbooks, the author demon-
strated that only 35% of the recommendations were
referenced and only 33% of these were based on
research, most of which was quasiexperimental.
1
Much has been written about PowerPoint and its
limitations. Edward Tufte, an information design
expert, believes that ‘‘PowerPoint is evil’’ and that it
is ‘‘making us stupid.’’
2
He contends in his e-book, The
Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, that PowerPoint has many
inherent limitations that reduce learning when it is
used. He contends that the average audience is finished
reading the slide even before the speaker begins his
talk. The use of bullets prevents the audience from
creating ‘‘schema’’ or connections from the informa-
tion presented. Eliot Masie, an e-learning authority,
called PowerPoint ‘‘the single most dangerous tool
invented on the planet.’’
3
In essence, PowerPoint
replaces effective communication with presentation.
From the Division of Emergency Medicine, Department of Family and Community Medicine, University of Toronto, North York General Hospital,
Toronto, ON.
Correspondence to: Dr. Rick Penciner, North York General Hospital, 4001 Leslie Street, 630N, Toronto, ON M2K 1E1; rick.penciner@utoronto.ca.
This article has been peer reviewed.
CJEM 2013;15(2):109-112ß Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians DOI 10.2310/8000.2013.130756
EDUCATION N ENSEIGNEMENT
2013;15(2) 109CJEM N JCMU
DOES POWERPOINT ENHANCE LEARNING?
There has been a moderate amount of research on the
effectiveness of PowerPoint in the classroom. Levasseur
and Sawyer, in an extensive review of the literature,
concluded that most studies demonstrate that students
prefer PowerPoint to traditional lectures.
4
Traditional
lecture-format PowerPoint, however, does not produce
significant difference in learning (typically demon-
strated as performance on examinations) compared to
several alternatives. Some studies have shown that
students performed worst on test scores with
PowerPoint lectures compared to traditional formats.
5,6
DOES THE POWERPOINT STYLE IMPACT LEARNING?
One explanation for the lack of evidence of
PowerPoint enhancing learning may be the style and
formats of PowerPoint used in previous studies, such as
traditional text-based slides with bullets. Bullet points
have become the single most controversial aspect of
PowerPoint.
3
Concerns with bullet points are that they
lead to an oversimplification of concepts, lack aesthetic
appeal, and are hierarchical in design, lacking rela-
tional impact. Recently, Johnson and Christensen
studied the formats of PowerPoint in higher education.
7
They compared traditional format with bullets and text
to a format referred to as the ‘‘simply-visually rich
approach,’’ which uses frequent visuals and minimizes
on-screen text. They demonstrated that undergraduate
psychology students had a significantly higher satisfac-
tion with the ‘‘simply-visually rich approach’’ but no
differences in learning outcomes. Similarly, Tangen
and colleagues demonstrated that students preferred
image-rich slides and that performance (although not
interest) depended on whether or not the images were
relevant to the content of the lecture.
8
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF MULTIMEDIA
PRESENTATIONS ON INFORMATION PROCESSING?
Multimedia refers to presentations involving words
(such as spoken or printed text) and pictures (such
as animation, video, illustrations, and photographs).
Multimedia learning promotes acquisition, retention,
and transfer of information.
9
Richard Mayer, an
educational psychologist, has conducted considerable
research on the effects of multimedia learning on
students’ retention of a topic. His theory of multimedia
learning states that ‘‘meaningful learning occurs when
learning engages in appropriate verbal and visuospatial
thinking.’
9
The theory is based on three theories of
cognitive learning: 1) dual channel or dual coding
theory, which states that working memory processes
visual and auditory stimuli separately, and simultaneous
intake of multiple sources of stimuli may result in
overload of the brain; 2) limited channel assumption,
which states that we have limited capacity within each
channel for storing, organizing, and retrieving knowl-
edge; and 3) active processing assumption, which states
that meaningful learning occurs when humans actively
process and organize audio and visual information.
9
From his studies, Mayer developed the following
principles for meaningful learning in multimedia
presentations. The multimedia principle states that
students learn more effectively from multimedia
presentations than from verbal presentations alone.
In these multimedia presentations, students learn more
when there are words and relevant pictures rather than
just words alone. The contiguity principle states that
students learn more when narration and pictures are
presented simultaneously rather than consecutively.
This allows the brain to create connections between
the two items. The coherence principle states that
students learn more effectively when the multimedia
presentation is interesting than when it is basic.
However, this expanded presentation should not be
excessive and needs to be relevant. The modality
principle states that students learn more effectively
when the presentation includes images and narration
rather than images and text. The personalization
principle states that students learn more effectively
when the presentation is conversational rather than
expository. Finally, the signaling principle states that
students learn more effectively when presenters direct
the learner to the important passages or events in the
presentation.
9
Multimedia presentations used ineffectively can
decrease learning. Reading text verbatim off an
on-screen slide decreases learning and retention.
10
Irrelevant pictures accompanying text and sound
effects have also been shown to decrease learning.
6
DO YOU NEED POWERPOINT?
It is probably most valuable to begin the discussion of
PowerPoint effectiveness by first determining whether
PowerPoint is needed. Consider some of the greatest
orators of the twentieth century. Winston Churchill,
Penciner
110 2013;15(2) CJEM N JCMU
John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. were all
able to deliver impactful and memorable speeches
without the aid of PowerPoint and other visuals. We
have come to rely on PowerPoint use in situations that
are merely conversations or discussions. Not all
presentations require visual support. Do we need
PowerPoint for a small-group session or workshop that
is highly interactive?
In general, there are many reasons people use
PowerPoint for their presentations. PowerPoint provides
a framework and structure for developing a presenta-
tion. Using PowerPoint during a presentation provides
the speaker with an outline and is often used as speaker
notes. PowerPoint allows for the simple creation of
handouts for participants. There is often an expecta-
tion by participants and organizers that PowerPoint will
be used for presentations. Speakers are often requested
to send their slides in advance of the presentation, and
when this is not done, it is often perceived as laziness
and noncompliance with the usual routine. Use of
PowerPoint might help the presenter look smart or,
more frequently, hide the presenter’s inadequacies on
the topic. Many organizations also use PowerPoint as a
means of document creation, communication, and
archival. Presenters who use PowerPoint for any of the
preceding reasons are setting themselves up for an
ineffective presentation.
There are only three reasons to consider when
deciding whether the use of PowerPoint (or other
slideware) would be appropriate for your next
presentation:
1. Emphasis. By using a single word or phrase on a
slide, PowerPoint can be used to emphasize a
concept.
2. Augmentation. By using a well-designed graph or
table or a relevant picture, a presenter can use
PowerPoint to augment a presentation visually in a
manner that narration cannot.
3. Multimedia learning. By employing the multimedia
principles discussed, a presenter can effectively use
PowerPoint to engage learners. Overall, most of the
investigations support the dual coding theory that
more is better: multimedia auditory-verbal and
visual-pictorial stimuli increase comprehension,
understanding, memory, and deeper learning more
than any single stimulus by itself.
11
The picture-
superiority effect demonstrates that people recall
pictures and narration better than they recall either
narration or pictures alone.
12
HOW DO I APPLY THIS EVIDENCE TO MY NEXT
PRESENTATION?
Consider not using PowerPoint for your next presen-
tation or teaching activity. PowerPoint may not be
necessary if the planned teaching methods rely on
discussion and interactivity. Participants are there to
hear and see you speak, not watch slides. If you do
decide to use PowerPoint, consider the following:
Preparation
1. Prepare three documents. PowerPoint was never
designed for written documents. Prepare speaker
notes, a two- to three-page high-level handout, and
your PowerPoint slides. This will avoid the deadly
mistakes of reading your slides and putting too much
content on one slide.
Content
2. Use narration and relevant images.
3. Narration and images are better than narration
and text.
4. Consider not using bullets.
5. Limit the amount of information on one slide.
Presentation Style
6. Use interesting multimedia presentations but
avoid excess.
7. Speak in a conversational manner.
8. Do not read slides.
9. Direct learners to important passages and events
in your presentation.
EDUCATION SCE NARIO FOLLOW-UP
You start preparing for your emergency medicine grand
rounds and focus initially on the key messages that you
want the audience to take home. You research the topic
thoroughly and then start preparing your speaker notes.
You decide that you will use PowerPoint, but in
moderation. You prepare a handful of visually rich slides
with simple tables, graphs, and pictures and very limited
text that support your key messages. You recognize that
effective communication is not about the PowerPoint.
Does PowerPoint enhance learning?
2013;15(2) 111CJEM N JCMU
SUMMARY
Ultimately, there is nothing evil about PowerPoint, just
about the way PowerPoint is used. PowerPoint is a tool;
it is not pedagogy. With careful consideration,
effective use of PowerPoint and other slideware can
at least result in increased learner satisfaction.
Challenging the traditional paradigm of PowerPoint
use and employing more relevant images with narra-
tion and less text may result in enhanced learning.
Competing interests: None declared.
ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY
Farkas D. A heuristic for reasoning about PowerPoint deck
design. 2007. Available at: http://faculty.washington.
edu/farkas/FarkasPowerPointHeuristic.pdf (accessed
November 6, 2011).
This article provides an interesting and thoughtful
discussion on the debate of PowerPoint and its place in
our society.
Levasseur DG, Sawyer JK. Pedagogy meets
PowerPoint: a research review of the effects of
computer-generated slides in the classroom. Rev
Commun 2006;6:101-23.
This article is a comprehensive review of the effects of
computer-generated slides in the classroom. The evidence
of PowerPoint on student reactions, learning outcomes,
learning styles, and slide variation effects is reviewed.
REFERENCES
1. Kammeyer J. Are we serving students well with communi-
cation textbooks: recommendations about PowerPoint. 2008.
Available at: http://www.jenniferkammeyer.com/Research_
files/PPTinCommTexts.pdf (accessed November 6, 2011).
2. Tufte E. The cognitive style of PowerPoint.Cheshire(CT):
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3. Farkas D. A heuristic for reasoning about PowerPoint deck
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112 2013;15(2) CJEM N JCMU
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PowerPoint is both extremely prevalent and controversial. Unfortunately, much of the critical discussion concerning PowerPoint is both casually and poorly argued. A heuristic, offered here, can help reveal when claims about PowerPoint and deck design are poorly supported or ambiguous. This heuristic may prove useful to all those who reason about PowerPoint: those who formulate research questions, assess decks and presentations, teach students about PowerPoint, and create decks. The heuristic asks whether a claim truly addresses a PowerPoint problem, accounts for the different features of each slideware product, considers the role of genre, recognizes that a deck must be assessed with reference to the oral gloss on the slides and the overall performance, and allows for the different levels of skill and preparation time a deck may require. The heuristic also asks what is the basis of objections to bullet points (when they are at issue) and whether the slide metaphor is relevant to the claim. Finally, the heuristic asks us to recognize the complexities of PowerPoint, deck design, and visually supported presentations and to therefore formulate and assess claims in a careful, nuanced way that is respectful of the contingent and local.
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