Many online courses depend on multimedia, including slides, videos, and infographics, to convey foundational information or key concepts. Learning science related to cognitive load theory provides a robust description of ways to optimize multimedia to support learning. The associated research literature is most famously applied through Richard Mayer’s principles for multimedia learning, which can be easily applied to slide presentations as well as videos and other digital learning materials.
Consider the following strategies when developing slide presentations. Note that accessibility, another key component of good multimedia learning design, is discussed elsewhere in the iDEA book.
Be pithy (coherence principle)
Too many words on a slide interferes with learner attention and comprehension. Stick to one or a few points for each slide. If you need to give learners the big picture of presentation contents (which could result in too many words on a slide), consider providing an associated handout or concept map.
Be relevant (coherence and multimedia principles)
Students learn better from pictures and words together than from words alone. However, images are most effective when they directly relate to the key points. Irrelevant or purely decorative images can distract from learning.
Narrate your slides (redundancy and modality principles)
Verbal rather than text-based explanations of graphics help prevent cognitive overload. The brain processes more information when concepts are divided into visual and audio stimuli as compared when they are presented as visual or audio stimuli.
As a bonus, when an instructor narrates a slide presentation, it increases their presence within the course and enhances learner experience (See the community of inquiry framework for online course design).
Be conversational and human (personalization and voice principles)
Students will learn better when instructors use a warm, friendly, conversational style rather than a formal style. Also, research indicates that a human voice is more effective than a machine- generated voice.
Talking heads are not necessarily helpful (image principle)
While narration is important and it is good for students to see and hear their instructor in different contexts throughout an online course, including a “talking head” image of the instructor in the corner of the screen during a narrated slide presentation does not increase learning and can be distracting to some students.
Consider limiting footage of the instructor speaking to the beginning and end of the slide presentation or do not include at all. Note that this recommendation applies specifically to narrated slide presentations and not instructor welcomes, introductions, or summary videos which are created to enhance instructor presence.
Pay attention to formatting (signaling and contiguity principles)
Use organizational conventions such as section slides, headers, and bullets to signal relationships within and across concepts. Emphasize key information with changes in text size or bolding rather than word animations or other elaborate (and potentially distracting) cues. Finally, place related words and images close to one another in space or, if narrating, simultaneously rather than sequentially.
Provide strategies for success (pretraining and segmenting principles)
Some students will not understand how they are supposed to learn from certain learning materials. Others will not have the necessary vocabulary or background to fully appreciate the information presented. Make sure to provide key vocabulary and essential context as well as focus questions or other targeting strategies to students before they begin the presentation.
Finally, students learn better when presentations are organized into smaller, self-paced chunks, so they may stop and review or consider new information before moving on.
- Brown University: Effective multimedia lecture slides
- Harvard University: Principles for multimedia learning with Richard E Mayer
- LearningHouse Center for Teaching and Learning: Principles of multimedia learning Multimedia learning
- State of New York University (OSCQR): Slideshow design
- University of Buffalo: Multimedia learning
- New York University: 12 principles of multimedia
- Vanderbilt University: Making better PowerPoint presentations