Contributors:Vincent Waldman, PhD
We’ve all been there. You’re sitting in a lecture with a professor who’s reading PowerPoint slides densely packed with text, and you’re scrambling to take everything in. You leave wondering if you’ll remember anything. Maybe you even thought about how the information could have been presented better. Well, it turns out that there’s a whole body of research on multimedia learning, and it applies not only to slideshow presentations but to any media format, including books, audio, and video presentations.
Most people process information based on what they hear and see.
So, if you’re attending a lecture where a professor’s talking directly about what’s on screen, that information goes into your sensory memory, where it remains for half a second or less.
It stays for such a short period of time because there’s such a massive amount of sensory information around you that it’s only possible to focus your attention on a fraction of it.
For example, you probably know that the fan in your fridge or freezer is on, but you usually don’t notice it when you’re cooking.
Now, if you focus on specific sensory information, it enters your working memory, where it sticks around for a little longer—about thirty seconds.
Working memory ignores useless background noise, like filler words, or things you already know, taking in only the most relevant details.
Comparing these details with things you’ve already learned solidifies that newfound knowledge, organizing and storing it so it’s easier to recall.
So, the next time someone asks you what you’re thinking about, they’re asking you what’s in your working memory at that moment.
Your long-term memory is where information is stored after you’ve processed it, and it remains there until it deteriorates slowly over time.
With this model of learning in mind, you can use a variety of strategies to optimize how you learn using instructional media.
We’re going to focus on a typical lecture presentation, but the ideas can be applied to various media formats. To make this concrete, let’s start out by fixing this PowerPoint slide.
OK, our first big task is to get rid of all that extra information and organize the material in a logical way.
To start, let’s remove anything that doesn’t directly relate to the main point.
That means getting rid of unnecessary text and images.
Okay, the text is about gas exchange in the lungs, so let's find an image that shows a good close up of that. Ah, that's better.
Now, let's trim down the words so that they're just outlining the individual steps.
Let's also double check that we have parallelism, meaning that all of the phrases are written in the same way.
That makes it easier to understand each step of oxygen’s journey into the blood, which in turn gives us a better sense of the overall process.
When there are multiple colors on a screen, it can be distracting.
It’s best to make the words in a single color, and only change the color for specific things you want to emphasize.
Occasionally, you may need to use arrows or boxes, but that can also be distracting, so it’s okay to use them sparingly or to simply bold or highlight key words.
This may seem picky, but good communication leads to good learning.
In this example, we can actually get rid of all the text and just show it visually.
You can also see we’ve visually enhanced the presenter’s narration without just repeating what they’re saying.
Ideally, you want to minimize the amount of on-screen text by narrating the information, leaving just visual images, along with a few key words and ideas on screen.