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Designing PowerPoint Lectures:
The Brain's Natural Cycle of Learning

Cynthia Desrochers

Michael D. Eisner College of Education and
Director, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching


Catheryn Cheal

Department of Art and
Director, Online Instruction

California State University, Northridge


Teaching in the California State University system has many advantages. One particular perk is learning from colleagues from our 23 campuses, often in conference settings. We have attended numerous faculty presentations this year and PowerPoint is in! Nearly every presenter used it. In fact, in one session with a panel of four faculty speakers, the final person began with an apology for not using PowerPoint as the others had done. And, upon reflection, we realized her segment had been the most engaging, thought provoking, and memorable. Why was this the case? Did it have something to do with the others' use of PowerPoint?

Most scholars have been trained in their disciplines and in empirical writing, but not in the biology of human learning. So it's no wonder that academic PowerPoint lectures can be a landmine of potential design disasters and technical presentation difficulties.

The Fictional Story of Professor Jones

Dr. Jones is teaching a session on "Academic Dishonesty and Plagiarism" to faculty in a tiered theater-seating classroom. He begins by distributing a set of PowerPoint pages to each of us, with space provided for note taking. A few minutes into the session, we realize that only half of the PowerPoint slides are in our packets. Not wanting us to miss any of the details regarding plagiarism, Dr. Jones has filled each slide with text. Each slide is much like a page in a book, resulting in words too small for us to read on the screen. However, Dr. Jones assures us that this doesn't matter "because you have all the important pages right there in your individual packets."

Dr. Jones shares a wealth of information about academic dishonesty and he has Internet resources and classroom assignments designed to teach academic honesty. He speaks quickly, sometimes reading from his PowerPoint pages, sometimes making additional comments as we are trying to read a PowerPoint page. After about 25 minutes we are on language overload, and we are becoming increasingly distracted and frustrated by the need to continually search through our packets to see if they contain the slide we're being shown. The presentation has become dizzying. Some of us simply gaze towards the floor and try just to listen, cutting off the visuals altogether. The end of the session is drawing near. Dr. Jones doesn't leave time for us to reflect upon how we might use this information in our teaching, or to discuss it with those seated around us, or to make a tentative plan-of-action to use on home campuses. Session over, we move on to the next session.

If you have experienced a PowerPoint lecture similar to that of Dr. Jones, you might reasonably ask, "If I'm experiencing such profound processing difficulties as a faculty-conference attendee, can my undergraduate students be feeling much the same way when they are subjected to a lecture similarly enhanced by PowerPoint?" Moreover, are you led to query further, "Aren't there better ways to design presentations using this technology?"

A resounding "yes" to both questions. Yes, our students are experiencing the same difficulties in learning from some PowerPoint lectures. And, yes, research done on the human brain over the past fifty years suggests better PowerPoint practices. In fact, the biology of the brain has numerous implications for designing PowerPoint lectures. And we see that using the brain's natural cycle of learning as our teaching framework can predictably increase student achievement.

The Biological Bases of Human Learning

Many PowerPoint lectures focus on presenting. However, if our greatest concern is about the actual learning of the students, we need to alter this perspective. Biologists studying the brain see natural connections between the structure of the brain and how humans learn (Lowery, 1998; Wolfe, 2001; Zull, 2002). Zull, a biologist, describes three functions of the cerebral cortex involved with learning: sensing, integrating, and moving (pp. 14-16). He explains that the sensory brain takes in initially meaningless signals from the outside world through our eyes, ears, skin, mouth, and nose. The temporal (back) integrative cortex of the brain integrates the signals, connections are made, patterns are developed, language and images become meaningful, and things start to add up. These meanings then are integrated as new ideas, and plans for action are formed in the frontal integrative cortex. Finally, our ideas are executed by the body as action, or motor output. Speaking and writing are forms of motor output, as well as other more obvious forms of movement, such as building shelter, hunting food, or running from an enemy.

Interestingly, as Zull points out (pp. 17-18), the learning cycle explained by Kolb (1984) follows much the same pattern as the natural cycle of the brain described above. In the learning cycle, learning originates in concrete experience, which corresponds to the brain's first cycle of sensing. The next stage in the learning cycle is reflection, corresponding to integration in the back cortex. Kolb explains that abstractions are then developed; in the brain, plans are formed in the front cortex. Finally, abstractions are actively tested; the body takes action and moves.

There are key points from both cycles that inform our design of student-learning environments, including PowerPoint lectures. These points relate to sensory overload, images, learners' prior knowledge, and deep learning. If the brain takes in too much information, sensory overload can occur. This results in the learner's inability to discern important from irrelevant information, inability to remember information, and eventual habituation to the lecture entirely (Zull, 136-149). So the learner stops taking in the PowerPoint presentation and stares at the floor.

Images are physically mapped in our brains; the results of this phenomenon are experienced when you are able to visualize something with your eyes closed. Also, images are powerful because, unlike language, they are more easily remembered by the brain, and there appears to be no limit to their storage capacity in the brain (Zull, pp. 143-147). Emphasizing a PowerPoint topic with relevant photos rather than cute clip art will help an audience remember your argument better than text and will also give variety.

According to Zull, "no one can understand anything if it isn't connected in some way to something they already know" (p. 94). New knowledge must build on prior knowledge. The neurons (cells) in the brain need to make connections with past experiences in order to grow dendrites and fire synapses for comprehension (Lowery, p. 6). This is why metaphors, parables, and stories that relate students' lives to course concepts are such powerful instructional tools (Zull, p. 128). Stories may be illustrated with an image or a word, but the emphasis should be on the story telling by the lecturer rather than by PowerPoint.

Deep learning occurs only when we use the whole brain. Further, because the brain is biologically wired to continue the learning cycle by planning for action (hypothesizing), instructors are wise to allow in-class time for students to think, write, and discuss key concepts (Zull, p. 200; Desrochers, 1999).This is time well spent because the person who is reflecting and making connections is the person who is growing dendrites and strengthening synapses. In addition, we encourage the listener to use more of the brain when we vary our lecture using these components: big ideas, stories, details, and facts related to our topic. Big ideas and stories are processed and stored in the right hemisphere of the brain; however, the fine details and facts will be processed in the left brain (Zull, p. 229).

PowerPoint Pointers

With our fuller understanding of the biology of the brain and human learning, additional practical tips for designing PowerPoint lectures emerge.

  • Design Factors

The elements of design are crucial to your audience's sense and comprehension of a PowerPoint lecture. Composition, line, scale, color, movement, and timing need to be consciously considered by PowerPoint authors.

Composition, the placement of all elements on a page in relationship to one another, works well if it is unified by a central focal point of a heading with an image, bar graphs (the easiest to read), or three to five bulleted phrases. We comprehend central placement and large size as signs of importance. The most important text, therefore, should be centered at the top of your slide with sub-points indented beneath them in a smaller font. Balance all elements on the page with equal amounts of empty space surrounding them for easy reading. Too much crowding of disparate elements can make a page hard to grasp, especially since an audience has about three minutes per slide to understand both your slide and your talk.

Scale, or size relationships, can also affect comprehension of a page. For example, if a university logo takes up a quarter of a PowerPoint page, the main text or image will be too small and off-center to work as a focal point and an audience's attention will be needlessly fragmented. The font size is best at 16 point or higher with a Sans Serif font style like Ariel. The bigger the lecture hall, the bigger the font size, even if there will be a correspondingly large screen. It's much better to have text that is oversize rather than too small to read.

All color has mood and style, so consider its effect on a topic or theme. Black backgrounds, for example, often signify teen angst. Color can highlight an important point or completely obscure text. Black text on a white, flat background is the easiest to read, so only deviate slightly from that formula. To avoid using a laser pointer, which often bounces around in a disconcerting manner, animate a red circle to appear around text when the forward key is pressed.

Human attention is naturally drawn to movement. But a little animation goes a long way in a PowerPoint lecture. Flying phrases spiraling in from the left side of a PowerPoint page are a lot of fun the first time, but after viewing the hundredth presentation, they only slow things down. Carefully consider the function of an animation before employing it. It could be used once for an upbeat note at the end of a lecture or could help to draw attention to certain points within the text.

  • Presentation Factors

PowerPoint should help organize and enhance a lecture by showing outlines, images, diagrams, or charts, but shouldn't be the lecture. Write a stunning lecture first, and then just illustrate a few arguments with PowerPoint pages. A PowerPoint presentation functions best as a supplement not an entire lecture. Since reading any more than a word or two off the screen will stultify the most avid audience, it's best to avoid paragraphs of text or page after page of bulleted points. Instead, alternate slides of images, text, and charts for both variety and heightened learning. More than 15 to 20 pages in an hour can be excruciating for the audience, so edit a final slide presentation mercilessly.

Consider verbally sharing metaphors, parables, or short stories to illustrate the key points from a PowerPoint page. Take measures to learn about your students' experiences via short writing assignments so that your stories relate to their lives and connect their prior knowledge with today's class concepts.

Even when we teach with PowerPoint, students will become more active learners if they need to fill in some notes on the handout for themselves. Consider stopping briefly midway through a 50-minute class to require students to reflect on the topic in writing or through discussion. It's difficult to troubleshoot technology in front of an impatient audience, when the lecture's start time has passed. It may take a half hour or more to set up a computer and data projector, so plan to examine all equipment well ahead of time. Checking font size and color from the back of the room for visibility is important. The computer's Sleep or Save Energy mode should be disabled so the screen doesn't suddenly go black during a talk.

Final Thoughts

Many CSU faculty challenge and support student learning through the use of well-designed PowerPoint lectures. Others have mastered these key brain-compatible principles through their use of a chalkboard, overhead transparency, or flip chart. It's not the writing surface that is critical, but the way it is used: Is the visual structured with an understanding of the biologically based cycle of human learning? So, before you toss away that chalk and spend hours preparing new PowerPoint pages to accompany your lectures, consider brain-compatible factors to make your time worthwhile in terms of student learning gains.

Works Cited

Desrochers, C. (1999, December). Multi-purpose lecture breaks. The teaching professor, 13, 10, pp. 1-2.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Eaglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Lowery, L. (1998). The biological basis of thinking and learning. (Monograph.) Berkeley, CA: Lawrence Hall of Science.

Wolfe, P. (2001). Brain matters: Translating research into classroom practice. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Zull, J. (2002). The art of changing the brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Posted February 6, 2004
Modified February 9, 2004

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2004 by Cynthia Desrochers and Catheryn Cheal.

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