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The Problem with PowerPoints

The Problem with PowerPoints

It is almost frightening to think how many hours are spent adding animations to PowerPoints. These, done with the aim of making the lesson more fun or more engaging, can often include adding background music and sounds. But do all the ‘extras’ actually help improve learning?

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The Research

The authors of this study set up a series of experiments to find out. They taught students about various new concepts, such as the formation of lightning or the operation of hydraulic breaking systems. The groups were divided into four conditions: 

  1. Some of the students received lessons that had background music
  2. Some had sounds (i.e. the sound of lightning would play when an image of it appeared on the slide
  3. Some had both
  4. Some had neither 


What Did They Find?

#1 Students who received no background music or sounds were able to recall 76% more than those who had a lesson that had both.

#2 Students who had lessons that had background music learnt less than those who did not. The former was able to recall 11% more and did 29% better on subsequent tests.

#3 The results for students who had sounds as part of their lessons were mixed. Sometimes they did better and on others did worse. The authors note that it is how these sounds were used that is key, as “the more relevant and integrated the sounds are, they more they will help students understanding of the materials”.

#4 Students who liked listening to music and background noise did not do any better if their lessons had these. This suggests that their preferences do not accurately predict what will help them learn more.


Potential Implications

This study is a potential huge time saver for any one designing or delivering a lesson that uses a PowerPoint. Just because software offers a range of appealing and enticing animations, their implementation should be treated at best with caution, and at most with cynicism.

Essentially, the question everyone should ask themselves when creating new material is ‘if it does not enhance learning, is it worth it?’ Unless the answer is a definitive yes, it is best to probably save yourself the time, effort and energy you would have spent on it. Not only does it appear that less is more, but on many occasions, silence is in fact golden.


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