First published in Times Higher Education July 17, 2014
By harnessing the power of images, academics can fully exploit students’ learning potential, says David Roberts
I have often wondered if one day I would find out that I’d been doing it wrong all along. One day, about a year ago, I did.
It happened when I came across the published research of Richard Mayer, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on the subject of multimedia learning. Mayer propounds that we have two processing elements at our disposal when we are learning: audio and visual. In a traditional lecture based on listening, his research suggests, we are able to deploy only 50 per cent of our learning potential. If images were used too, he says, we would learn better and faster. Other top-notch research supports this finding.
It isn’t as if I had been completely unaware that something was awry. I had been on the receiving end of other academics doing what I had been doing often enough, at conferences and at funders’ meetings. We were the architects of Death by PowerPoint.
As Stephen Kosslyn, emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of Clear and to the Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations, has said, the PowerPoint presentation is “now parodied, disparaged and blamed for failures to communicate clearly”. Do a Google search for “filetype:ppt” on any lecture subject, and you will see the evidence: page after page of soul-crushing bullet points and screen-filling text.
Yet outside the academy, I discovered, PowerPoint presentations are taking a form that can knock your socks off. Inspired by scholars such as Mayer, educational graphics experts and design gurus, the business world has been creating presentations that are almost entirely devoid of text. They use full-slide, high-quality images to convert the literal to the figurative: to attach visual representation to oratory.
After all, we all know that a picture’s worth a thousand words. According to graphics experts Ruth Colvin Clark and Chopeta Lyons, images “can draw attention to important elements in an instructional display [to] minimise divided attention; minimise extraneous mental work imposed on working memory; help learners construct new memories in long-term memory that support deeper understanding of content; promote deeper understanding; and make material interesting without depressing learning”. In short, we can use images, especially digital art, to exploit underused learning capacity.
We’re not to blame for the way we use PowerPoint. Its internal structure and operation actively discourage users from experimenting with alternatives. The range of slide templates with almost infinite colour and font variations, bullet point placeholders, backgrounds and transitions force us down particular presentational avenues. But we can break out of PowerPoint’s determinism.
I know, because I have done it. I use high-resolution images that can illustrate complex social relationships and combine them with limited key text – maybe seven words maximum. If I can’t find such images, I create them with Photoshop; I get free lessons at my university and have discovered a creative side of me that I didn’t know existed.
The impact has been dramatic. Colleagues have expressed astonishment at the difference it has made. A head of department called it a “game changer”, and some students described the lectures as the best they have ever attended, making them want to “turn up to 9am lectures” (I was as surprised as anyone). A third of my final year students got firsts in their assessment, confirmed by the external examiner. The university asked me to start a blog and make a series of short movies about what I was doing, and the National Union of Students and the Higher Education Academy are interested.
Students are paying a lot of money, and we should be giving as much consideration to the primary learning delivery system as we do to assessment and feedback. The academy should at least be aware of developments beyond the ivory tower silo. I hope it does not take another 20 years to catch up.