PowerPoint Practices — In Learning

PowerPoint Practices — In Learning

PowerPoint has been used, abused, and used again. Millions of people have made, viewed, and analysed presentations, so there’s a lot of existing wisdom about best practices. Also, PowerPoint is being increasingly used in e-learning development. So here's a look at what PowerPoint practices are applicable to courseware development.

#1: Questions to the audience

Presentation veterans have long been saying that it helps to throw a question at the audience once in a while. Something that gets the audience thinking, something that elicits a response, and ultimately makes for a more engaging and focused session.

Courseware designers can take a cue from this. How about the occasional unstructured question, as a mental challenge rather than for recall? Something that subtly makes the learner think about the material he’s been absorbing?

#2: The 10/20/30 rule

You’ve probably heard about Guy Kawasaki in some context or the other (or if you haven’t, check out this link as a starting point). His 10/20/30 rule for PowerPoint goes: A max of 10 slides in a presentation, a max of 20 minutes for the PowerPoint itself, and a minimum of 30 point Arial for the font. For many folks, that rule makes a lot of good sense.

The learning angle I see here is this: Keep a healthy ratio of subject matter to recaps/quizzes/exercises/breaks. Don’t let 35 minutes of matter be followed by, say, a 5-minute quiz to end the topic.

As a related aside: Vocal critics of PowerPoint presentations often say never to read out what’s on the slide. “If you read out the stuff on the slide, your audience will ask, why is the slide there at all?” That’s basically the same as the familiar issue of narrative-with-text. Forget multiple channels and learning pace; if the narrator speaks out the text, why is the text there?

#3: Use a presenter

If you have a learn-at-home course, you don’t have a presenter (a virtual instructor). It’s quite doable these days to introduce a presenter into a pre-existing course; in fact, you have many options. You can add a presenter to a set of slides by recording a video and then using Zentation to combine the two. With Articulate Presenter, you can add missing elements to your slides – narration, video, quizzes, and more (really!) Clive Shepherd’s blog lists quite a few options.

#4: Chunking content

Seth Godin, whom I only know as a deeply insightful blogger, has this to say:

“Here's the deal: You should have to put $5 into the coffee fund for every single word on the wordiest slide in your deck. 400 words costs $2000. If that were true, would you use fewer words? A lot fewer?”

Seth says that about PowerPoint; it’s a software for making points. For learning content, I see “too many words per bullet” manifesting as laziness in structuring the material. I’ve too often seen the tendency to use bullets as substitutes for actually chunking the content. Here’s an example: I’ll write some things about apples and oranges, using bullets first, then actually chunking the matter.

The “bullets to the rescue” approach:

Fruits like apples and oranges are good for health
The old adage goes, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”
They contain lots of vitamins and minerals
In terms of vitamin C, oranges contain more than apples
“Chunking the content”:

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”

  • They’re good for health
  • Oranges, too!


  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Oranges better for vitamin C

In the first case, I just placed four sentences one after the other, each with a bullet. The bullets give you (and me!) the idea that I’ve chunked the content; it’s the lazy approach. In the second case, I chunked the matter, and reduced the word count in the process.

It’s not so much about presentation; it’s about organising material so that the learner understands better. That’s what we all want to do, but bullets tempt us to just let it be!

#5: Attention span

A primary concern for a presenter is attention span: “Will they get bored if I make this presentation 35 minutes?” In the learning sphere, it’s important to know how long a learner’s attention can be held, but rules of thumb range from “20 minutes” to “no more than 50 minutes”! To find out how long one topic can be allowed to go on, you’ll have to look at your learners, their setting, their familiarity with the subject, and more.

#6. Colours

Presenters use colour for emphasis and impact; colours can be even more significant in learning content. A couple of examples: Colour variations (across slides) from light to dark and vice versa can increase and relax focus. Page colours consistent with the foreground image can encourage absorption, while inconsistent colours can encourage the learner to step back and reflect. There’s more on colours in this post.

#7: Don’t trust any of the above!

If you’ve ever thought along the lines of “best practices for PowerPoint,” you will have thought about the presentation of bullets. Should they appear all at once or one after the other? How many bullets should be there on a slide?

I found a research paper exactly about PowerPoint best practices (citation). From the paper: “… in spite of the abundance of examples of poor use, PowerPoint can be an effective tool, when properly used. If it is true that the effectiveness of PowerPoint depends on proper practice, what then constitutes effective practice?” So the authors used PowerPoint as a classroom teaching aid to find out: (1) Are bullets good? (2) Are fewer bullets better? (3) Should bullets appear one after the other or all at the same time?

One conclusion of the study was that some “trusted” practices, like presenting bullets one at a time, aren’t valid. But remember that the research was about PowerPoint in a university setting, not about, say, corporate presentations. But fading in bullets on a presentation does seem to make sense…? What I get from here is that PowerPoint for presentations is different from PowerPoint for learning. I’m basically saying that PowerPoint best practices cannot be applied in a straightforward way to learning content. Think about it!

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Establishing Best Practices for the Use of PowerPoint™ as a Presentation Aid. Human Communication. A Publication of the Pacific and Asian Communication Association. Vol. 11, No.2, pp. 189 – 196; James Katt, Jennifer Murdock, Jeff Butler, Burt Pryor, all of the University of Central Florida. http://www.uab.edu/Communicationstudies/humancommunication/11.2.5.pdf.