Thursday 5 April 2007

Cognitive load theory and being PowerPointless

More evidence that PowerPoint is, well, PowerPointless:

John Sweller, from the university's faculty of education, developed the "cognitive load theory".

"The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster," Professor Sweller said. "It should be ditched."

"It is effective to speak to a diagram, because it presents information in a different form. But it is not effective to speak the same words that are written, because it is putting too much load on the mind and decreases your ability to understand what is being presented."

If you're interested in more depth, I noticed that Anecdote picked up on some links to the original research at the University of New South Wales which summarises some key points about "Cognitive load theory":

  • Working memory is only limited when you’re learning new information. Once information is in long-term memory, it can be brought back to working memory in very large amounts.
  • In a classroom situation, only limited material is going to be retained, unless notes are taken or handed out.
  • PowerPoint presentations can backfire if the information on the screen is the same as that which is verbalized, because the audience’s attention will be split between the two.

However I've been avoiding death by PowerPoint for years and I don't agree that we need to ditch PowerPoint completely; we just need to use it with caution by planning the whole presentation, rather than just creating a PowerPoint.


  1. Couldn't agree more James. Over my last few presentations I've been trying to wean myself off words and onto pictures, diagrams, graphics. The response has been positive and I've felt more engaged.

    A great resource for this is the Presentation Zen blog at

  2. You've got a point - we don't need to automatically ditch PowerPoint. Mind you, because of the badly set up defaults it is easier to use it badly than well. One of the clients on a presentation skills training day I was running in the UK summed it up nicely: PowerPoint is no more evil than a gun - it's perfectly possible to do really good things with a gun, you don't have to use it to kill people... on the other hand it's much easier to kill people than to do something good.


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