When developing course material for online learning environments—especially narrated presentations—it is important to consider not only the content, but also the design of the material. If material is designed in a way that minimizes visual and cognitive distractions it will be easier for your students to engage with the content.
A particularly effective paradigm in understanding the relationship between content and design can be found in cognitive load theory articulated by John Sweller (1988, 1999). When students are processing learning materials, their total cognitive load is made up of intrinsic cognitive load and extraneous cognitive load. The intrinsic cognitive load is the amount of mental energy required to process the content of the learning at hand. The extraneous cognitive load is the amount of additional mental energy required by the form (design) of the material. Our goal in designing materials should be to minimize the extraneous cognitive load.
Here are a few easy-to-follow principles for designing narrated online presentations (as well as other learning materials) which minimize extraneous cognitive load…
Select fonts that are easy to read. Sometimes we have the tendency to use ornamental or “fun” fonts because we think they will increase engagement. Unfortunately, these fonts increase extraneous cognitive load greatly. The simplest example would be the use of an inappropriate font. Compare the following identical bits of text from Michelle Cook’s article:
Use no more than two fonts in one piece of learning material, and if you do use two fonts, make sure those fonts are quite different, such as a sans serif and a serif font.
Fonts and graphics should both make use of contrast in color. For example, you wouldn’t want to have yellow text on a white background. In addition to causing an increase in extraneous cognitive load, this also causes accessibility issues, especially for your colorblind students.
Avoid the use of more than two colors of text. Sometimes we get the urge to make our slides “pretty” by decorating them with lots of colors. Although this may be a wonderful idea for a work of art, it is counterproductive for narrated slides.
When creating materials such as PowerPoint slides with audio narration, remember that all authority comes from what you are saying. Also, remember the Cook quote above: use the slides to present the visual information while your voice presents the textual (verbal) information. In other words, the slides should have the absolute minimum in terms of text.
Here’s an example of information students learn in MB 480—General Parasitology, created by Sascha Hallett. Note that the text which appears in the first slide becomes narrated content in the second slide:
Bulleted material is good for documents, but not for narrated presentations. Avoid bullets like the plague. Let’s say you have a slide with five bullet points. What could you do? One possibility would be to create five slides—one for each point. One benefit to this method is that often the text can be eliminated completely and replaced with a visualization (graphic) of the idea you are discussing. Another method would be to use the “SmartArt” function in PowerPoint.
Pictures and Graphics
A picture is worth a thousand words. Therefore, selection of the appropriate picture or graphic is essential. If we use a picture that decorates a slide, the extraneous cognitive load will increase. If we use a picture that illustrates the message of the slide, the extraneous cognitive load will decrease. The ideal, however, is to use pictures that embody the message.
For more ideas on reducing extraneous cognitive load in your narrated presentations, I highly recommend Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds.
Please share your own tips for effective presentations in the “Leave a Reply” area below! Your insight would be greatly appreciated.