How can I improve my powerpoint slide design?

Managing and reducing cognitive load is one of four key strategies identified in the literature for improving learning from lectures (Cerbin, 2018).  Making adjustments to slide design can help manage this cognitive overload.  Read on for 5 recommendations for improving your powerpoint slides, stemming from the cognitive theory of multimedia learning (Mayer, 2014).

Design principles that help students learn

1. Coherence and Segmenting

The principle: Respect the limited capacity for learners to take in information by showing one idea per slide, by putting up less text and using only relevant graphics.

If you’re going to be speaking, use fewer words. Most people will read ahead, thus ignoring the speaker, or will listen and ignore the slide, or will flip flop between the two and miss a bit of both.  Make sure your graphics are necessary and helpful, not distractors. If you put an image on your slides, some students may be trying to figure out its relevance rather than listening to you.

  • Coherence: Declutter and use less text. Show rather than tell.
  • Segmenting: Present only one idea or step at a time.

Instead of “One Slide Per Minute”, remember, “One Idea Per Slide“.

Coherence & segmenting by Beth Hundey

2. Signalling and Visual Cues

The principle: Highlight and organize essential material using the visual channel.

This principle includes a number of key tips:

    • Use visual outlines to prepare the audience for the presentation’s content.
    • Instead of using the topic as the title of the slide, write headlines.  These are more active in tone.
    • Highlight elements to connect and emphasize ideas.
    • Incorporate preattentive attributes. These strategies (like enclosure, colour, and size) help organize information at first sight.
    • Use position and shape to highlight key ideas, or create and break patterns.

Signalling & Visual cues by Beth Hundey

3. Redundancy and Channels

The principle: Reduce redundancy in information received by our ears and our eyes by reducing text and using keywords rather than a repeat of the narration.

While graphics are received by our eyes into our sensory memory, words can be received by either our ears or eyes.  Reduce the redundancy in these two channels (ears and eyes) by using words only sparingly on the slides while you are speaking. If you include many words on your slides, such as a quote, consider allowing your students to read the quote while you are silent.

  • Graphics and narration are more effective than graphics, narration, and on-screen text

Redundancy and Channels by Beth Hundey

4. Spatial Contiguity

The principle: Place corresponding words and graphics close together for deeper learning.

This principle is particularly important for students with limited prior knowledge, complex lessons, and interactive formats.

Spatial contiguity by Beth Hundey

5. Temporal Contiguity

The principle: Present graphics alongside narration rather than successively to allow the learner to build connections.

This principle is particularly important for long lessons and instructor paced learning (like a typical lecture).

Temporal contiguity by Beth Hundey



Cerbin, W. (2018). Improving student learning from lectures. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 4(3), 151-163.

Mayer, R. E. (2014). Research-based principles for designing multimedia instruction. In V. A Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (eds.) Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum (pp. 59-70). Division 2, American Psychological Association.

Schwabish, J. (2017). Better presentations: A guide for scholars, researchers, and wonks. New York: Columbia University Press

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