Research article “Less is More”

Photo #773427 by user:sofijab |

Mahar, et al. recently published an article describing some research on the effectiveness of static versus animated slides when introducing concepts. They conducted experiments where students saw either static slides, where all the information on the slide was presented at once, or animated slides, where pieces of information were brought in one at a time.

As a cognitive load theory “enthusiast” and an instructional designer, I would’ve initially averred that the animated slides would produce better results (i.e., better learning outcomes). According to Maher, et al., this was the exact opposite. Participants who received static slides performed better on the tests given at the end of the experiment.

 Here’s a quote (with some emphasis from me):

Even though the use of custom animation allows the introduction of new information incrementally the technique can adversely impact student learning experience when factual information is conveyed in the presentation. Subjects shown the static slides had better recall of graphics and text on the slides due to prolonged exposure to the information. The incremental introduction of concepts in dynamic slides’ was designed to prevent student exhaustion caused by visually presenting all concepts at once.

However, the dynamic slides lead to excessive processing demands and limited exposure time. In this study, we observed that static slides allowed better knowledge retention for male students, female students, students with academic excellence, students with poor academic performance, students in different academic years and students from different disciplines. The results are consistent with the aggregate results presented in Mahar et al. (2009) and Lowe (2003) who suggested that diminishing expected benefits of animations may be caused by excessive processing demands on learners and a reduced learner engagement (p.7).

So what does this mean practically? Reduce your “entrance” animations to an absolute minimum (in fact, get rid of any animation that does not convey “meaning,” though you can keep your slide transitions (but only “wipes and “fades,” please)). If you are going to cover complex concepts, show the students the entire concept, rather than building it up piece-by-piece. But be prepared to spend a lot of time on just one slide (this is not a bad thing, but a GOOD thing).

Remember that learners need time to process information, a precious resource that is often in short supply during a presentation. To focus attention on parts of a complex diagram or chart, use a piece of software like Pointer ($35-40.00 USD) from Netop. Pointer is a screen annotation tool that lets you “spotlight” areas of the screen to focus your audience’s attention to a particular image or area of a slide.

For extremely complex concepts, consider turning off the projector and guiding your audience through paper copies. This may be less “jazzy” than a slide presentation, but may prove to encourage much more effective and efficient learning of the content. Remember: a presentation doesn’t have to involve PowerPoint or Keynote slides!

Peace out, and be safe over the Labor Day holiday!






Mahar, S., Yaylacicegi, U. and Janicki, T. 2009. Less is More When Developing PowerPoint Animations. Information Systems Education Journal, 7 (82): 1-11.


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