Presenting & the Brain

powerpointicon.pngResearch points the finger at PowerPoint is an April 4, 2007 article posted by The Sydney Morning Herald. This article can be viewed through at least two lenses – presenting information using slide shows or thinking about how the brain works.

If you view the article through the first lens, presenting information using slide shows, then please include a visit to Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen blog, where he provides thoughtful and informative comment “on issues related to professional presentation design”.

If you view the article, as I did, through the second lens, thinking about how the brain works, then please continue reading this post. What follows are comments I made as part of a discussion taking place in a teacher’s group.

This is the second time I’ve seen this research mentioned, and yes, I do find the conclusions disturbing. In addition to what you note, it goes against what I see and hear at school. Modeling solutions can be helpful to a point, but giving solutions tends to cause people to turn off their thinking. My own children tell me they prefer thinking and find it insulting when teachers just lecture or provide all the answers.

“Pioneered at the University of NSW, the research shows the human brain processes and retains more information if it is digested in either its verbal or written form, but not both at the same time. … The findings show there are limits on the brain’s capacity to process and retain information in short-term memory.”

In fact, bombarding people with information (i.e. verbal and written form at the same time) has the potential for stimulus overload. However, research does show that providing access to information in multiple formats (verbal, visual, musical, physical, emotional…) is very helpful. The articles about Sweller’s work do not mention any of this. It strikes me that it’s all in Sweller’s interpretation of the findings. Professor Sweller seems to choose a provocative and “easy” approach to explaining his data: Too much information, heck, just give ’em the answers!

As for short-term memory, it’s long been known that there are “limits on the brain’s capacity to process and retain information in short-term memory” and there is plenty of research that shows how to deal with this: organize information in chunks, give plenty of time to process the information, and provide varied ways to connect with the information. From what I can tell, Sweller does not take any of this into consideration. He doesn’t seem as interested in figuring out how to stimulate the brain to interact with information; rather, he seems to want to make life easy for the brain, which, based upon my understanding of how the brain functions, will actually be counter productive to “learning”.

Granted, I have not seen his entire research or read an article written by him, so am just judging by other’s descriptions. From those descriptions the results seem rather shallow. What I hope is that people who read about Sweller’s work will think for themselves about the validity and usefulness of what he concludes, and not take his words as gospel.

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