Return to site

STARTING WITH TEXT

A short guide on managing text and cognitive load

Text is not our enemy. How we use text is the subject of this blog. This post is designed to deal with a concern some colleagues have expressed about the role of text in our teaching. MML’s position is that we have ‘a verbal system specialised for dealing directly with language’ and ‘a nonverbal (imagery) system specialised for dealing with non-linguistic objects and events’. Because of this structure, our brains are better able to manage information flow when incoming material - the content of our presentations - is spread between two channels instead of all being poured into one. When that happens, application of excessive text causes cognitive overload by flooding working memory, when there is another route to working memory (where the immediacy of teaching normally takes place) that is left dry. Like the glasses below, one is full to overflow with water being wasted, the other sits idle, unused but available

Additional work by David Roberts, 2018

Since we have two channels through which information gets to our working memory, we should use both, rather than overuse one. Instead of overflowing and empty glasses, it would look a bit like this:

Copyright David Roberts 2018

When we don’t do that, overload, or ‘Death by PowerPoint’, is the outcome. What MML is NOT saying is that we don’t need text. Its principles maintain that our audiences are best engaged when what we transmit to their brains, mirrors how their brains are built to receive it. If we transmit mainly on one channel, we are misaligned with our two-channel reception, like these railway lines.

Copyright David Roberts 2018

The problem initially appears to stem from the software we use, whether PowerPoint, Prezi, Keynote or any of the others. Furthermore, there is a tendency among some colleagues to work across eras: digital platforms are used to deliver analogue content. We sometimes pile slides high with the same text and documents we have always directed at students, sometimes even putting pdf’s onto slides so they become document delivery platforms. PowerPoint was created to professionalize presentations and take us away from chalk scrawl in illegible handwriting, create presentational consistency and be portable. It wasn’t designed to be ‘shovelware’, as Tom Schrand once called it. Catherine Adams wrote some time ago that we accumulate ‘habits of the mind’ – patterned behaviour around these technologies that perpetuate practice whether good or bad. This is compounded, I have long argued, by the technodeterministic nature of the software platforms we commonly use to teach. When we open PowerPoint and Keynote, the cursor blinks in the text placeholder, and we start typing, with little time to think about how else we can choose to use these platforms. We hit ‘enter’, get a new bullet-point, type, hit ‘enter’ and carry on. It leads us this way; Emeritus Professor Edward Tufte famously declared that ‘Power corrupts, and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely’. Some might say we are prisoners of the software. But there’s always an escape, and another way to use PowerPoint

Copyright David Roberts 2017

But Tufte was specifically talking about PowerPoint in its default setting, as I’ve outlined above: text in placeholders with bullet-points. MML exploits more fully PowerPoint’s capacity to project multiple media simultaneously, and very competently, speaking to how the brain is biologically hard-wired, instead of to sometimes intransigent pedagogic convention HE, especially in large group lectures.

 

But even before we get to using images, I’d suggest there are three easy, self-reinforcing and mutually-interdependent approaches to text that we can take that will reduce cognitive overload, thereby increasing engagement: divide, disperse, distribute. When we do the first, the rest follow. There’s hard scientific rationale for this, as we must expect for academic consideration.

 

Given that we know from 60 years of research by Allan Paivio and many others that too much text at once causes overload, we can disperse text. I use ‘disperse’ for a reason. I grew up in the 1970’s in England, hearing and reading about the Battle of Britain in 1940. The Royal Air Force stations upon which Britain’s very existence depended were exposed to Hitler’s bombers. We used to cluster the precious few fighter planes we had in one place on the airfields and in the early days, we paid the price when the German bombers came. So the RAF ‘dispersed’ its Spitfires and Hurricanes around the airfields. The same number of planes (words, in this analogy), but spread out in smaller numbers over more places (slides). We took fewer losses and the Battle was won.

1940 Hurricane fighter starting up on RAF airfield. Copyright David Roberts 2019

My maxim is ‘one line of text if possible’. That may seem extreme, but it’s good practice and it only seems extreme because it’s at odds with how Microsoft originally intended us. If we have a slide with 5 bullet points, make 5 slides with one bullet-point on each and make each of these one line only, where possible. And lose the bullet point. My students have thanked me for this. One said that even if I didn’t use images, not having slides full of text ‘feeling so oppressive and overwhelming’ made for a much better experience. We end up with lots more slides but no more content. It just takes a little getting used to. I make the slides black and the text sans serif and white, always 28-point font (for consistency and visibility; the greater the contrast, the less likelihood that room conditions will render slides unreadable). I use two fonts in total, per widely-accepted design rules.

Some may baulk at the thought of only giving a line or two of text per slide. But that’s just the visible text. We need slides not to be overloaded with text, but this doesn’t mean we don’t provide students with heavyweight content if we want to. This can be relocated to the ‘Notes View’ area of each slide. Below each slide is a movable horizontal bar. When the mouse is hovered over the bar, we can grab and move it up or down. In that block, we can deposit as much text as we wish. If students need access to lots of words, references, annotations to documents or whatever your will might be, if it once appeared on screen, it can be relocated to ‘Notes View’ where students can access it on demand. Our on-screen material remains controlled – dispersed – to reduce cognitive audio-textual overload and, in the process, we also free slide space for images.

 

Conclusion

Multimedia methods involve the expression of information in ways that suit the duality of the brain to receive text and images. But MML scholarship also talks about text on its own because it is part of a process of cumulative benefit, of building blocks. One of the building blocks is about the rate and density with which we transmit written text, and too much is bad for cognition, attention and engagement. The solution is to divide, disperse and distribute, so that we don’t overwhelm with words. This process naturally creates slide space for the use of images.

Some may baulk at the thought of only giving a line or two of text per slide. But that’s just the visible text. We need slides not to be overloaded with text, but this doesn’t mean we don’t provide students with heavyweight content if we want to. This can be relocated to the ‘Notes View’ area of each slide. Below each slide is a movable horizontal bar. When the mouse is hovered over the bar, we can grab and move it up or down. In that block, we can deposit as much text as we wish. If students need access to lots of words, references, annotations to documents or whatever your will might be, if it once appeared on screen, it can be relocated to ‘Notes View’ where students can access it on demand. Our on-screen material remains controlled – dispersed – to reduce cognitive audio-textual overload and, in the process, we also free slide space for images.

All Posts
×

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!

OK