Dear Education Committee,
In the face of web conferencing and pandemic burnout, I want to make sure my slides are as engaging and effective as possible. I’ve seen lots of information about slide formatting, but I’m not always sure whether it can or should be applied to scientific slides. Can you share some principles of slide design that would apply specifically to lectures and more generally to scientific talks to maximize what people can learn from them? —Sliding to the End of the Semester
Dear Sliding to the End,
We can relate. People everywhere are overwhelmed and burnt out.
Our brains use most of the energy in our bodies, especially in the bodies of students who are sitting in hours of lectures each day. As neuroscience, psychology, and our own experiences tell us, our brains take every energy-saving shortcut available. If aspects of our slides or other instructional materials make them difficult to understand, it is more likely that students won’t be able to attend to all of the information and will simply check out. If our students check out, our goal of helping them learn something goes out the window along with their daydreams.
Furthermore, because college students can choose whether to pursue learning accommodations, instructors may overlook or be completely unaware of students’ learning needs. As we all pursue equitable and accessible education in hopes of diversifying and strengthening our respective fields, it is critical that each of us take the time to evaluate our instructional materials, including the slides we use, to identify and remove speed bumps or roadblocks to student learning. (Read more on inclusive/universal teaching & course design, as well as reasonable accommodations for different disabilities.)
Other than helping our students learn how to study more effectively, how can we overcome this intimidating curve? We recommend maximizing the clarity, and thus the effectiveness, of your slides using the principles below. This way, you can maximize the information students actively take in during a lecture, since we can’t control their studying methods.
Address one idea per slide.
That’s right. One. Idea. That’s all anyone can really focus on at a time anyway! As an exercise, consider breaking each idea in your lecture into the smallest pieces possible, and then put some of them back together into slightly larger, but still bite-sized, ideas. Segmenting your ideas either by slide or with animations can help you control what information your students are focused on, and thus help you walk them through complex ideas step-by-step.
This includes simplifying slides AND heavy use of animation. We suggest erring on the side of over-animating if you aren’t sure, and then ask a colleague for feedback. Additionally, you can highlight key concepts within a slide with bold colored text, outlines, or arrows to draw your students’ attention to what you most want them to see.
Choose images over text.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, while words are only worth one word each (at least, that’s how we think the saying should end). Research (Mayer) has shown that humans learn best from pictures paired with a few informative words rather than from text-heavy slides. Many people struggle to listen and read simultaneously, so minimizing words on your slides can help students focus. For accessibility purposes, it is helpful to have optional closed captioning if possible for those who prefer to or need to read along.
Students are more likely to retain information that is presented in a contiguous manner temporally and spatially.
Keep thematically connected information close together spatially and temporally in your slides. Try to avoid making your slides a game of “I Spy.” Instead, make it as easy as possible for your audience to track the connections between important information. For example, use the animation and grouping features in your presentation to synchronize information in time, and consider designing your slides around singular focal points.
Practice your timing so you are using your visuals for punctuation and emphasis. For instance, DO describe the electron transport chain when you bring up an image showing transfer between protein complexes. DO NOT explain the concept after you have already changed to the next slide.
You are the main attraction, not your slides.
Many of your students (and/or their families) have paid to hear/see you in class. We recommend personalizing the content of your slides to incorporate your voice and ideas. You are definitely cooler than a computer, and humans are better at learning from other humans than from computers. You can share with your students the quirky mnemonics you use to remember complex concepts. Or include that one YouTube video that helped an idea finally click for you. By occasionally sprinkling multiple types of media, such as videos or graphics, into your presentations, you are engaging more of your students’ minds and sensibilities. Breaking up lots of challenging learning content with personalization and well-placed multimedia can help with long-term retention.
Here are two of our own slides accompanied by suggestions of how we would improve them.
Purpose – To teach Italian high school students about neuronal signaling, specifically how myelin
sheaths increase the speed of signaling. The school recruited Americans to lecture their students in English on scientific topics they had already learned about in Italian to help them practice their technical English skills.
Audience – Italian high school students whose first language is Italian and second language is English.
- Relatively few words.
- Some words are related to some of the images.
- Multiple points on the same slide.
- The analogy of the myelinated neuron and
the insulated wire may be lost on students unfamiliar with how electricity works.
- The point about speed is not illustrated.
- Separate the points about structure and function into two slides.
- To help students think about the function, show a graph of signal speed in myelinated versus unmyelinated neurons so that students take home the message about the function of myelination.
Purpose – To introduce students to the chemical mechanisms underlying fluorescence. Students enter the course with some level of scientific research experience. This course is designed to ensure students fully comprehend some of the more common resources and strategies available for use in their research.
Audience – This comes from an introductory methods course for first-year PhD students entering a program for biomedical sciences.
- A plain black background helps the eye to focus on the information.
- Minimal words in simple language (e.g., light in, light out).
- Too much information on a single slide.
- No clearly stated take-home message, which makes it difficult to review afterward.
- Too much information, especially in the Jablonski Energy Diagram, which may make it especially difficult to process.
- Split the information across several slides, with one take-home message per slide.
- Cover up and reveal parts of the Jablonski diagram a little at a time to help students focus on understanding each part before putting it all together.
- Include only the most salient information. For instance, what are students expected to know/learn about the chromophore, and how does including the structure help them learn this?
We hope these principles and examples help as you struggle with the information overload we are all experiencing in our world today. If you found this article helpful, consider sharing it with your colleagues and students, posting it on social media (and tagging @ASCBiology), and shouting the principles of effective slide design from the rooftops!
We look forward to answering your questions in the future,
The Education Committee
Haley Barlow (@ hayrose12)
Alison Dell (@ dell_alison)
Liam Hallada (@ limlam17)
Critical editing by Erin Dolan (@ erindolan1)
To submit a question to Office Hours with the Education Committee, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
—The Education Committee
About the Author:
Haley R. Barlow is a Texas native and dog lover pursuing her PhD in developmental biology at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Liam P. Hallada started in the mountains of New Mexico and travelled to the river in Memphis, TN, to earn a PhD studying developmental neurobiology at the St. Jude Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.