Research – Visual Aids

“Well-designed visuals do more than provide information; they bring order to the conversation.”
― Dale Ludwig and Greg Owen-Boger


Collins English Dictionary defines Visual Aids as things that you can look at, such as a film, model, map, or slides, to help you understand something or to remember information.

In this section we present pieces of research that have been done on visual aids in the context of presentations. Some of these are obvious and some contradictory – but the purpose is to present the facts.

RICHARD MAYER (2001 – 2020) – Multimedia Learning “People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.” (p 1.)

Richard E. Mayer is Distinguished Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Among his notable publications is “Multimedia Learning”, first published in 2001, the second edition was published in 2009 and the third edition in 2020, (Mayer 2020).

In his book Mayer reviews 15 principles of instructional design for depicting words and pictures in a learning context, he calls this the cognitive theory of multimedia learning (Mayer p ix).

The cognitive theory of multimedia learning, introduces the ideas of dual channels, limited capacity, and active processing. This theory is used to develop the 15 design principles (p 1). Here’s a great video that explains this concept.

Over the last 20 years Mayer continued to adapted the principles as new research came to hand. This first edition contained 7 principles (one was subsequently recategorised), his second contained 12 principles and the third grew to 15.

We have summarised these principles in the table below.

Principles for reducing extraneous processing (p. 399)
1. Coherence PrincipleTake out information that is irrelevant
2. Signalling PrincipleHighlight important points
3. Redundancy PrincipleDo not add text that is the same as what is spoken
4. Spatial Contiguity PrinciplePlace text next to the relevant part of the graphic
5. Temporal Contiguity PrinciplePresent corresponding graphics and narration at the same time
Principles for managing essential processing (p. 400)
6. Segmenting PrincipleBreak presentations into learner paced parts
7. Pre-Training PrincipleProvide pre reading that introduces new terms
8. Modality PrincipleSpeak to a graphic rather than rely on explanatory text
Principles for fostering generative processing (p. 401)
9. Multimedia PrincipleUse graphics and words not just words.
10. Personalisation PrincipleUse a conversational tone
11. Voice PrincipleDon’t replace a dynamic human voice with a machine voice.
12. Image PrincipleDon’t use images of yourself on slides – use video.
13. Embodiment PrincipleUse gestures, eye contact, facial expression and movement
14. Immersion PrincipleDon’t use 3D VR unless it has a specific purpose. “Cool” VR can be distracting
15. Generative Activity PrincipleInterlace the presentation with activities that engage the audience eg summaries, drawing,
self explaining etc.
  • Colour for above. Dates signify when the principle was first introduced
  • 2001
  • 2009
  • 2020

Here’s a video with Richard Mayer which may also be of interest.

VICTOR GRECH (2009) – Optimisation of PowerPoint presentations and skills.

This paper from 2009 examines Mayers12 Principles and makes the following conclusion:

” Slide shows should supplement, and not substitute a presentation.
A slide show is not an opportunity for a speaker to showcase the software but a tool to convey lucid information to an audience.
Avoid prolixity, complexity and gaucheness. The key principles are simplicity, brevity, cogency and clarity.” (Grech, V 2018, p. 55)

SAN BOLKAN (2019) – Segmented PowerPoint Presentations

In essence this paper by Bolkan (2019) supports Mayers Segmentation Principle as mentioned above. Here it states “Based on the results presented in this manuscript, readers may conclude that using animations to segment visual information can help students determine the most appropriate information to pay attention to while listening to their course lectures.

Just to be clear, the author is referring to builds, where points or segments appear one at a time not all at once. Animations does not refer to the use of clip art for example.

STEPHEN KOSSLYN (2012)PowerPoint® presentation flaws and failures: a psychological analysis.

This research, conducted in 2012, comprised three studies which analysed how well PowerPoint® slideshows, slides, and presentations respect principles of human perception, memory, and comprehension (p17).

They established eight communication principles which they categorised under three headings as follows (p 6-8):

CategoriesPrinciplesExamples of violations
Encoding Processes1. DiscriminabilityAll upper case, all italics or all bold type faces are used.
2. Perceptual OrganisationGrid lines not included in tables
3. SalienceDifferent colours are not being used for emphasis or to specify
Working memory4. Limited capacityBulleted items are not presented individually, growing the list from the top to the bottom
5. Informative ChangeThere is no crisp ending to signal that the presentation, or a given part, is over
Accessing Long Term memory6. Appropriate KnowledgeNon-standard or unfamiliar display formats are used
7. CompatibilityThe layout of a chart is not compatible with the subject matter
8. RelevanceEither more or less detail than requires for the point is presented

Whilst some of the violations of the principles seem obvious and inconsequential they are none-the-less the most common mistakes people make in putting together ppt presentations which impact the audience. In the study they describe another 129 violations.

In the appendix to the study (p. 21-22) they highlight some the most prevalent and annoying violations such as:

  • Reading word for word from notes or from the notes themselves
  • The main point being obscured by lots of irrelevant detail
  • Not enough material provided to support the main point.
  • The presentation was too slow
  • The presentation contained too much material to absorb before the next slide was presented.

The last part of the study hypothesised that an audience may be affected by the violation of the principles but not even know it (p.17). So subconsciously the audience is potentially judging you and forming a negative impression.


Bolkan, S 2019, ‘Facilitating student attention with multimedia presentations: examining the effects of segmented PowerPoint presentations on student learning’, Communication Education, vol. 68, no. 1, 2019/01/02, pp. 61-79.

Grech, V 2018, ‘WASP (Write a Scientific Paper): Optimisation of PowerPoint presentations and skills’, Early Human Development, vol. 125, 2018/10/01/, pp. 53-56.

Kosslyn, S, Kievit, R, Russell, A & Shephard, J 2012, ‘PowerPoint® Presentation Flaws and Failures: A Psychological Analysis’, Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 3, no. 230, 2012-July-17

Mayer, RE 2020, Multimedia learning, Third edition.edn., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom ; New York, NY.