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The Cognitive Load of PowerPoint: Q&A With Richard E. Mayer

by Cliff Atkinson  |  
March 16, 2004

Many people have opinions about PowerPoint, but few can speak on the topic with the authority of Richard E. Mayer, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Named the most prolific researcher in the field of educational psychology, Rich is the author of 18 books and more than 250 articles and chapters. His 12 years of research in multimedia learning and problem solving have important implications for PowerPoint users.

Cliff Atkinson: Rich, the past 16 years has seen the rapid and widespread adoption of PowerPoint in corporations and educational institutions—an estimated 400 million copies now sit on desktops around the world. What do you make of this “PowerPoint phenomenon”?

Rich Mayer: The success of PowerPoint depends in part on the fundamental need of people to communicate with others within the same community of practice.

It is worthwhile to distinguish between two possible goals in making a PowerPoint presentation—information presentation, in which the goal is to present information to the audience, and cognitive guidance, in which the goal is to guide the audience in their processing of the presented information. When your goal is information presentation, PowerPoint slides can be full of information that may be extremely hard to process by the audience. However, since your goal is simply information presentation, you are not concerned with whether or not the audience can process the presented information.

When your goal is cognitive guidance, you want to make sure that the audience members build appropriate knowledge in their memories. Your job is to communicate in a way that will have the desired impact on the audience, so you need to design your slides so they are consistent with how people learn.

In my opinion, many of the examples of misuses of PowerPoint occur when the slides are designed to present information rather than to guide cognitive processing. In short, like any communication medium—including books—PowerPoint can be misused as a device for presenting information without regard for how the audience will process the presented information.

CA: In your research you define multimedia as “the presentation of material using both words and pictures.” Do your research findings in multimedia apply to PowerPoint users as well?

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Cliff Atkinson is an author, speaker, and consultant who translates complex ideas into communications that get results at He is the author of the bestselling Beyond Bullet Points, published in four editions by Microsoft Press.

LinkedIn: Cliff Atkinson

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