New research questions the benefits of custom animation in PowerPoint

I thought that simple, non-distracting animations that brought in slide elements one at a time as I verbally introduced them was helpful. I thought that it helped members of my audience focus on the slide element that I was talking about.

Seems I might be wrong.

Research carried out by Stephen Mahar, Ulku Yaylacicegi and Thomas Janicki found that students who were shown an animated PowerPoint slideshow learnt less than those that saw a non-animated slideshow.

When I first read of the research on Science Daily Could PowerPoint presentations be stifling learning? I thought the researchers might have indulged in unnecessary and distracting animation. The rather dramatic introduction to the Science Daily article did little to disabuse me of my assumption:

Bold and brassy titles slide into view, tasty slices of pie chart fill the screen one by one, and a hail of arrows spikes the points the lecturer hopes to highlight.

The PowerPoint custom animation they used

I asked Dr Stephen Mahar, one of the authors of the paper, to send me the PowerPoint files he used. He generously sent me samples of the Camtasia files (Camtasia is screencasting software that lets you record narration as you click through PowerPoint slides). I don’t yet have his permission to post them on the blog (I’ll put them up if I do get permission) but meanwhile here is my description of the Camtasia files. Update: I’ve been given permission to publish the screencasts. They’re here: Custom animation screencasts.

Note: If you’re not interested in the details, skip this bit. But if you’re like I was and want to dismiss the results of the research because you think it was “bad” animation you need to read this.

The slideshows were designed to teach internet security principles. The samples Dr Mahar sent me were three minutes long and were composed of three slides:

  1. One screenshot of a webpage
  2. One bullet-point slide with four bullets
  3. One bullet-point slide with five bullets – three with small images.

The slides and the narration of the animated version and the non-animated version were identical. The only difference was the animation. The screenshot slide had four animations:

  1. A simple entry of a labelled arrow to the “https” in the address bar
  2. A simple entry of a labelled arrow to the padlock in the address bar
  3. A simple entry of a circle around the words “view certificate”
  4. A zoom entry of the Certificate dialog box.

The zoom entry of the dialog box was a bit over the top, but all the other animations were pretty much what I would do, if I were having to present that information.

In the case of the bullet-point slides, each bullet-point was animated with a simple entry. I wouldn’t use bullet-points, but if I were forced to use bullet-points – this is how I would animate them.

The results

Ninety-three students were divided into two groups. They were demographically similar and got similar results on a test prior to the experiment. One group saw the animated version and the other saw the non-animated version.

increase-in-correct-answers2

Why would this be?

The authors give two reasons why animated slides may not help learning:

  1. Animation increases the load on working memory (this is called cognitive load)
  2. Animation decreases the time that students are exposed to the information.

Two limitations discussed by the authors

1. There was one question where students who saw the animated version got slightly more correct answers (58.93% to 56.76% for the non-animated version). The researchers speculate that this could be because the students were familiar with the concept tested by this question. Previous research has shown that where custom animation is used to deliver a familiar topic, the animation has a positive impact on student learning.

2. The authors also draw a distinction between teaching a conceptual topic (they classify internet security as a conceptual topic) and a problem-solving technique. As teaching a technique involves teaching one step at a time, with the steps building on each other, they speculate that in this situation the benefits of animation could outweigh the drawbacks.

My thoughts – the importance of cognitive load

1. Out of the sample that I was sent, two out of the three minutes of the screencast were based on bullet-point slides. If the proportion of bullet-point slides is similar in the full-length screencast (the length of the full screencast was 17: 30 minutes), the results may point to a problem with animating bullet-point slides. Trying to read bullet-point slides while the presenter talks increases cognitive load. Had the slides been more visual, the results might have been different.

2. The narration in the screencast was continuous. Students had to pay attention to an animation and the narration at the same time. This would definitely increase cognitive load. If the narrator had stayed silent during the animation, it would have reduced cognitive load and might have lead to different results.

This research has caused me to rethink my assumptions about simple animation. I’ll pay more attention to the amount of time my audience is exposed to different slide elements and ensure I stay silent as I introduce each animation. But I’m not yet convinced that all animation is bad. What are your thoughts?

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