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Four Elements of Slide Design that Matter to Students’ Learning


The following resource was created by General Studies student Yarin Reindorp, during her time as a CTL Undergraduate Student Teaching and Learning Consultant, as part of the Students as Pedagogical Partners initiative.

“… well-designed and well-thought-out presentations help me digest the difficult concepts I learn, pay better attention to the important messages, and improve the ease with which I can engage with a lecture.” – Yarin Reindorp, School of General Studies, Neuroscience and Behavior major.

Before joining Columbia, I spent a few years working as an instructor and instructional developer. Those experiences gave me the opportunity to learn about the teaching tools and practices that help students learn better. Now as a student again, I find myself paying much attention to the modalities instructors use in the classroom to enhance our learning and reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned in my prior work in the context of my education. 

Almost every one of my classes at Columbia uses  PowerPoint slides as the main delivery method of course content. These slides play a major role in my ability to follow along with lectures, and continue to be an important study resource beyond the lecture itself. When slides are not designed with clarity and attention to detail, they can lose their effectiveness and usefulness. On the other hand, well-designed and well-thought-out presentations help me digest the difficult concepts I learn, pay better attention to the important messages, and improve the ease with which I can engage with a lecture. 

In my reflection, I highlight four elements of slide design that may seem inconsequential but can have a big impact on learning. I elaborate on each of them from my perspective as a student and discuss their importance which I have learned from my previous work experience. These are the fine details that have an enormous impact on my learning experience, which I hope will provide instructors with insight into a learner’s perspective on slide presentations.

1. Minimize Slide Text to Help Students Focus 

There is no exact formula for the amount of text that should go on a single slide. But for me, consolidating the information instructors put on a slide along with what they tell us orally, is not always a simple task. When a slide is crowded with text, I often find myself having to choose- either listen or read. And that way, I am more likely to miss the take-home message. When a slide has too little or no text, it is also easy to miss information and such slides become less useful as a study resource outside of class. An effective slide is one that minimizes the amount of text while addressing the most important information, highlighting key words, and including text description for images. A more concrete way to quantify text is one topic per slide. This way, the message is more digestible, and I can better direct my attention to the main ideas and understand the graphics.

2. Integrate Multimedia to Support Comprehension

When I previously received my instructor training, there was this notion that each learner relies primarily on one of 3 tools – visual, auditory, or tactile. Since then, it has become clearer that these tools work best based on what is being learned, and not on who the learner is. In my experience, visual tools (images, animations, graphs, etc.) are often the most practical and available out of the three, as they are more readily available online and easier to integrate into slides. As a student who depends on visuals to learn anything from languages to biology, I find them critical. For me, visual illustrations bring the information alive. They complement the text and narration and allow me to gain a more layered understanding of the concept at hand. 

Beyond visuals, however, using multiple means of representations such as videos, sound, demonstrations, and models, can help understanding and retention in significant ways. When I get to engage with material in more than just one of these modalities, I find the learning process more interesting, and I end up understanding it in more complex ways more quickly. One thing I find integral here is that my peers and I have different learning backgrounds, strengths, and challenges, and therefore using a multiplicity of modalities can help address these differences and once again enhance accessibility.

3. Format Consistently to Maintain Attention

The general format of a presentation might sound like an insignificant aspect, but in fact it can have a large impact on a student’s focus and ability to follow the presentation. Fine details such as the colors used, the font, and mostly the consistency of the format from one slide to the next, have had a substantial impact on the ease with which I can engage with lectures guided by PowerPoint presentations. I personally find that when slides have an inconsistent format (where the font varies across the slide deck, the color scheme is not consistent, etc.), the format itself serves as a distraction. When instructors are able to create a consistent look and feel to the presentation, I can really focus on the content. 

No graphic design skills are required for this to happen. There are plenty of free online predesigned professional templates on platforms such as Microsoft, Google slides, Canva, etc. If instructors decide to create their own design, I recommend paying attention to the font, sizes, and colors. The default is often to use a white background, text in black, and the preset font. However, I have found that slides that effectively use color can more successfully highlight important concepts and distinguish ideas from each other, enhance readability through contrasting colors for background and text, and make the presentation more engaging overall. 

4. Enhance Delivery Through Annotation

The transition to online learning in 2020 made the use of tablets boom in some of my classes. This gifted us with the opportunity to watch our instructors annotate a visual while speaking about it. I speak highly of this method because I think it made the use of visuals even more instructive and clear in many of my classes. With that being said, if the annotations aren’t clear, they lose their benefit altogether. Designing a presentation with enough space for annotations on the slide, using clear handwriting, using colors in the annotation itself, and using the annotation tools to highlight parts of the visual without covering it, have all proven to go a long way for me. This is an especially important point I feel, when the slides are shared with us after class. Good annotations on slides become a valuable study resource for reviewing class material and preparing for exams, and therefore, their clarity is particularly important.

Final Remarks

Well-designed slide presentations are not just visually appealing but help deliver information more effectively. They can help with absorbing and retaining information better as well as make learning more engaging. The points I shared here have guided my work as an instructor and a slide creator, and now as a student and a slide consumer, I feel their effect more than ever. They might sound little, but their effect can be mighty. For myself and many of my peers, I believe, these are the small changes that make all the difference in our learning experience.

Ask a Student!

Would you like to get a student perspective on your lecture slides? The CTL undergraduate Students as Pedagogical Partners are available to share their thoughts during the academic year. You are invited to submit your question and our student consultants will respond with their insights and experiences.