Developing memorable – and research aware – presentations

15 Oct

by David Langley, Center for Educational Innovation

In 2012, CEI staff did a comprehensive overview of the six principles for “sticky teaching” based Chip and Dan Heath’s best-selling book Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die (2008). Each principle was elaborated upon in detail, and I recommend heading to the Teaching Tips site listed above to get a thorough grounding. We’ve done well over 40 presentations on this topic in the last five years, and the presentations remain popular and much needed for a variety of audiences. A brief summary of each principle is below:

Simple—create a compact core message to establish your priorities.
Unexpected—gain and maintain the attention of your audience.
Concrete—ground your ideas in sensory detail and real-world examples.
Credible—use evidence to sell and support your ideas.
Emotional—motivate your audience to care.
Stories—inspire and teach your students how to act.

These principles provide sound direction for many course-related tasks—preparing and delivering a presentation, writing up a syllabus, creating assignments for students, or any other venue in which a concise and memorable message is delivered. That’s a pretty wide scope, encompassing a number of tasks confronting every teacher. The principles work because they are grounded in research findings and observation of professional practice in varied settings where persuasive messages are on display.

My intent in this post is to re-emphasize the role of the learning sciences for creating and delivering effective presentations. The Heath brothers produced a well-referenced Notes section in their book (2008, pp. 291-308) that supported the derivation of their six principles. Because research has often been used to discredit or de-emphasize presentations as a legitimate format for teaching (e.g., Freeman et al, 2014), it is ironic that there is also highly credible research that can be used to improve student learning during presentations.

Going beyond the Heath brothers’ rationale, I have landed on three simple, easily-applied findings from cognitive and affective science to maintain student momentum toward durable learning during presentations. As a teaching center specialist, it would seem easier to join the chorus of writers who view presentations with a measure of skepticism. But the pervasiveness of presentations in college classrooms cannot be ignored; indeed, my suggestion is to embrace their regularity rather than eschew their historical presence at universities. As Nancy Duarte, principal at her agency with the same name has stated on her website, “We did not invent presentations. We simply decided they matter. And we resolved to make them better.”

Finding #1:
The Retrieval Effect

Cognitive scientist Henry Roediger III is regularly credited with promoting the importance of the “testing” or retrieval effect for learning and memory. In essence, memories become more durable when we actually practice the task of trying to remember that information. Presentations can be improved by intentionally having students retrieve information from memory, prior to, during, or after the presentation. There are many ways to do this task, and most will look familiar to experienced teachers. Five examples are listed below:

  • Pause during a presentation and have students generate a summary or synthesis statement on what has been covered so far.
  • Have students write out a question about information they have been exposed to, then have neighbors help to answer the question.
  • Pause for 90 seconds during a presentation to have students review notes and write down the main point from the last section.
  • Near the end of the presentation, have students do a “3-2-1” exercise: write out 3 main points from the day’s class, 2 examples of a key concept, and 1 big question that still remains.
  • Test students using cumulative exams throughout the course (e.g., regularly draw topics from past weeks of the course into the current exam as well as your new material).

These exercises are examples of many “small teaching” steps (Lang, 2016) that are easily applied and can help to solidify the contents of virtually any presentation.

Finding #2:
Emotion is Crucial for Durable Learning

Findings from the field of affective science are becoming increasingly prominent for influencing teaching practice, most often through the construct of motivation (Cavenagh, 2016). In Switch: How to change things when change is hard (Heath & Heath, 2010), the authors portray emotion as an “Elephant” with a finicky nature. Capable of being lazy and looking for a quick payoff, the Elephant can easily overpower the rationale side of the brain on many fronts. Yet the Elephant also has enormous strengths—the necessary drive and energy to sustain deep attention and complete difficult tasks.

Carol Dweck’s popular book on mindsets (2006), Daniel Pink’s lucid portrayal of modern motivation theory (2009), and the regular contributions of the Heath brothers (2008, 2010) are excellent examples of harnessing emotion for goal attainment. For the purposes of this post, I have turned to Sarah Cavenagh’s recent book (2016) to aim specifically at how emotions can drive durable learning in classroom settings.

Cavenagh remarks that “one of the best predictors of whether an event…will be remembered is how emotional it is” (2016, p. 40). Multisensory experiences in the classroom, connected to an important concept or principle, appear to be a key lever for cementing down classroom information (Berk, 2012). In particular, emotions can enhance memory consolidation when faculty:

  • Bring movement, music, and video into a Power Point presentation. For example, a political science course on U. S. involvement in Iraq over the last decade could expand a lecture presentation by showing ill-treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison as an example of protections needed under the Geneva Convention.
  • Provide learner control over outcomes or activities (e.g., options for topics on a research paper or writing ground rules for student behavior during group projects.
  • Generate activities of (perceived) high value or relevance, e.g., bringing first year elementary school teachers into a freshman seminar course for education majors to describe how career goals evolve during the undergraduate experience.
  • Implement a service learning component, Service learning activities are especially useful because they address the student’s need for achieving a transcendent purpose beyond typical class activities. A common method to articulate these purposes is through reflective writing or facilitated discussion in class after the experience.

Cavenagh (2016) sees each of these activities as exemplifying one of the principal benefits of emotion, which is to “tag certain experiences and information as critical for our goals” (p. 41)and therefore worth remembering.

Finding #3:
The pervasive effects of prior knowledge

Cognitive psychologists have regularly emphasized the role of prior knowledge on new knowledge acquisition. Nearly 50 years ago, Ausubel (1968) remarked that “the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach…accordingly.” Drawing out and working with existing understandings is also a key principle for Bransford, Brown, & Cocking (2000) in their influential book on human learning. However extensive or meager, students will use any previous knowledge of your content to construct a knowledge network. Lang (2016) provides a number of ways to unearth existing knowledge in a presentation, among them:

a) at the start of the semester, use whole-class, group, or individual (written) knowledge probes on some foundational ideas to be covered in the course. For the public setting of whole-class or group discussion, one way to question students is “What have you heard other people say about ___________?”, which reduces initial reticence on revealing personal perspectives.

b) at the end of the first class of the semester, ask students to write out three questions they currently have about the subject matter and discuss their responses in the next class

c) prior to any class meeting with new content, have students take a “pre” quiz or respond to a few questions about the subject matter on the course management site, then summarize those results at the next class as a basis for discussion

Final Comments

Experienced faculty may well survey this post and recognize that many of their intuitions and reflections on developing presentations have been well-supported all along. And that is how it should be—for the most part. Our intuitive or lay theories of teaching are “legitimate premises” from which teachers can generate practice, requiring continual professionalization to enlarge or reform those premises (Holt-Reynolds, 1992). Research from the learning sciences provides that professionalization and can help to deepen the presentation skills of university teachers from any discipline.

After nearly 40 years of working in higher education—from teaching assistant to full time faculty and through my current role in professional development—I still feel energized when confronted with preparing a presentation. And it is embarrassing how much I would have changed in my presentations from the past given what I have learned in the last few years. I hesitate to single out one key reference from the list below as a starting point for new teachers. I fully respect the idiosyncratic decisions and inclinations that guide all teachers. But if Chip and Dan Heath had written their 2008 best seller Made to stick back in the 1970’s, I think I would have recognized its significance immediately for my own teaching. Their easily accessible pdf’s on both sticky presentations and sticky teaching, found on their member website, have proven invaluable for my continued learning about the nuances of generating memorable and understandable presentations.


Ausubel, D. (1968). Educational psychology: A cognitive view. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Berk, R. (2012). How to create ‘Thriller’ power points in the classroom! Innovative Higher Education,37, 141. doi :10.1007/s10755-011-9192-x.

Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Brown, P., Roediger, H., & McDaniel, M. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Cavenagh, S. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S., McDonough, M., Smith, M., Okoroafor, M., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in scieince, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(23), 8410-15.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2008). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. New York: Random House.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to change things when change is hard. New York: Broadway Books.

Holt-Reynolds, D. (1992). Personal history-based beliefs as relevant prior knowledge in course work. American Educational Research Journal, 29(2), 325-349.

Lang, J. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.







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