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Multimedia Presentations

More and more professors are using presentation technologies to bring visual aids into their classroom. More and more students expect a professor to distribute lecture slides to the class, either in hard copy or via the World Wide Web.

Professors deciding to use such slides in their teaching face many questions. What sorts of material should go on the slides? Are there limits to the amount of text one should put on a slide? How does one arrange the material for optimum viewing? Should the slides be distributed before class, after class, or not at all? If one decides to distribute them, should one do that in hard copy or via a course web site?

An instructor’s use of visual aids in teaching, like other elements of the teaching practice, should be congruent with the instructor’s general approach to teaching. However, there are general rules and guidelines that the instructor can follow; we attempt to develop some of these below. On this page we present briefly stated rules and guidelines and also provide some links to other resources for those who would like more information.

General Guidelines for Slide Design

Font selection

  • Sans serif fonts are better than serif fonts.
    Serif fonts have small embellishments or lines at the base of each letter. These embellishments make it easier to follow a line of text on the printed page, but they are a distraction on a screen. So select a sans serif font (like Helvetica or Arial) instead of a serif font (like Times New Roman) for your PowerPoint slides.
  • Font size is crucial.
    You can find many rules for determining the proper font size for a particular presentation setting. A good general rule is to use at least 28 point for body text and 38 point for heading text.

Working with colors.

  • Remember that some (perhaps 5 – 10%?) of people are colorblind, so avoid using such color combinations as red text on a green background.
  • Standard advice is to use light text on a dark background in projected presentations, but pay attention to the strength of the image projected by the projector. One graphics person suggested yellow text on an indigo background. (There are some who recommend dark text on a light background if the room is large.) (Note: if you’re using transparencies and an overhead projector, don’t use dark backgrounds.)
  • Pay attention to how different colors go together, and remember that the shades you see on your monitor are not necessarily the ones you’ll see when projecting your presentation.

Text and white space.

  • Blank space on a slide is important – as a general rule, if you find yourself wanting to reduce the font size so that you can get more text on the screen, it’s probably a good idea to consider redesigning the slide so that you have less text on it.
  • The standard limit is either 7 x 7 (seven lines, no more than seven words each) or 5 x 5 (five lines, no more than five words each) on each slide.

Suggestions for Uses of Slides

If you’re using slides to illustrate and/or support a lecture …..

  • Remember that lecture notes on a slide play a different role in a lecture than do lecture notes that only the lecturer can see. If you try to make them play the same role, you’re likely to find students reading your slides instead of listening to you.
  • You can use slides in lecture to
    • List major points of your lecture. Several of the major points might stay on the screen as you develop each of them in turn, providing a way for those listening to the lecture to place each point in the larger context.
    • List important terms. Again, one slide with several terms might remain on the screen for some time, allowing you to refer to each of them as you introduce them in your lecture.
    • Illustrate with images. Sometimes a picture can make words worth much more than they are without the picture.

While instructors tend to think of lectures when they think of using visual aids in teaching, images can also be used to support classroom discussions .

  • Move participants through stages of understanding. Suppose you have a discussion in which students are asked to work together to analyze a dataset and reach a particular conclusion about the dataset. You could begin with a slide that presents the dataset in a disorganized way and ask the students to work together to identify patterns. As the discussion progressed to identify patterns that you would expect students to identify, you might then present a slide that showed these patterns. The discussion would proceed, supported at each stage by a slide that exhibited the patterns identified at that stage.
  • Take, organize, project real-time notes on discussion. Students often take notes during a discussion. Have students take turns serving as primary notetaker for the discussion, recording these notes in real time in a word processor projected onto the screen. Students develop the skill of recording and organizing information as a discussion is taking place. Moreover, these notes are in electronic form and therefore easily revised and reproduced. Notes taken in one class session can provide the basis for discussions later in the term.
  • Organize small-group work. If you have students working in small groups, you can put prompts for group work on slides that are projected as the students do their work. You could move students gently from one stage to the next by changing the prompts.


  • PowerPoint tutorial. There are many tutorials for PowerPoint. Here’s one developed at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
  • Active Learning with PowerPoint. An in-depth discussion of strategies for teaching with PowerPoint from the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Minnesota.
  • PowerPoint: Possibilities and Problems. Eugene V. Gallagher and Michael Reder of Connecticut College discuss how teachers can use PowerPoint thoughtfully and effectively .
  • Serif vs sans serif fonts. Here’s a discussion that’s more fully developed than the one above, but still very brief.
  • Choices about font size. If you’re not satisfied with the general guidelines given above regarding font size in PowerPoint presentations, than you might consider using the rule described on this page.
  • Noted information designer Edward Tufte offers his thoughts on the uses and misuses of Power Point (and other presentation software) in his The Cognitive Style of Power Point, an excerpt of which is available here. Also see Tufte’s article, PowerPoint is Evil from the September 2003 issue of Wired magazine.It should be noted that in his analysis of PowerPoint, Tufte often neglects to address the use of PowerPoint (and other slideware) to complement what a speaker says. He points out that a PowerPoint slideshow is limited in the ways that it can convey information as a stand-alone document, but he doesn’t address ways that a slideshow can enhance an in-person presentation.
  • For a different approach to using PowerPoint and other slideware to complement an in-person presentation, read Garr Reynold’s advice on designing slides. Reynolds is the author of Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery. See also Reynolds’ Presentation Zen blog for additional thoughts on presentations.