Skip to Main Content

Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Assignments

This guide describes how to successfully complete specific assignments commonly assigned in social sciences and behavioral sciences courses.

Using Visual Aids

Giving a class presentation can be stressful under the best of circumstances. However, the effective use of presentation software to organize and structure the content of your work can help ease your anxiety because the content is already organized and ready to be seen by your audience. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you develop your presentation.

Using Presentation Software Effectively

  1. State no more than three main points on a slide. Slides that have too many words on them are not effective because audience members feel they have to hurry and read everything before you move to the next slide. This means they're more focused on finishing reading the slide than listening to what you are saying. Remember that the slides are intended to supplement and enhance what you are saying, not to replace it.
  2. Give your audience time to take notes. Pausing briefly before moving to the next slide also gives you the opportunity to collect your thoughts before continuing to the next point. This is important if a slide has a lot of information or the content is especially important.
  3. Don't read from the slides! Audience members really, really hate this. Summarize or explain what's on a slide. Only selectively read direct quotes or statements when you want to highlight something important or to emphasize a significant or complex issue.
  4. Make sure your audience can see the screen. Think about where are you standing. Do not stand in front of the screen. If there is no angle where everyone can see, then move around before moving to the next slide [for example, point to something for emphasis].
  5. Don't overcrowd your slides with too much detail. Using bright colors, pictures, and graphics can make your slides more interesting, but be aware of the fact that certain color combinations can be very hard to read from a distance. It may look fine on a computer screen, but projected in a large format, it can be overwhelming to the eye.
  6. Remember that PowerPoint or Prezi may look great, but if the technology goes wrong, it's a good idea to print out a handout as a backup just in case. If the audience is too large to do this, ensure that your notes are sufficiently detailed so that you can talk about your topic with out relying on the slides.
  7. I know you may be tempted to spend more time on producing creative graphics than on the actual talk, but remember: if your talk is poor, no amount of fancy graphics will save it!

Visual Guidelines for Presentation Slides

Pictures or other illustrations are used for the following reasons:

  • Illustrative -- provides a visual representation of a specific element of the presentation [e.g., "This graph shows population growth in the neighborhood over the last ten years...."].
  • Complementary -- adds new information or context to the subject matter of the presentation [e.g., "This photograph of newly installed benches shows how more parents are gathering to socialize in the courtyard before school lets out...."].
  • Explanatory -- not only represents an element of the presentation, but it offers explanatory information about that element or it provides a specific example [e.g., "This photograph of a vacant lot shows how trash accumulates in the open spaces of low income neighborhoods that the city's waste management department often ignores...."].
  • Decorative -- no direct relation to the content of the presentation but the graphics does provide an attractive or engaging visual element [usually not referred to during a presentation unless the audience reacts to it in some way]. However, do not overuse decorative graphics because it can be distracting.

NOTE:  The use of funny cartoons, silly pictures, or other attention-grabbing graphics can help your audience feel more comfortable and engaged by adding some humor to your presentation. However, don't over do it! Under most circumstances, there will be a level of professionalism expected in how you present your work. This doesn't mean that your presentation should be bland and tedious, but always keep in mind that funny graphics are no substitute for good content; overdoing it can distract to the point of annoying your audience [think of this in terms of the person who tells the same joke over and over again].

Guidelines for Presentation Slides

Below are basic guidelines to remember when composing your presentation slides. Most of this is common sense, but cutting and pasting text, moving things around, and revising content over time can create errors, so keep these general guidelines in mind when reviewing the final draft of your presentation.

  • Use the same text colors and fonts throughout; display graphic images in the same style
  • Keep the background consistent and subtle
  • Be sure the text contrasts well with the background
  • Generally use no more than six words per a line
  • Generally use no more than six lines per a slide
  • Avoid long sentences unless it is an important quotation
  • Larger font or bolded text indicates more important information
  • Font size generally ranges from 18 to 48 point
  • Fancy or cursive fonts can be hard to read
  • Words in all capital letters are hard to read
  • Avoid abbreviations and acronyms
  • Limit punctuation marks

NOTE:  Strategies to highlight a particular point during your presentation include capitalizing text, bolding text, or using a bright [but readable] color to contrast against the regular text. It's also appropriate to use italics to convey a direct quote. However, follow the general rule that less is more; use short declarative statements or as few words as possible to convey the meaning of what you are saying. Unlike research papers, presentation slides do not have to adhere to strict sentence grammar and paragraph rules.

Additional Advice


Handouts are a great idea if your audience isn't too big, but you don't want to spend a lot of time distributing them or having audience members distracting each other while they pass around a pile of materials [or trying to find a link to them]. If you do use handouts, think about whether you want to distribute them before or after your presentation. If possible, arrive early so you can place a copy on each chair. Another strategy to save paper is to leave a card on each seat listing the web site where the audience can access the content online. Use a link management platform like to shorten long URLs.

It is always a good idea to include space on the handout for people to take notes, a list of references, and your contact information so people can review them later or contact you if needed. You could also include some follow-up questions for discussion in your handouts [they can be referred to after the presentation to prompt questions from the audience or to spark a discussion]. Finally, if your handout is more than one double-sided page, staple them together before distributing so audience members aren't distracting themselves with trying to count whether they've got all the pages.

Using the Whiteboard

If there is a whiteboard behind you, put your name and contact information on the whiteboard. However, do this before your talk begins because writing on a board is time-consuming and you will have to turn your back on the audience and break your eye contact, which is never a good idea. If you must use a whiteboard at other points during the presentation, come prepared with the right markers [black or dark blue] and write words in large, legible handwriting so that people can read it from a distance [it is best to print rather than using cursive]. And, of course, remember to write things off to the side so you don't block people's view of what you just wrote while you're speaking!

Know the Space

If possible, know the room from the perspective of facing your audience before you give your presentation. The front of a classroom or auditorium feels very different from where you sit as a student. Also, if necessary, check the lighting so you avoid fiddling with the lights before your presentation. If available, it's best to darken the lighting above you, but keep the lights lit above the audience; the contrast helps your audience read the slides by eliminating glare. It is also useful to have someone sit at the very back of the room to give you get a sense of how loud you should talk if you can't use a microphone and how big you should write if you use a whiteboard behind you.

Appersona, Jennifer M.,  Eric L. Lawsa, and James A. Scepansky. “An Assessment of Student Preferences for PowerPoint Presentation Structure in Undergraduate Courses.” Computers and Education 50 (January 2008): 148-153; Bedford, Erin. Preparing Presentations With PowerPoint. GradHacker Blog. Inside Higher Education; Kountouzi, Barbara. PowerPoint DO's and DON'T's. Biomedical Library. University of Pennsylvania; Creating and Using Overheads. Kosslyn, Stephen M., Rogier A. Kievit, Alexandra G. Russell, and Jennifer M. Shephard. “PowerPoint presentation Flaws and Failures: A Psychological Analysis.” Frontiers in Psychology 3 (July 2012): Article 230; Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Designing an Effective PowerPoint Presentation: Quick Guide. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Giving an Oral Presentation. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra; Hallewell, Madeline J. and Natasa Lackovic. “Do Pictures `Tell' a Thousand Words in Lectures? How Lecturers Vocalise Photographs in Their Presentations.” Higher Education Research and Development 36 . (2017): 1166-1180; Inoue-Smitha, Yukiko and Shuyan Wang. “College-based Case Studies in Using PowerPoint Effectively.”  Cogent Education 3 (2016 ): 1-15.

Mayer's Twelve Principles of Multimedia Learning

Richard Mayer describes twelve research-based principles on the design and organization of multimedia presentations that support student learning. Although intended for faculty who are using prerecorded multimedia tools for class lectures, these principles can also be adapted to help students who are designing slides as part of their class presentations. Collectively, these principles provide a way to critically evaluate the overall quality of the multimedia elements used during your presentation. Think about these as you practice giving your presentation.

  • COHERENCE PRINCIPLE – people learn better when extraneous words, pictures, and sounds are excluded rather than included. This relates to the idea that you should present only the information the audience needs to know; be concise and avoid unnecessary text or visual effects in your slides--including transitional effects from one slide to the next--that could distract from the essential elements of your presentation.
  • SIGNALING PRINCIPLE – people learn better when cues that highlight the organization of the essential material are added. This can relate to highlighting key points during your presentation and using visual effects [highlighting text, bold text, arrows, etc.] to emphasize what your audience needs to pay attention to. If there is a lot of text, the audience will have trouble discerning what information is most important and how it is organized.
  • REDUNDANCY PRINCIPLE – people learn better from graphics and narration than from graphics, narration, and on-screen text. This can relate to the idea that using narration and graphics [e.g., a film clip] should be enough to relay the information to the audience. The rationale is that your audience may focus on the printed word rather than the relevant portions of your graphics. Presenting with graphics, narration, and on-screen text can be overwhelming for the audience.
  • SPATIAL CONTIGUITY PRINCIPLE – people learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen. This can relate to aligning the space between your text and visuals on the screen in such a way that they clearly relate to each other. Your audience will better understand what you are presenting if the text and visuals clearly correspond to each other.
  • TEMPORAL CONTIGUITY PRINCIPLE – people learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively. This relates to talking about content on your slides at the same time you are showing the information to the audience rather than showing the information then talking about it or vice versa.
  • SEGMENTING PRINCIPLE – people learn better when a multimedia lesson is presented in user-paced segments rather than as a continuous unit. This principle is based on the idea that your audience will learn the content better if your presentation is broken up into clear segments rather than a continuous stream of information. Make sure to embed [on screen or verbally] cues when you are transitioning from one piece of information to the next. This helps your audience process each part during the presentation. 
  • PRE-TRAINING PRINCIPLE – people learn better from a multimedia lesson when they know the names and characteristics of the main concepts. This relates to the idea that learning is more efficient if you already know the basics. If your presentation uses unfamiliar or technical terms, concepts, or theories, begin by defining them before introducing the rest of your content.
  • MODALITY PRINCIPLE – people learn better from graphics and narrations than from animation and on-screen text. In general, your audience will understand the content better from visuals and spoken words than from visuals and printed words. This does not mean you should not use text on a slide but, if there are visuals and too much text, your audience may be overwhelmed.
  • MULTIMEDIA PRINCIPLE – people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone. In general, images and text are more effective than text alone. Too much text can be overwhelming and your audience will probably focus on reading the text rather than listening to you during the presentation.
  • PERSONALIZATION PRINCIPLE – people learn better from multimedia lessons when words used during a presentation are in conversational style rather than formal style. This relates to the verbal part of your presentation. Practice using a more informal, conversational voice than a formal voice because research shows that using a conversational voice will improve the audience's overall engagement and ability to understand the content.
  • VOICE PRINCIPLE – people learn better when the narration in multimedia lessons is spoken in a friendly human voice rather than a machine voice. This principle is also most relevant to evaluating recorded lectures, but it can be modified to think about how to use language as a means of setting the audience at ease.
  • IMAGE PRINCIPLE – people do not necessarily learn better from a multimedia lesson when the speaker’s image is added to the screen. This principle is also most relevant to evaluating recorded lectures, but it can be modified to think about how you physically present information. Don't just stand there; use methods of non-verbal communication, such as, gesturing, eye contact, moving around, or conscious use of facial expressions, to help engage your audience.

Mayer, Richard E. "Research-based Principles for Designing Multimedia Instruction." In Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science Into the Curriculum. Victor A. Benassi and Catherine E. Overson, eds. (Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Scholar's Repository, 2014), pp. 59-70;  Mayer, Richard. Multimedia Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001; Mayer, Richard E., Julie Heiser, and Steve Lonn. "Cognitive Constraints on Multimedia Learning: When Presenting More Material Results in Less Understanding." Journal of Educational Psychology 93, 1 (2001): 187–198; DeBell, Andrew. How to Use Mayer’s 12 Principles of Multimedia [Examples Included]. Water Bear Learning Inc., 2020.