Some other thoughts about presentations

To pick up on this week’s set of discussions on presentations, I throw in my own ideas here.  As Amanda and Chad have pointed out, the quality of presentations (by both students and colleagues) is highly variable. By coincidence, I was talking with a colleague yesterday, who was telling me about a seminar teacher she had when studying for her undergraduate degree, who would simply read out an essay in class.

Another problem that I have encountered relates to everyone else in the room, apart from the presenter.  If you have a rota of who’s presenting when (which would be the equitable thing), then there’s a strong disincentive to engage: “it’s not my turn” becomes the dominant theme.  Likewise, there’s no incentive to use a presentation as a starting point for discussion, since only the presenter gets credit.

At the heart of the problem – both in these cases and the ones that the others have discussed – is that the purpose of presentations is obscured: simply put, why should we be doing this?  This ‘so what?’ test is a benchmark that I have found to be surprisingly useful in guiding many areas of my pedagogic practice.  We might think here of some alternatives:

  • Presentations to communicate substantive knowledge.  Maybe we want the students to learn something about the subject area, in which case we need to create value to what is/should be being said, most obviously through assessment.  I have tried making assessments specifically based on the work that students present (to varying degrees of success);
  • Presentations to develop skills.  Clearly this is intrinsic to a presentation, but if we want students to learn from it, then we need to institutionalise feedback mechanisms, either from us as instructors or from peers;
  • Presentations to frame seminar debates.  This happens a lot, where someone presents, then we discuss.  Again, the presentation needs to have a clear link to that discussion: either you could make part of the grading about how the student leads the discussion beyond the presentation itself; or you can make the debate build explicitly on the presentation, perhaps by working to write a collaborative summary of the session (as I’ve been trying out this semester with my undergrads to great effect);
  • Presentations to make connections.  In retrospect, I’ve done this quite often, trying to get students to approach material I’ve covering elsewhere in a different way, in order to make new connections and find new ways into key issues.  Here, that process needs to be exposed, so that you don’t simply go over the same ground in the same way twice.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it does point to the need for good curriculum design in all aspects of teaching.  Structures, incentives and assessment need to reinforce each other if they are to be fully successful.

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