Presentation Fail Part II

Cat Xmas LightsA follow-up to my last post about presentations and the problem of transfer:

Last week students designed and delivered team presentations for the fourth time this semester. Most teams again did not communicate a coherent argument. Many of students’ essays submitted earlier in the week suffered from the same problem. I can’t tell if students simply ignored the essay template I had created — must I make this another graded assignment so it gets used? — or if they are incapable of using an outline to organize a piece of argumentative writing. Given that the essays are supposed to help students sort out their ideas before they begin collaborating on presentations, the presentations are garbage in, garbage out. 

From a more macro perspective, students appear unaware of the difference between haphazardly collecting facts about something and seeking information for something. Simply relaying what is described in the readings in the absence of an over-arching narrative muddles students’ messages to the point of incomprehensibility.

While being married to an English professor might make me more sensitive to the function of narrative than the typical undergraduate, it looks like students need some basic help with storytelling.

Effective storytelling persuades as well as informs. The ultimate goal is not to raise awareness but to motivate people to take action. This means a story should produce an emotional response in addition to communicating facts. As Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It’s quite possible that the unsatisfying results I’ve been getting from the essays and presentations are caused by the absence of an emotional hook. In these tasks, the application of theory to particular cases is supposed to supply the narrative arc, but students might not find this personally meaningful. They might not care about the answer they get when they ask themselves “so what?” 

Reframing these assignments in ways that encourage students to become emotionally invested in them will take some effort. At minimum I will need to make more explicit the connections between theoretical explanations and the consequences of policy decisions on ordinary individuals. 

A simple exercise that might help drive the connection home is a 100-word précis in which students state why something happened and why it mattered to who it happened to. But I don’t know yet how to integrate this with the theory essays.

2 Replies to “Presentation Fail Part II”

  1. I struggle to lead students to connect theory with practice, even in their own research. I even assign a “Global Issue Awareness Campaign” in my introductory international relations courses, where students are completely free to form small groups (or work as individuals), choose their own issues, and raise awareness and address solutions for their issues. They still fail to make any emotional connection, wrapped up in how to get a good grade (never realizing the good grade is automatic if devotion to the issue and assignment is visible). More students ask for prior examples to ensure good grades rather than discuss original approaches. This really confounds me. I guess at a large state school, students are so used to grade-driven work and so unused to taking the initiative that they cannot think of themselves as advocates for their own issues but rather agents of the system that must follow standard operating procedures.

  2. I work at a small private university and I see the same grade-driven focus. Many seem to regard college as an exercise in checking boxes. Check, check, check, graduate. They are either unable or unwilling to understand that just going through the motions is not what’s needed for success.

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