Running in-class presentations

My daughter reminds me that the last presentation I made, I ended up sobbing, so maybe take that into account

Absent an in-person class of my own to run these days, I’ve been interested in my children’s educations once more. Last week, this included a discussion about how to chose who had to do their English presentation in class.

Talking about it with the kids, it’s clear they had as many ideas as I did about the way(s) we go about this, shaped by their understanding of the exercise. And since it’s something that most of us have to do at some point, I thought it’d be handy to run through some ideas once again, ahead of your autumn/fall commitments.

Note, I’m going to put to one side presenting of work done in class, even if it involves presenting. I assume here that we’re really only looking at presentations that students have had to prepare beforehand.

First things first: what are you trying to achieve with a class presentation?

For my kids, there’s a requirement that they all do a short talk to class, to develop speaking and research skills. That’s really clear and defining; it’s also very unlikely to be your situation, if only because you don’t teach an English (or any other language) class, but a PoliSci one. Plus you probably set most of the curriculum.

So you probably had some other objectives in mind. What those might be is up to you, but you need to be clear to yourself about them, since it will shape whether and how a student presentation is used. So do you need everyone to do a presentation, or do you need all the presentation topics to be covered? What happens with the stuff that’s presented: do we never really hear of it again (please say no to this one BTW) or is it pulled back into other content (and if so, how)? Does it need to be individual presentations or can groups do it?

Once you have this clear, you can work on formats.

This covers the number of people presenting and the structures around it. Assuming that we’re not getting them to present just for its own sake, then what’s the interaction around the talk, in terms of questions and activities? That might be a short Q&A, in which you need to think about who is responsible for that (do you designate a respondent?), what it focuses on and how extensive it might be. To give a more full-on example, I used to run a class where the entire 2-hour session would start with three individual presentations with individual Q&A for clarification, then me working around whatever they had brought up to build connections between them and have more general class discussion: I had nothing specifically prepared beforehand to cover in class. You might want something more contained.

This is also where timing comes in. How long do you want them to speak for? This cuts a number of ways. Going longer allows more opportunity for detailed exploration of topics, but equally risks a lot of filler. Going shorter maybe concentrates the mind on key points, but has the danger of meaning nothing is said. Focus here on what the objective is: if it’s meant to be summative, then more space to let them reflect that makes sense, but it’s all about opening up class discussion, then brevity probably works better. In any case, you need to give clear signposts beforehand to students about expectations of format and content: maybe you even ask for a draft text beforehand to give some feed-forward.

All of this might also make you reflect on whether a verbal presentation is best. Depending on what you’re doing, maybe a poster or some other document format works better. Maybe you asked a group to make a policy brief and then to present it, in which case how do you guide them to the differing needs of the two elements?

But let’s move now to the agonised question of picking people to talk.

Simplicity says you work through the list of presentations in a fixed order. At school that’s often alphabetical (which is fine by me), but for us it might be driven by the topics (if you gave everyone one to prepare at the start of semester). That’s fine, but remember it might mean everyone else is relatively disengaged, because it’s not their turn.

So you might go random and pick people willy-nilly. That’s what my kids have for their English presentation, since ordering doesn’t really matter. Random ordering that’s not pre-disclosed means everyone needs to be ready for the first session and on their toes to talk, but obviously once they are done, they are done, so engagement raises its head once more.

‘Random’ comes in different flavours, of course. There’s actual random (picking names out of a hat), semi-random (looking round the class and picking people) and ‘not really random at all’ (you have some plan, but you chose not to share it). This last category shouldn’t be about personal vendettas, but you might want to start with someone you’re confident will do a good job, in order to anchor expectations, or to flex when a weaker student goes, so that it happens when they are in a good place to do it. The priority here is checking your prejudices first. Because you have some.

Of course, you can go further on random. I’ve written about my repeating random approach before, which gets everyone to prepare for a weekly topic, and has the possibility that they present more than once (or not at all). This does get around part of the disengagement issue, but also raises the risk of students not turning up at all, so it’s not a cure-all.

Finally, you need to work out your feedback strategy.

Some of this might be in class, from you or from other students, or it can be afterwards. The important point is that if you’re making this an activity then you need to valorise it properly. Lots of students really don’t like standing up and speaking in front of others, so helping them to reflect and develop that skill is really important.

Part of this can be going around again in a class, once they’ve had feedback, to use their new understanding more practically.

Pulling this all together, in class presentations can be a really useful tool in your teaching provision, but they need close attention. Make them purposeful, connected and with clear lines of utility for students to maximise the value for them and for you.

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