The Other Side of Presenting: Teaching Students to be Good Audience Members

Recently I sat in on a series of presentations given by non-native English speakers in a professional setting. The small audience of about fifteen people consisted of faculty, students, and a few working professionals.   The presenters were for the most part very engaging, speaking on a variety of important international issues, with a focus on the experiences of countries outside the USA. The audience skills of the participants, however, can be described at best as very poor, and at worst as downright embarrassing. Here is a short list of the behaviors the group exhibited that I found to be disrespectful of the speakers and their time:

Feel it all you like, just don’t show it. .gif via Wikipedia Commons
  • Openly engaging with their phone or device and not paying attention
  • Falling asleep
  • Facial expressions exhibiting extreme boredom, often combined with excessive yawning and sighing
  • Interrupting the speaker to ask non-clarifying questions when the speaker asked that such questions be held to the Q&A, and refusing to let the speaker return to their prepared remarks until they had an answer.
  • Asking questions on points that the speaker had just addressed that clearly indicated the questioner had not been paying any attention.
  • Asking questions that were rudely phrased or in some other way directly insulted the speaker. Examples would be asking the speaker in a patronizing tone if they had ever considered x (where x is some very obvious point that any expert on the subject would of course have considered), or indicating that the speaker’s home country could improve on some area if only they emulated the USA.
  • Using complex sentence structure and meandering through a question without forethought when addressing a non-native speaker with limited English skills.
  • Dominating the Q&A without letting other audience members talk or conversely, dead silence when the Q&A began.
  • Interrupting the speaker to add personal thoughts and examples in a way that suggested that they considered themselves an expert on the material and that it was their job to instruct the rest of the group on the topic.

It occurred to me after these sessions that in all of the ongoing discussion of increasing skill-based training in the college classroom, that this crucial skill—how to behave professionally when listening to a presentation—is rarely mentioned, much less taught. And yet, students and working professionals will, on the whole, spend much more of their time listening to presentations than giving them. Oral communication training, therefore, should probably do a better job of taking this into account.

So how might we do this?

First, we have to share the norms of audience membership with our students, who may not have had good models. Simple talking with students about expected behaviors– staying off their phones, paying attention, not monopolizing the Q&A–, helps them learn the norms of professional behavior and can aid them in recognizing where they themselves excel and fall short.

The next step would be through incentivizing norms of good audience citizenship. Part of the course grade can be devoted to ‘professional conduct’, where students earn 100% just for showing up on time, paying attention, obeying classroom norms, etc. For student presentations, part of their grade can be on their participation quality while being in the audience. In that case, they are rewarded for coming prepared, taking notes, and asking relevant, thoughtfully worded questions.

Finally, an active learning exercise would work well for teaching this skill. For example, ask students to produce a summary and good question at the end of a presentation, as doing so will require them to pay close attention. Or make a game show of one of your lectures, where students get to buzz each other if they exhibit ‘bad behaviors’ and award points to each other for ‘good behaviors’. You could pass around index cards with various behaviors on them for students to model, give them five minutes to do so during a short lesson, and then see which behaviors they can identify. Examples could be ‘play on your phone during this lesson’, ‘pretend to fall asleep’ or ‘interrupt the instructor to ask an unrelated question about the syllabus’. This can be done throughout the semester as a way to keep good audience behaviors salient in students’ minds.

The key is simply keeping in mind that our students do not necessarily intrinsically know how to be respectful participants in a presentation. To the extent that we see developing oral communication skills as part of our teaching task (itself a potentially questionable claim), we should consider the importance of training our students to work on this crucial side of the skill as well.

Tinkering with Comparative Politics (Again)

Tinker ToysI’ve begun tinkering again with my comparative politics course, mainly because I’m still not satisfied with what students are getting from it. Previous discussions on this topic include:

So, yes, this course has been a source of frustration for a long time.

As I have noted previously, the essay templates that I created for last semester’s class didn’t work well. The templates were intended to be preparatory exercises for essays and presentations, but the application of theory required by the former was not evident in the latter. So maybe my template was badly designed.

For the next time around, I’ve created separate templates for each of the three theoretical perspective I want students to use as analytical lenses:

These new templates are more specific in what they ask for than the single older version. Perhaps this replaces a demand for creative thinking with an excessive level of step-by-step guidance, but I’m willing to live with that if the end product is better.

Instead of trying to get students to improve their essays by tacking on yet another writing assignment, I could simply drop the essays altogether and rely on the templates as scaffolding exercises for in-class team presentations. Each student would be at minimum accountable for choosing a theoretical perspective and completing the appropriate template at five separate points during the semester. There is a good chance that members of a team will select different perspectives and will need to decide on which one will make the strongest presentation. Teams will then compete against each as usual.

Abandoning the essays will reduce the amount of expository writing, but given their content in past iterations of the course, students weren’t learning much from them anyway. On my end, grading will be easier, especially if I convert the templates into an LMS-based fill-in-the-text-box format.

Flipping conference presentations

Possible source of confusion

I’m back in the office after a fabulous week of learning & teaching-related events. OK, maybe the exam board I went to wasn’t fabulous, but it was certainly instructive.

However, the big thing was going out to Chisinau in Moldova – the world’s second-least visited country – for a workshop of INOTLES, to discuss how we implement all our fine work in the partner institutions.

As workshops go, it went well: sensible amounts of time of different activities, a healthy mix of presentation and discussion, all facilitated by a positive environment and (ahem) local produce.

But, as is usual in such situations, I got me thinking about how we run such meetings of academics, but least because I was also having conversations about the next European Teaching & Learning Conference (see my posts from the last one).

Asking for ideas about how to be more engaging, I came up with a bunch of very radical stuff. However, it lately transpired that I had been drinking and that very little of it was actually workable, so it was back to the drawing board on the plane home.

The one idea that did seem to have something to it was the notion of a ‘flipped conference presentation’.

Basically, you’d ask people to produce a paper (as usual), but to then record a podcast of their presentation to post online, so that people could watch before the conference, and then use the panel time for discussion.

This would obviate the situation we all know, of a panel that runs out of time for questions. It would also be a learning experience for many, so they could see how simple recording yourself can be, which they could then take into the classroom. They win, we win, lovely.

It’s something I’ve not heard of before, but a quick google search suggests that I’ve far from the first to have the idea – try Jack Yensen, for example, or this example from Michael Seery. And props to Daniel Lambach for the link to Rom’s piece in PS that I’d missed.

Of course, this is not without its challenges. Just as people don’t always read papers before a conference, they might not watch all the podcasts and then they have little to go on when they turn up to the panel. Lots of signposting beforehand might help, as might a panel structure where the chair ‘interviews’ the panellists on common themes in a first section of time, before opening up to questions from the floor.

Technical issues might also pop up. If it’s ‘something not working’ then a conference helpdesk would resolve it. If it’s ‘this is stupid’ then either you have to be flexible, or you could offer another way out.

However, my thought of a way out might not strike you as very desirable.

So, something to think about.

As you’ll note from the two examples of others doing this, it’s not a PoliSci thing, nor even a social science thing, but a pedagogy thing. Another good reason to cast your net widely.

Google Forms

Google Cookie MonsterAs I wrote in my post on the perils of small classes, this past semester I used Google Forms to create a digital ballot for presentation competitions. The ballot worked well — students could hide their votes from other students, and tabulating the results only took a few seconds on my part.

The success of the ballot led me to adopt Google Forms for end-of-semester teammate evaluations. This turned out to be a much simpler method of incorporating individual accountability into collaborative projects than the worksheets I had used previously in a first-year seminar and a capstone course. No time wasted in class while students complete evaluation forms, and no entering of numerical data into a spreadsheet. I create one form for the whole class, which I send out by embedding the link in one email. Google does the rest for me.

Some students failed to follow directions, but that happens regardless of whether an evaluation is on paper or electronic. As stated on the forms I created, I just deleted those responses from the results.

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.

Presentation Fail

More on this semester’s comparative politics course:

Blind MonkeyAfter doing the in-class exercise on how to produce a concise thesis statement, I created this template for students to use when writing essays in which they apply theory to historical events. We shall see if students take advantage of it on the next essay assignment.

Student presentations have also been problematic. My instructions for this task have been:

Your team’s presentation needs to discuss which theoretical perspective (rational actor, structure, or culture) best matches the readings for your theme for this geographic region. Include specific examples from the readings to support your argument.

Teams create their presentations after their members have individually written essays that accomplish the same function, a deliberate sequence on my part. However, the presentations have been terribly organized — no clear thesis statement and few to no examples drawn from readings that actually support whatever argument students think they are communicating.

It’s possible that my directions are still too broad and that students need more step-by-step instructions; if so, the easy solution is to modify the template that I created for essays and require that teams use it when designing presentations. 

I don’t really want to do this. I prefer students to be creative in their approach to solving problems and to take responsibility for their learning. To continuously break tasks down into smaller pieces and decrease the need for effort or ingenuity risks turning students into box-checking monkeys. Yet without enough structure it is unlikely that an assignment will serve its intended purpose.

This tension reflects the difficulty in overcoming the problem of transfer. My assignments — which in this course include fourteen one-page responses to readings, five multi-page essays, and five presentations — represent multiple opportunities for each student to develop a single skill, the effective communication of an argument. Yet students don’t see this. They are blind to the possibility that a technique that they have learned to use in one context can be successfully applied in another one. After fifteen years as a professor, I still am trying to figure out how to move students from needing a list of steps to follow to being able to recognize that they already have the tools needed to figure things out for themselves. 

Mad Men of the 19th Century

Chinese MenLast week I gave a brief presentation on John Thompson’s China in one of the small classes I’m teaching this semester. For the second part of class, I gave students this team-based collaborative exercise, which I’ve named Mad Men of the 19th Century:

The year is 1878. You work for the Vanderbilt Exotic Travels Company in Newport, Rhode Island, a company that arranges luxury travel expeditions to foreign lands. The company has launched a new tour: a nine-week expedition to China.

Your team’s task is to choose two images from John Thompson’s photo compendium – one view (a landscape or street scene) and one type (a portrait of an individual) – for a brochure that promotes the tour to China. You team will need to prepare a five to seven minute sales presentation that uses either the five C’s, juxtaposition, or framing to explain why these two photos will convince people to pay $1,489 to join the tour. Teams will deliver their presentations in today’s class.

Your team’s presentation should focus on answering two questions: What sells a product? What will sell this product?

My primary goal for the exercise? Get students to explore the biases contained in what at first glance appears to be an objective visual historical record, through an activity that has more authenticity than an abstract academic essay. Since I thought of this exercise at the last minute, I had low expectations, but it went fairly well. Students did interpret the photographs chosen by their teams in meaningful ways. I did notice that students are generally unfamiliar with tasks that simulate what happens in the workplace — in this case, the use of images to communicate specific messages — which is extremely unfortunate.

Does Size Matter? The Perils of Small Classes

JawsSome of my courses this semester have such small enrollments that team-based projects and classroom activities have become problematic.

Balloting in presentation competitions is one minor example that I have apparently fixed. I regularly hold classroom competitions in which teams of students present on a topic and then select the winning team by voting with Monopoly money (see here, here, and here for more details). When voting, students come to the front of the room and place their money on placards with team numbers written on them — the only rule being that students cannot vote for their own team.

In the first two competitions in one course I noticed little variation in the sums of money received by different teams, even though some presentations were clearly superior to others. I asked the class about this unlikely result. I found out that in such a small class where everyone has interacted in some fashion with everyone else, students did not want to risk publicly embarrassing badly-performing peers or be judged as cruel, so they distributed their money evenly across teams regardless of presentation quality. My solution? Create a ballot on Google Forms through which students can anonymously select the best-performing team. After the last presentation of the day, I email students the link and they submit their responses. Students’ votes now better reflect the quality of the presentations. I also find that it’s easier to tally results with a spreadsheet on Google than to count paper money.

I don’t know a similarly-easy solution to other size-related problems. I recently used an ICONS simulation for the first time (more on that experience in a future post) in a class with only eleven students. Six nation-states comprised the simulation’s actors, so five states were represented by two students and one state by just a single student. If the latter student had been absent on either of the days I ran the simulation, or if two students from the same team had been absent, the exercise would have been wrecked.

In the same course, I had organized a significant portion of classroom time around a sequence of eight topics. For each topic, a student team was supposed to give a mini-lecture and then lead the rest of the class through an activity for some active learning-based peer-to-peer instruction. Then in the subsequent class, students take a quiz on the topic to reinforce the previously-presented material. With only eleven students, I could form only four teams, which left me with the task of delivering the content for half of the topics in the syllabus — defeating the main purpose of the exercise for fifty percent of the time.

Given that my students have priorities in life that often conflict with attending class, I now believe that teams should contain at least four or five students. With only two or three students, there is too high a probability that most or all members of the team will be absent on any particular day. This in fact happened yesterday: only a single member of two different teams attended class.

But if I increase the size of teams in a class with ten to twelve students, that means only two or three teams. Such a small number of teams is too few to expose students to multiple perspectives on a particular topic by means of competitive presentations. It is also too few to adequately incorporate peer instruction across an entire semester, unless the teams that exist are responsible for teaching multiple topics, and this increases the risk that students will be exposed several times to a terribly-performing team.

Why not return individually-completed projects and presentations? I prefer to avoid this option, because it gives students the message that collaboration is unimportant. As I’ve said before, group work matters. For example, individual writing assignments mean that I am the only person who ever reads what students write, which diminishes the authenticity of assignments and leads to lower quality work. And while it may be possible to squeeze as many as six individually-delivered presentations into a 50- or 75-minute time block, a class with six or fewer students doesn’t meet the minimum enrollment requirement at my university. It probably doesn’t at yours either.

How to present

You know what I mean, right?

Reading this post from Sarah Knowles got me thinking about public speaking, for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s a really important part of what we do as educators. And secondly, it’s something that a lot of us worry about.

Effective speaking really matters, because it’s the primary communication tool in the classroom. Whether we flip it or not, we need to be able to deliver meaningful content to students, in a form that they can understand, process and then use in their learning.

All of Sarah’s points are good ones, but to them I would add one more: It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.

This is the subtitle of one of the many books about speaking/negotiating that sit on my shelves (and also get used, to be clear). Essentially, it’s just about reminding yourself that all your internal processes and previous experiences are not shared through your communication, until the words and forms that you do actually use. Similarly, those you communicate with will be bringing their own thoughts and experiences to what you say.

The upshot is that you not only have to be clear for yourself, but clear for others.

This sounds a bit like a truism, but it’s actually quite tricky to follow, precisely because you so dominate your thinking. To step outside of yourself and ask what it is that someone else will understand of what you say takes a degree of self-awareness and empathy.  You not only need to think about what those other people know, but also how they might feel about the subject.

To take a pertinent example, I’m in the middle of a run of events at other universities, talking about different learning & teaching matters. Sure, I’ve got ideas and opinions about what we’re discussing, but I’m having to moderate that against the context in which we sit. That means thinking about the institutional context (if we’re doing a programme validation), the personalities involved, and the ultimate objective of the exercise. With all that in mind, communication can be better framed to move us all in that direction.

But perhaps it’s easier* to put it this way: you wouldn’t talk the same way to your boss as you would your mates in the pub (probably), just as you know how to talk with your best friend, because you know how they tick. Think about why that is, and then extend it much more widely.

In short, you’re most of the way there.


* – And there I am, trying to think about how you’re reading this [sic]

Using Webinars in Political Science Education

As part of our continuing series of guest contributions, John FitzGibbon (Canterbury Christ Church) talks about his experience with webinars:

I’ve been using Webinars for just over a year in my teaching here at CCCU and I think it is time to evaluate them as a form of teaching practice.

What you may ask, is a Webinar?  Generally it is understood as an online ‘event’ hosted by a particular organisation and broadcast to a select group of users.  This typically takes the form of a live video broadcast.  Obviously given different disciplines there can be huge variety in content for this live video and this blog post will focus on how they can apply for Politics/International Relations and the Social Sciences more generally. But the potential wider educational impact of using Webinars is clear.

Philippe Legrain webinar


I  have been using them in two main formats: 1. Hosted and organised by external partners, 2. Hosted and organised by myself.  There have been mixed results with both approaches but overall the use of Webinars has been viewed positively by my students.  Additionally, it has exposed both them and myself to new teaching methods and to the power of the internet as a learning tool.  Much is made of the potential of the internet to enhance student learning but there is still the need to fit specific internet based usage into defined pedagogic strategies.  This blog post aims to tease out some of the potential use of Webinars as part of a typical Social Sciences undergraduate module.


External Partner Led Webinar

I  have a great working relationship with the Global Net 21 NGO.  Their goal is to link the community with politicians and other decision makers in a constructive narrative.  What they bring is technology, contacts and experience.  My students and I shot a series of videos (available here) on the issue of food scarcity.  Global Net 21 were able to edit them altogether into a coherent whole.  This takes both time and technical training which most educators simply don’t have, to make the videos look somewhat professional.  As Global Net 21 have been hosting Webinars for many years, they have developed the technology to stream two live video feeds, with a comment box for invited guests on a single web-based platform.  This allows for a diverse audience to participate remotely in the Webinar.  But perhaps the most important element that an external partner brings is contacts.  My students have been able to participate in Webinars with many MPs and former government minister Peter Hain MP.  Ordinarily it is difficult to get MPs to commit time to a Webinar but they have been happy to give time to Global Net 21.  An educator can face a struggle in getting even 30 minutes from a leading figure to participate with a class but an outside partner, particularly an NGO, brings cache.  Moreover, a well-established external partner can allow the educator and students to interact with a wide variety of participants, enhancing the learning experience and facilitating networking with more potential partners.

Video Reports from our students broadcast on a Webinar


The clear drawback in working with an external partner is that your pedagogical goals for the class might not always align with the outcomes the topics the partner wants to focus on.  This means compromise which generally results in discussion that may not be closely related to the module.  While an external partner with excellent technology skills and contacts can make a Webinar happen in the first place, the main cost is a lack of control.  With Webinars this means a loss of interaction.  The external partner hosts the event, asks the questions, refers or does not refer to you and generally guides the discussion where they want.  This might lead to an overlap in interests but more often than not in my experience leads to students becoming bored by a discussion lacking the required academic rigour that does not include them.


Educator Led Webinars

In response to this reduced level of interaction my students experienced in previous Webinars, I sought to organise my own.  Lacking the equipment and time to work with an online interactive Webinar platform I decided to just use Skype and contact potential Webinar participants myself.  Though there are many specific Webinar platforms available but they need to be bought and many universities have issues over downloading, installing and purchasing software that are more hassle than they are worth.  Using this excellent Logitech conference cam there were no technical difficulties with Skype. Participants could hear us, even questions from the back of the class room and we could hear them.  I invite individuals that I want the students to interact with meaning that there is no need for compromise on the themes to be discussed and the Webinar fitted in seamlessly with the module learning goals. For my most recent Webinar on 5th of February I circulated articles written by the individual, Philippe Legrain an expert on the European Financial Crisis, and asked the students to draft up questions for Philippe.  In the previous week we had covered the role of finance in the global economy and the first hour of class was focused on the development of the Eurozone.  I asked Philippe to participate as not only did he write an excellent book on the Eurocrisis but he has plentiful media experience and so can communicate his ideas succinctly.  For the lesson plan I envisaged the second hour of class been given over for the Webinar, allocating Philippe  20 minutes to speak on the reasons why he thought the Eurocrisis happened, and then for a 20 minute question and answer session with students.  Philippe spoke so well and with such completeness that he actually answered all the students questions.  Students recorded his discussion on their phones and several bought his book on Amazon as he was speaking. The students were extremely positive on the experience.  They were impressed to have such an authority, he had been on BBC Newsnight the week before, talk to them and answer all the questions on a deeply complex contemporary issue.

Philippe Legrain Webinar Students buying his book online


From this I took that an educator led Webinar is far more work than bringing in an external partner.  However, it allows for a better pedagogical outcome.  This is due to greater levels of control.  Paramount in this is that the educator can chose the participant and frame the Webinar to directly encompass learning goals.  With a good Webcam and internet connection there are no technical issues.  The only significant problem is to locate a participant with the required skills, strong personality and time to be involved.


The Pedagogic Usefulness of Webinars

Concluding on the pedagogic usefulness of Webinars I have found them to be a potentially excellent tool for educators. An interesting finding from participating in 12 Webinars is how their informal nature lends itself to an excellent flow of discussion. This is in contrast to invited lectures where the guest gives a formal lecture involving a huge time commitment on both sides on a theme that though suggested by the educator, might deviate from the module content. A Webinar gives the opportunity to guide a guest on to themes that are directly relevant to the module and allow for students to interact more intimately with them in a less formal setting. Taking control of the process does require some degree of organisation in finding a suitable participant and finding a suitable time but they, and the accompanying technological issues, are not insurmountable. Using Webinars I have found brings new voices and insight into the classroom and facilitates student interaction with outside experts. It also encouraged me to interact with NGOs and other members of the community. The more advanced elements of Webinars, contextualizing video, require too much preparation time for an individual educator. Access to a dedicated and skilled Teaching and Learning Team would enable a much more advanced Webinar process like this to be developed but many do not have such help available.  To educators I would advise to try a Webinar. Find a suitable participant, brief them on what topics you want them to discuss, give guidance to your students to prepare questions and let the debate flow!

This post was originally posted on the Canterbury Christ Church Politics & IR blog.