Doubling Down on Student Presentations

How to get first-years to listen and learn from each other’s projects

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

December 16, 2015

Student presentations have always been a bit of a sore spot for me. On the one hand, they empower student learning, help sharpen oral presentation skills, and ensure that even the shy have their moment in the sun. On the other hand, they can be, well, dull. I’ve often found that they generate apathy in the classroom.

The reasons are easy to understand: Students are tired and overwhelmed, the skills of both presenting and productive listening are difficult to practice, and there’s little incentive to invest in a fellow student’s work, when it is the instructor who ultimately assigns the grade.

So it was with some trepidation — but also a spirit of "what do we have to lose?" — that I decided to experiment this year. I placed the students themselves, and their presentations, front and center in my course. Indeed, their presentations took up fully two-thirds of our class time, and were the main vehicle of instruction. Rather than being the "sage on the stage," I found myself discreetly observing and offering helpful nudges as needed, while my students taught and learned (mostly) from each other.

I was lucky in having almost the perfect canvas: a first-year seminar, whose remit at my university is precisely to teach incoming students how to approach college. The topic I’d chosen for the seminar, though infinitely fascinating, was unabashedly out of left field, with no connection to a specific department or discipline, which meant that students were liberated from the duty of having to master a fixed body of knowledge as a prerequisite of going on to other courses.

The topic of my seminar was cricket — the game, not the insect. And the purpose of the course was to get students thinking about the game’s interaction with themes of empire and postcolonialism, about the changing demographics on and off the campus, and about the effects of media, money, and globalization on what was once an unassumingly quaint way to pass a Sunday. The demographics of my university also meant that I had two diametrically opposite groups in the classroom: those who grew up with cricket and those who had never heard of it.

In teaching the course, I could have proceeded in a traditional way, but how much would American students really be engaged by lectures on the development of the game’s written constitution? So after various attempts to draft a syllabus, I settled on one built around the idea that we learn by teaching — more specifically, that the best way to learn skills in public speaking and writing is by doing them.

In effect, the classroom became a laboratory for 18 different research projects. To keep things under nominal control, each student was assigned a nonnegotiable and randomly allocated topic, which he or she would explore throughout the term and which would eventually become the basis of the final paper. They each broke their topics down and built them back up again, wrote synopses and lists, made a sales pitch and a time-management plan, but most of all, they led and sat through a long succession of student presentations.

My logic was simple: If students were going to develop skills, then their presentations had to be subject to the same basic rules as written assignments. Just as students routinely go through a series of scaffolded writing tasks, so, too, is it necessary for oral skills to be practiced through repetition.

That fact was the main source of my dissatisfaction with previous student presentations. They always took place once, late in the term, and it was almost impossible to gauge if lessons were learned for the next time, in a different class, in a different semester. Here was an opportunity to have students actually practice talking about their research in stages: They would give a presentation, be told what went wrong and what went well, and then apply that feedback almost straightaway.

My students therefore gave not one but two research presentations, and the course was designed to make both experiences as meaningful as possible. From the beginning, my message was that presenting was an important skill not only for college, but also for life. The course also included substantial infrastructure meant to help them constantly reflect on what they were doing and why — not as an afterthought or on an evaluation after the fact, but as a continuing and integral part of the course.

We spent the first month of the semester — often the most bewildering for first-year students — easing in to the seminar format. We watched videos, we established the tone of discussion (chatty, informal, respectful, constructive), and together tackled and unpacked some complicated issues. We got used to each other, to the topic of the class, and to talking with each other rather than only through me as the instructor.

Before the first round of presentations commenced, I devoted a class session to an open-ended discussion on class management from the user’s end and their experiences with academic life. I asked them, as frankly as possible, what obstacles to listening and engaging they had already noted in their campus life, and how they might want to tackle those problems now that the responsibility was going to be handed over to them. The obstacles they named were mostly logistical: They were tired, hungry, bored, or stiff. They wanted to eat, have varied pace and media, and move around in the classroom space.

All of those things proved to be handy tips, and were taken on board by almost every student presenter. My contribution was to guard the collectively bought bag of candy, which the day’s presenter could use to inject sugar into droopy faces, dispense as prizes or incentives, or use as props for games. We did all three — although by the last day of presentations, I am glad to report, the candy had lost much of its initial importance.

One other component was key to the success of the experiment. Between the two presentations, each student submitted a debriefing memo. In it, the student would indicate what went well, what went wrong, and what could be improved for next time. I added feedback, and the students were then expected to act on their own recommendations.

The results were fascinating. Putting the students so directly in the center of the stage and giving them ample time to use it (presentations ran 30 minutes the first time around, 12 minutes the second) meant that they were genuinely responsible for content, and by and large they rose to the challenge.

Watching from the sidelines, two things struck me:

  • The class quickly developed memes and trends. For example, students had said that one of their major obstacles to good engaged listening was having to sit still for a long time. On the third presentation, the student presenter asked the class to vote on various questions by walking to one side of the room or the other. As an instructor, I would have been concerned about movement in a cramped room, reconfiguring the seminar table, or just general grumbling — which I fully expect I’d have gotten had I been the one leading the session. But coming from one of their own, they loved it, and it became a fixture of many a presentation later on, in various permutations.

Videos also became a quick favorite in the presentations, and students felt strongly that they learned from those clips. But because students were responsible for keeping the room engaged, they also kept a sharp eye on length of their videos. A series of presentations clearly experimented with finding the "right" length for optimal interest — about four minutes, it turned out.

  • A spirit of experimentation pervaded the course. Students were naturally hesitant in the initial presentations, and relied heavily on lecturing with PowerPoint or Prezi slides — a standard model in most college lecture halls. The slide-and-lecture model, however, was quickly adapted, partially because students discovered the capriciousness of campus computing technology, and partially because they expressed a genuine desire to experiment with format.

We threw a ball around, argued case-studies, looked at statistics, cracked books open, discussed in pairs and groups, voted by foot, and talked about all manner of things, from the Constitution to business models to interviews with the students’ own families. In their debrief memos, students frequently noted that, while they thought they had done well initially, they wanted to do something different next time: talk without notes or without slides, play a game, choose a more in-depth topic.

And because everything was reciprocal, the class played along beautifully, whatever activity the session leader chose to do. By the end of the second round, wonder of wonders, we had real, substantive discussion, with cross-references to other presentations, and students pontificating about their own areas of expertise.

It was the classroom experience I had always wanted to generate, but never quite knew how.

In the end, I think the person who learned the most from this experiment was me. I learned that experimentation — supported by robust infrastructure and clear instructional frameworks — is good, both for me and for my students. I learned that what students want, and need, to better engage with the course material is often much simpler than faculty members imagine. Finally, I learned that the best way to know how 18-year-olds learn is to ask them, and then make them show you.

Ayelet Haimson Lushkov is an assistant professor of classics at the University of Texas at Austin. Her book, Magistracy and the Historiography of the Roman Republic: Politics in Prose, was published early this year by Cambridge University Press.