Friday, November 05, 2010

Presentations: the good vs the miserable

We started presentations on research projects today in my writing course.

I emphasize that students should do their presentation in whatever way seems most effective to them. We do a brainstorming activity where we talk about the worst presentations they've seen, and the best. We talk about what not to do, and what has worked for them in the past.

Before the presentations start, I have the students trade pre-prepared questions they'd like asked after their presentation. That way, each student gets a little practice with a very softball question or two. And other students get a moment to think of "real" questions. It works pretty well.

And then the presentations start.

The first went well. The presentor used an open form, starting with a question, then explained why some people argue X, introducing his sources as he went, and then why some people argue Y, again introducing his sources appropriately. He finished by saying that he argues Y, and gave us a final point, that maybe Y could be reconsidered if something specific changed.

It wasn't the most exhilarating presentation ever, but it was quite good. His first two questions (the prepared ones) went well, and then some other people had questions, which he answered well.

The second was a disaster.

When we do the brainstorming, you can tell that some people get it. Even if they haven't thought about presentations as a type of teaching, and even if they hadn't thought about the fact that their teachers do different things, sometimes more, sometimes less effectively, these students begin to understand that the focus isn't really about some song and dance, but about communicating what they care about to the audience so that the audience understands and maybe even remembers next week.

Organization isn't just about the beauty of order; it's about helping people understand the connections between points, helping people understand the background they need to understand a deeper issue.

A picture or powerpoint isn't about the gee whiz I can do this technology! It's about helping people visualize information so they can understand and maybe remember it. (I don't think most people in class pay close enough attention to the presentations to remember them easily, but the good ones, people do remember for a bit at least.)

So this second presentation was a disaster. For some reason, the student has a habit of starting a sentence, pausing after the verb but not at a real stopping point, and then starting another sentence. He does it as a speech habit in office hours, too, but it was way worse in the presentation.

I don't quite know how to reach this student, but I'd like to be able to get him to slow down a bit and focus on getting the most important part of the message across rather than trying to get so much information out of his mouth.

But the starting sentences and then changing works on a bigger level, too. The student will say that there's are two aspects, and then forget to talk about the second aspect and go on to something minimally related. It's like there's this frantic rush, a sort of collage of everything all together, but in a presentation, the audience doesn't have time to think and make the connections as we might with a piece of art in a real collage. We need guidance to make the connections, and this student isn't helping us.

And I don't know how to help the student do better next time. Telling him to slow down and focus only on the most important information didn't help (because we discussed that in conference last week).

Sometimes, I feel like an especially inept and inapt teacher.


  1. did the questions from other students reflect confusion? or ask questions about things he/she hinted at but did not actually discuss?

    since you discussed effective vs. ineffective techniques in advance, is it possible to follow up with a class discussion of what techniques were most effective in conveying information? [approach from the positive rather than the negative, is the idea.] peer feedback that doesn't single someone out as a failure might be more inspiring than a teacher pointing out fault.

    you don't want to get in a situation where people are telling student B "your stuff sucked," so perhaps you'd need to begin by noting the hard work everyone did, and asking them to focus on what worked particularly well. just an idea.

    in advising lawyers, no matter how egregiously bad their drafts or approach are, we always always find something positive to say about them and their handling of the case. it helps them hear the reasons that changes need to be made.

  2. also, you aren't an inept teacher.

    even though you discussed slowing down and paring down the information last week, there is every chance that the student tried to do that, but needs some more direction on *how* to do that.

    your student B may have done such enthusiastic research that he/she has gotten stuck in the details, so needs help reducing that to persuasive bullet points. and in one sense, that is better than a student who starts with pretty bullet points but has nothing to back them up.

    apologies for being so wordy. these really are struggles in my own work.