Student Presentations: Are They Useful?

student presentations

In all my years of teaching, I’ve rarely come across students who were naturally ‘good’ at presenting. In theory, student presentations should demonstrate knowledge of their chosen topic. But too often the breadth of knowledge or depth of understanding fails to show what was supposed to have been learnt. In this post, I’ve put together some of the tips I’ve given to my students so that they can show a greater level of knowledge and understanding and thus raise their level of attainment.

Why are student presentations so important?

Recently on Twitter, there has been a huge increase in the number of teachers arguing over whether the teacher or the students should be in control over the learning that takes place. I freely admit to having mixed views on this, despite identifying primarily as a “Trad”. (You can read an excellent article on the distinction between Traditional and Progressive teaching by @teacherhead (Tom Sherrington) here.) In my opinion, the teacher should be the one who teaches. After all, we’ve studied educational theory, have greater experience of what constitutes excellent answers and we are experts in our own subject areas. Not that students can’t contribute themselves of course!

Ultimately though, it is the primary responsibility of the teacher to ensure that students learn. If teachers can pass on that torch to students, then that is a fantastic achievement. However, to place the onus of learning primarily on our students could be disastrous. Too often, they simply aren’t equipped with the skills required to bear that responsibility.

However, at some point, students have to be able to take ownership of their learning to some degree. That way, they develop their skills in learning how to learn, which is an excellent life skill. Not only that, but it is a natural way for students to stretch themselves and demonstrate a greater degree of independent learning. An excellent method to enable this is for students is to research, learn and present to the rest of the class.

What are student presentations for?

I use student presentations in three different ways:

  1. Summative assessment at the end of a unit
  2. Formative assessment in order to plan next steps for the class or for individuals
  3. As a Flipped Learning technique, in order to bridge the gap between two lessons

Summative Assessment

Using student presentations to demonstrate the extent of understanding, as opposed to an exam, can be very beneficial. Firstly, the students get to show everything that they know, rather than being constrained by a specific exam question, as they would get in an essay. There are some excellent advantages to this.

Firstly, the students will demonstrate all of the areas that they are knowledgeable about. This is beneficial for the student, as they get to show off what they have made progress on throughout the course. In addition, they will always have learnt something, even if only a little. This has the benefit of allowing even those who have learnt only a little to feel as though they can contribute meaningfully to the lesson.

Secondly, presentations allow for the practice and demonstration of skills beyond being able to read and write. Some students feel much more comfortable presenting their ideas verbally than they do via a written format. In my experience, this is even more pronounced in students whose written skills are significantly hampered by poor spelling, punctuation and grammar. Low levels of literacy can sometimes hide a depth of understanding of subject content.

Thirdly, when students present to the class, the teacher can assess the standard of response without having to mark a pile of books, essays or portfolios. This can also be a huge advantage, particularly for teachers who, by the nature of their subject areas or Key Stages, can be swamped with the amount of written feedback they are expected to give. Presentations can and should still be assessed, rather than just listened to, but the feedback can be written or checked off a list as the presenter speaks, thus reducing workload and avoids the need to take marking home.

Formative assessment

I often give students the opportunity to present, as opposed to writing an essay, part way through a unit. This is to see what standard their knowledge and understanding is at before I continue teaching the remainder of the course. As a teacher, it allows me to plan much for effectively, making sure that my lessons are more relevant to the needs of the class.

When my students present well, they highlight to me not only what I have taught well, but also the extent to which I have challenged them. In contrast, when students do not present well, it can be a sign that I have not explained concepts to them in a clear enough way, or that they need additional support regarding specific topic areas. Either way, my teaching and their learning both improve in the immediate aftermath.

Flipped Learning

As I’ve written about in the past, Flipped Learning is an excellent way to develop independence in our students. Student presentations which follow the Flipped Learning principle of independent research, prior to the lesson, are invaluable. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate maturity and a willingness to stretch themselves beyond the classroom. It also allows for lower-order skills such as information gathering to be undertaken, where the presence of an expert is not needed as often. In the lesson that follows, more time can be given over to higher-order skills of analysis and evaluation. Here, the presence of an expert is often much more necessary.

Who benefits most from student presentations?

Obviously, the students who have learnt and prepared the material will make progress in their level of knowledge and understanding. But do other students benefit from watching students presentations?

It depends. (And this is where you as the teacher come in.)

The evidence that students learn well from others is not conclusive. However, this is not necessarily because presentations are a ‘bad’ way to teach. Rather, the quality or the nature of student presentations, as opposed to teacher presentations, may be found wanting. Having observed students present in my classes and in other subjects too, I’ve compiled a number of tips that I now give to my students, each time they present to their peers, to help to ensure maximal quality.

What students should avoid when presenting

Students often rely too much on the written word and this often impacts negatively on what they present visually to the class. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a PowerPoint slide covered in text. Not only is this difficult to read, in terms of the size of the font used, but it also distracts the audience from listening to the presenter.

Another reason why students shouldn’t place much text on their slides (if slides or their equivalents are used), is that they can have a tendency to just read them out to the class. This too can be not only distracting but can leave the audience feeling as though listening is a waste of time. After all, they can read for themselves at their own pace.

Many students will also spend a disproportionate amount of time making the visual appeal of their presentation fantastic, but at the expense of providing real value to the listener. The point of the presentation isn’t to show off design skills. The visual appeal should really just be “clean and clear”, so as no to distract from the content.

Tips for student presentations

  • Focus on your verbal presentation rather than relying on the written text on your presentation screen. Make it a speech, rather than pointing to what you have written. Otherwise, the audience will keep shifting their attention from the speaker to the screen and back again, ultimately focusing on neither.
  • Use images on your slides (if you even use ‘slides’) instead of text. A symbolic image can be far more thought-provoking than a paragraph or a set of bullet points.
  • If you absolutely must have text on the screen, then limit it to three bullet points. If you can’t limit it to three, then split the ideas across more slides.
  • Provide a detailed handout to the class at the end of the presentation, so that any points that went unnoticed by the audience can be addressed and taken away to be studied further.
  • Have at least one ‘scriptless’ section, where the content of the presentation has been memorised. (This is mainly for those students who are more comfortable with presenting, or who have a greater depth and/or breadth of subject knowledge.)
  • Allow for Q&A at the end of the presentation, so that any students who want points to be clarified can have their questions answered. This is also beneficial for the presenter, who will then be able to demonstrate subject knowledge that they hadn’t thought to put into the original presentation.

Final thoughts…

I firmly believe that by following the tips outlined above, students can create excellent presentations. As always, I welcome critical argument of anything I’ve written and I would love to know if you give similar or different tips to your own students. Just leave a comment or tweet me (@guruteaching) and I’ll get right back to you!

 

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Andy

Black Box Thinking for Teachers

Black Box Thinking for Teachers

What is “Black Box Thinking”?

Black Box Thinking is a philosophy which allows learning to emerge from mistakes. The phrase was coined by Matthew Syed in his excellent book of the same title, where he examines performance and critical self-evaluation in sport, aviation, politics and many other fields. He took the term from the “black box” flight recorders fitted to aircraft, which contain vast amounts of data, to be used to inform future improvements, especially following the poor performance of human beings, the failure of systems and procedures, unexpected events and even complete disasters.

How does black box thinking apply in education?

In education, just as in aviation, we continually train ourselves and others, to help ensure consistently high performance. But despite the amount of time put into these areas, students still sometimes underperform in exams. Schools and inspection bodies collect this data, which contains a wealth of meaningful information to guide current and future performance. But I’m not certain that we use this information effectively.  After all, which information should we act on? How should we act on it? What culture should we create around the data we collect?

When teaching doesn’t work…

A few years ago, Steve, a friend of mine working in another school called me on A Level Results Day. He was in shock. For the last few years, his students had achieved excellent exam results and he was considered by many to be an outstanding teacher. This year, however, a number of his students had “failed”. By “failed”, he meant that they had passed, but had significantly dipped below their expected grades. In his post-results analysis that he had to present to the Headteacher in September, Steve was required to account for this dip, despite submitting much higher predictions only two months earlier. How could he have got it so wrong?

In essence, he had assumed that because he had always been right about his students in the past, he was able to draw similar conclusions about his current students. Only this time, he was looking at the wrong data or at least interpreting it in the wrong way. Steve’s current students were not in any way “weaker” than in previous years. Nor had his teaching changed much. But he HAD missed one crucial point. The STUDENTS were different. He had forgotten to take this into account and subconsciously had inferred that the data he had used effectively to predict this year’s results was just as relevant for this year’s students. Steve was wrong.

When the “data” doesn’t add up…

We are all familiar with the use of assessment results to inform our understanding of how students progress towards their targets. However, those results do not “measure progress“. They are a proxy, something which may indicate progress but which is not synonymous with it. Steve believed his assessment procedures to be rigorous. He used a range of assessment questions from the exam board’s past papers. He himself was a seasoned examiner, so felt competent to judge the quality of student responses. But he was ignoring something crucial. Steve focused entirely on improving the techniques used in his students’ answers to exam questions. It didn’t matter in the end.

Steve recalled some of the papers from the exam board to see what had gone wrong. He assumed that the students had ignored the techniques he had taught them. How could they have forgotten the special mnemonics they had constructed together? Had they not written using PEE paragraphs? Did they follow up each of their ideas with a brief evaluation of it? Did their conclusions not follow the highly prescribed formula he had repeated time and time again?

The papers showed Steve what had really happened. The students didn’t know the content. As much as they had tried to structure their writing, they just didn’t know the answers. Steve was expecting a deep evaluation of quotes and had taught the students how to go about it, focusing on multiple interpretations of keywords and phrases. But the students hadn’t memorised the quotes. The hypothetical case studies presented in the exam were supposed to trigger students to consider socio-economic theories, court cases and historical events. But the students hadn’t understood the ones they were supposed to write about on exam day. They only understood the ones they were tested on in class.

Despite the failings of some, a small number of students had performed well. But instead of patting himself on the back, Steve just felt bewildered. How had they performed well when others hadn’t? After all, they were all in the same class, had access to the same resources and were assessed in the same way throughout the course. Their results should all be roughly on par.

Or so Steve thought.

Why do some students fail?

Students succeed and fail due to a multitude of factors. They may lack knowledge and understanding of a theory, method or event. They might not have memorised the information they need. Their skills of analysis and evaluation may undermine the quality of their responses. The structure of their answers could make it difficult to demonstrate their mastery of the question. Steve considered all of these possibilities but was still at a loss to explain the underperformance. The truth was, that these weren’t the only factors that were at play.

Let’s look at why three particular students failed:

Student A had recently been dealing with a bereavement of a close family member. This had taken its toll on the student, who had performed well up to that point. In the final run up to the exam, Steve had believed that this student would cope well with study leave, having demonstrated for almost two years that he could work well independently. However, in this instance he was wrong. The student was unable to focus at home, in the way he could at school, in part because he was constantly surrounded by distractions relating to the passing of his relative. Whilst his bereavement would not be much easier at school, at least he may have found some space to concentrate a little better, or for longer periods, enabling him to perform better than he eventually did on exam day.

Student B had a poor track record regarding her attendance. But despite this, she still managed to perform well in her assessed essays. As it turned out, she was close friends with a student who had written the same essays in the previous year. She re-worded these essays and in some cases had even memorised them by rote, for closed-book timed assessments in class. By doing so, she evaded the attention of staff who were actively looking for students requiring intervention. Since her grades were good, they didn’t consider her to be at risk of failing. Her problem though, was that in the exam she was not able to adapt those memorised answers when the question changed ever so slightly. She pulled the wool over many eyes, including Steve’s and failed outright.

Student C was a high performer. At GCSE she had achieved all A* and A grades and had done so with little visible effort. Throughout A Level, however, she had not always enjoyed the same level of success. Essay grades ranged from A* to C. Steve had been hot on the case with this student and had accurately identified where marks were being gained and lost. He gave thoroughly detailed feedback to the student, who was able to redraft the essays to an excellent standard, following the advice he gave. But on the day of the exam, her marks were inconsistent across the paper. Why had she performed so well in some areas, but so badly in others? As it turned out, the detailed feedback had made no difference. Why? The student hadn’t had to think hard enough for herself as to how to improve. In the end, her highest marks came from the topics where Steve’s feedback was much more limited in detail (despite the formative essays being of an equally low quality to others where feedback was detailed). In this instance, the student had performed badly overall because she hadn’t become independent enough. She was still overly reliant on the teacher to help her to improve, even in the final weeks and days before the exam.

Action points for “Black Box” teachers

  • Assess regularly. Balance scheduled tests with unscheduled ones to accurately identify true levels of understanding.
  • Use rigorous assessment methods (past paper questions, etc)
  • Give feedback that strikes the right balance between being too detailed and not detailed enough
  • Create and maintain a ‘culture’ of student independence
  • Reward resilience and genuine effort, rather than high attainment alone
  • Test knowledge and understanding in creative ways, to avoid “scripted” responses
  • Formalise how you will act on the data you collect. Checklists are a time-efficient way of developing set procedures. (More on this in a future post!)

Final thoughts…

I would love to hear about your use of “Black Box” thinking in education.

Just leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching) and I’ll get right back to you.

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