Monday, November 27, 2006

Presentations in Upper-Level Classes

In my upper-level courses, I've incorporated an individual presentation assignment for students. It all began when I was teaching Notoriously Difficult Novel, and I decided to have students do presentations on it basically because it was the only technique that in my experience as a student made that novel accessible. In other words, I didn't know how to teach NDN without presentations, and so ignorance drove my pedagogy. That said, I think that the presentations worked particularly well in that class, and students seemed to respond very well to the assignment. Their response then got me thinking: nobody had ever taught me how to do a presentation when I was an undergraduate. My first presentation in a graduate seminar reflected that lack of experience. If your graduate school experience was anything like mine, nobody taught grad students what was expected of presentations. Rather, one was supposed to "just know" or to pick it up by osmosis. And no, not all (or even most) of my students will go on to graduate school, but knowing how to speak in front of a small group of people in an organized and systematic way about a difficult topic is a good thing no matter what students go on to do, right? Also, I believe that presentations give students a certain ownership over material, and I believe that this has enhanced class discussions all the way around. And so, after my first experience with presentations in the NDN class, I then decided that I would make them a regular feature of my upper-level classes.

This past semester, I incorporated a discussion-lead component, and I'll say that this has not been as wildly successful as I'd hoped, but hey - it's a work in progress, right? That said, overall I've been pretty pleased with their presentations, and I do think that they worked well in the same ways that my first experiment with them worked well. Students feel a sense of responsibility to one another, and they stop looking to me to be the Oracle Who Possesses All Knowledge. It's all good, right?

Well, but here's the thing. Remember how I was so excited about my enrollment in my upper-level class for spring? Well, I'm still excited, but it's causing some problems related to the presentation assignment. First, this class, unlike my class this semester, will focus only on novels. What this means is that I can't as easily divide up the presentations, having students all follow an identical format. (For example, it would be silly to have students divide up the biographical information of a novelist three or four ways - it makes much more sense to have one student present all of that material in one presentation.) Moreover, there is a bit of difficulty in finding a way to fit in 15+ presentations over the course of the semester while still leaving some days open just for discussion, which I think is one of the reasons that my presentations this semester have worked so well. Let's say we're discussing a text over three class periods - I always leave the third class an open day so that we can get to anything that didn't get covered on presentation days. Now, it's true that some students will drop once they get the 45 pounds of course materials that I will hand out on the first day of class. But as it now stands, even if like 5 dropped, I'd still need to schedule some days with multiple presentations. And that doesn't solve the problem of not wanting students to duplicate material from presentation to presentation.

Here's what I'm thinking that I will do. This is still open to revision, so if you see potential pitfalls and/or if you have suggestions I've not thought of, that's what the comments are for :)

First, I've devised topics for the presentations, to provide students with a bit more direction than I've done in the past. This way (I hope) we'll get beyond the problem of duplication of material, while still allowing students to present on something that interests them. The topics are quite broad, but I think that they will work.

Second, I do have two presentations scheduled on some days. While this is not ideal, I figure that if I take out the discussion-lead component (which didn't work too well anyway) that this will still leave 35-45 minutes for discussion on those days.

Finally, I do think that it will be possible to have uniform criteria for each presentation, even with the more focused topics. I think that having uniform criteria (for the presentation and for the handout that I require to accompany the oral component) is one of the reasons that this assignment has worked well for me. The issue is, though, that I will have to tweak the criteria so that it's not quite so specific in some ways - for example, it doesn't make sense to require each handout to have a time-line of the author's life, but perhaps I can tweak the phrasing of the assignment in some way so that every handout will still have some sort of bulleted, general information at the top.... Hmm.... Still need to think on this.

The things that I don't want to sacrifice:

  • Requiring students to consult with two secondary scholarly sources and to summarize those sources' takes on their presentation topic.
  • Requiring students to perform a close reading of a passage that relates to their presentation topic and to relate that close reading to the text as a whole.
I think I can still do this, but somehow this assignment has become much more complicated with this particular class.

I'm still planning to do a sample presentation for them in the second week, so perhaps I should prepare my sample presentation before the semester begins and that will influence the way that I design the assignment that I give them?

Sometimes I think I make too much work for myself. That said, the presentations do take work off of me during the semester because I know that on presentation days that the presentations basically take care of all lecturing and background material. That is a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. Also, I really do think that this is a good learning opportunity for students and that they learn things from doing it that they don't learn from other things they do in my courses. Hmmm.

I don't know. Does anybody else out there do presentations in upper-level classes? If so, do you have a standard assignment or do you change it for each course? Is it unrealistic to do this in a course with more than 10-15 students? Are the benefits really worth the costs of such an assignment (i.e., the time I'm spending agonizing over it)?

Ok, time to feed the Man-Kitty. He's getting very restless.


Estrella said...

How do you feel about group presentations? Groups of 2-3 can be made responsible for covering a greater amount of material and each person must be responsible for a particular part of the presentation.

Or- would you consider offering an alternative assignment? Perhaps the topic would be *related* to the course material but not something that you'd normally cover in class. If a person wanted to research/write about Topic X more extensively than required by the primary presentation option, the student could still present- but for less time?

Dr. Crazy said...

I've thought about turning them into group presentations, but I'm reluctant because I think that students hate them and because I think they have more experience with them. There's something about putting it all on them that makes them take it seriously and I think that makes it a good assignment that builds toward their research project.

As for the "related to" idea, that's kind of what I've come up with in the topics that I've devised. I won't say more now, as I'm interested to hear what others have to say, but I'll post back about what I'm thinking in more detail later. Thanks for the suggestions, Estrella!

luolin said...

I assign student presentations in upper-level classes. When the class is too large to fit in enough individual ones, I do pairs, but I prefer individual.

Because of the foreign language issue, my assignments for the presentations have not been as in-depth as yours sound, but I have been thinking about how to raise the bar.

I'd be interested to hear more about how you evaluate the presentations, because I am not that satisfied with the way I have handled that.

phd me said...

Well, I had 21 students this year and required presentations from all of them. We had multiple presentations every class throughout October but they were limited to 7 minutes each. I know, that sounds horrible, especially as they were required to read a novel, address a specific issue pertaining to their novel, and relate it to a specific course objective but it worked. The brevity definitely focused their presentations and the discussion following covered points they would normaly have addressed anyway. Not that this is at all the type of presentation you're looking for! Just thought I'd share. :)

Tree of Knowledge said...

Could you do historical timelines for the non-biographical presentations? Or possibly critical reception timelines? The second is probably too grad-level, but the historical context might be useful (provided the context illuminates the novel in some way). Of course, I have no idea what your topics are...

timna said...

In my lit class this semester, I've had presentation days at the end of each unit/major text. That came out to 5 presentation days this semester with 5-7 students presenting on each of those days so they had about 12 minutes each. Really creative work for the most part. Got to angles we never would have touched in the class discussion.

Anonymous said...

If a student may speak:

One of my classes this term (it's half-undergrad, so that would definitely be upper level) incorporates presentations. I have many gripes about this aspect of the course, but one of the bits that has worked is that we were each required to meet with the professor twice before our (75-minute) presentations. One purpose of this was to prevent overlap. It didn't, but that's entirely the fault of the students.

I think your idea of preparing your sample presentation now is sound and will make it easier for you when hammering out final details. It seems that would make less, not more, work for you.

Hilaire said...

I have students in an upper-level theory course do presentations. (Their presentations are quite short and are meant be followed by two discussion questions.) They kind of suck (though that is because none of the really strong students have gone yet...) I am amazed - I have a discussion in the syllabus of precisely what the presentation is NOT meant to do (summarize the materials), and some suggestions of what it *could* do. I talked about this at some length early in the year. And I also gave a model presentation with our first set of readings, in which I made a thematic connection between three quite different articles as one kind of option. Most of them still can't do it!! I don't know what this says...Perhaps that it sounds like a really good idea to provide them with explicit direction in the assignment, to avoid precisely that.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for all of the discussion, everybody. And yay that a student spoke! Welcome!

Luolin - I'll post about how I evaluate presentations sometime in the near future. I'd do it now, but I should be doing some research or grading or something :)

ToK - What you're talking about is kind of what I'm thinking about.... and actually, if I make the students meet with me prior to the presentation, I can tell them specifically what I want for each topic, so I think combining your suggestion with what Sammy described might work, and it might not be that hard to articulate in the assignment.

Hilaire - I think providing students with really explicit directions as well as modeling a presentation for them is really key to having presentations work. I actually let students get the impulse to summarize out of their systems by requiring them to provide some summary on the handout - this then makes it more clear that the rest of the presentation should not be that. Also, I really am thinking that asking them to come up with discussion questions (or some way of leading the discussion) is setting them up for failure. They just don't know how to do it, and I'm only rarely happy with what they come up with. That's one reason why I'm going to take the discussion component out of the assignment in this go-around. Ultimately, if they do a good presentation, that will generate discussion, or at least that's my thinking.

Incidentally, I set the assignment up so that it's a maximum of 20 minutes, and I give them guidelines for about how long they should spend doing each part of the presentation. The presentations generally come in around 15 minutes, though some go on and on, and if so, I cut them off at the 20 minute mark. I think that's reasonable in an undergrad class - I'd NEVER have them responsible for the entire class - mainly because I want time to supplement or to redirect the conversation if necessary. I might feel differently if the class were mixed grad/undergrad.