Seven Ways to Fix Student Presentations

The first time I had student presentations, it was as awkward*. The students were nice, but off-task as they sat through four straight days of classmates holding rattling papers and reciting everything they had learned.

I soon realized that I had asked students to spend weeks on projects and research and then hoped that they would magically create great presentations. Over time, I shifted my approach. Here are a few things I've tried that have helped:
  1. I keep the time limit short. They do two-to-five minute Ignite-style presentations. The short time limit makes a huge difference in curbing student boredom. 
  2. Students spend time practicing the presentation. This happens on two levels. First, students practice "presenting" in debates and mock trials before we get to single presentations. Next, students practice their presentations before they give them. 
  3. I require visuals. Students create visuals on either Google Presentation of Keynote. They have to find Creative Commons pictures, create their own graphs or sketch their own pictures. The idea here is to help them see how slides can enhance their presentation.  
  4. I teach the basics of public speaking. I can't spend too much time on it, but I teach students about voice, diction, staging, eye contact and other fundamentals. 
  5. Students have to articulate a point instead of giving a summary. Instead of saying, "This is my project" or "here's what I learned," students might have to demonstrate how something works, make a divergent point, persuade the audience or provide an alternative theory. 
  6. The students who are listening to the presentation must write down one critical thinking question. I don't ask for note-taking or for peer rubrics. I don't have students typing in a backchannel. However, they must be prepared with one critical thinking question that they can ask during the question and answer segment after the presentation.  
  7. I encourage creativity. Some students dress up and take on a role. In group presentations, I've had group members move from location to location, breaking up the concept of the "front" of room. I've had students mix visuals, video and text in such a way that it is more like theater than anything else. These weren't ideas that I pushed for, either. They were the result of students seizing creative freedom. 
I'm still figuring out how to make this work. I think next year, I'm going to stagger student presentations so that we do a few per week, with the question and answer piece embedded within it. Or maybe I'll make them more like an "event," such as an in-class conference. 

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  1. Thanks for sharing a focused list for improvements. I think my favorite, and the one I have found to be most beneficial, is also the first one you share: keep is short.

    Aside from keeping the audience from dozing, it helps students summarize (Marzano) and identify key ideas (Common Core).

    This is also why I love using digital storytelling. If you follow the advice and process modelled by the Center for Digital Storytelling, you start by focusing on a 200-300 word narrative. This "less is more" approach is also echoed by Jon Orech in his article Advanced Thinking in Digital Storytelling (http://creativeeducator.tech4learning.com/v06/articles/Advanced_Thinking).

    1. I like that concept of summarizing and identifying key ideas.

  2. Thank you for this informative post. I think that it is awesome that you are improving this project every year and trying to make it better for the students to learn exactly what they need to learn. All of your requirements for this project are on point and effective for students.It shows they have to responsible to make sure they have all the requirements so they do not just stand there and recite word for word material; because we all know that is very boring!! I would like to mention one thing that I think might help with when students present in your class. I think an effective way to spread out student project, since you did not like the 4 days of projects, is to let every group do a different unit. This would give enough time to spread student projects out for your sake and the other students. I really enjoyed your blog post about the projects. I hope to be able to use this information when I become a teacher!


    1. "I think that it is awesome that you are improving this project every year and trying to make it better for the students to learn exactly what they need to learn."

      I think that's ultimately what allows teachers to grow. The time and reflection make a huge difference. I love the concept of each group doing a different unit, by the way.

  3. I agree about weeks of preparation and a few minutes to give the presentation. This year we decided to have students research their topics (destinations) and create slides with a heading and photo only. No bullets or fancy effects. The students will use Keynote presenter notes to deliver their presentation next week. This way they really get connected to their topic. They will practice with peers the days before presentations begin. Some students will opt for giving their presentation as 15 slides in 2 minutes. Not everyone opted for this fast paced style.
    I love your tips and will pass them on to other teachers at our school.

    1. What was the most common style? Just curious.

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  5. Thank you for the post. The list of improvements is a great thing to see come from a teacher. Being a student, I can appreciate the effort of a teacher to make a class more interesting and more efficient. A key phrase I am excited to see is "I encourage creativity." I would think keeping students engaged is the hardest task of all teachers regardless of the level or subject, and I hope more teachers take your innovations and put them into their own lesson plans. I enjoyed reading your tips and hope teachers abroad put them into their everyday teaching mechanisms. Also, the Dos Equis man was an instant attention grabber. Good choice! Great blog.

    Twitter: @jacobbrent14

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Creativity can feel almost like a distant idea in our context. It's a bit of a buzzword, but you have to fight for it as a teacher.

  6. I really like your suggestions. I've had some thoughts about this sort of thing before and wrote about them here: http://jrussellteacher.blogspot.com/2012/05/what-if-i-teach-english-like-i-teach.html

    I was musing about how the ideas and designs of drama class could be used to improve student work and presentation.

  7. Time limits! I love them so much.

    My seniors just finished up a round of presentations with a very different format that I quite loved. They had about a week to research and prep for a 4 minute presentation on an aspect of the federal bureaucracy. The actual presentations were given in a sort of carousel format. Half of the group stayed behind to present while the other half viewed classmate's presentations (limited to a strictly timed 4 minutes). Everyone rotated around the class in a circle to see each presentation, then we switched who was presenting and who was staying behind and did it all over again.

    I got this from a lesson at YLI (http://www.youthleadership.net/) and I really liked it. I followed the circle myself with my rubric to grade the presentations the first time around, and then did a less organized wander to see how it was going for the second round. In particular, I liked how most of the time you had these very personal presentations (only 1-3 students at each station), depending on group size). Now, the lesson also involved some fun simulating a bureaucratic office to make a point about bureaucracy, but I think I will keep this carousel presentation idea in mind for the future.

    1. Wow, I really like that format with the circles. Very cool concept.


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