Alison Rios Millett McCartney • Towson University
This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s April 2006 edition.
Many professors look forward to student presentations as much as they relish day-long committee meetings. In both cases, one hopes that something is accomplished somehow, but the process can be boring with the output of time far outweighing what is gained. In particular, we may worry that unless the student presenter has several good friends in the class, no one is paying attention. It becomes wasted time except for the one student who is presenting. While the benefit of honing individual oral presentation skills is important, many wonder what the class as a whole gains. I suggest that the student presentation days can be constructive for all students and increase students’ learning outcomes if we use this time properly. I offer a three-step process to achieve this goal: structured evaluation, meaningful feedback, and grading the evaluator.
Each individual student must remain engaged and accountable for learning in the class, even on days when he/she does not make a presentation. The primary tool that I use to make this time productive for everyone is to require students to fill out a sheet of questions on every presentation. The questions require the listener to evaluate every part of the presentation. The sheet begins with basic questions to see if the student is listening, such as requesting a summary of the presentation’s main argument. It proceeds to ask deeper questions, including evaluating the quality and relevance of the evidence used to support the argument and judging the clearest and strongest versus the weakest part of argument (and why). The sheet ends with areas for overall comment, such as whether and how the presenter’s handout was/was not helpful, where the presenter’s style can improve (volume, eye contact, etc.), and questions left unanswered that, if addressed, could increase the listeners’ understanding of the subject and argument. The first point of the sheet is to create questions that, when answered, will help students learn not only when they see a good or bad presentation, but why one presentation is more effective than another.
The second point of the sheet is to give presenters feedback from a variety of viewpoints so that they can improve their papers before they are handed in for a grade. There are several rea-sons why I feel that this format is helpful in advancing student achievement. First, I do not purport to have the monopoly on good ideas of how to improve student papers. Second, I always have students present their research papers shortly before they are due. Their work should be sufficiently advanced at that time, and presentations provide an opportunity to test out their ideas and find weaknesses prior to submitting the main part of their research grade—the final paper—and ensure that papers are not fully done the night before the due date. After I review the comments and issue participation grades, I cut off the very top part of the sheet with the evaluator’s name, staple them to my evaluation, and give them back to the presenter. Students know ahead of time that their comments will be seen anonymously by presenters, and I encourage them to write only in blue or black ink on these days to minimize the potential for identification. Since presenters get these packets before their papers are due, they can utilize the comments to improve their papers. Indeed, I tell them that they will be more harshly graded if an evaluator commented on a flaw that still exists in the final paper. Thus, I systematically encourage presenters to take the comments as a learning opportunity. Finally, as every presenter knows, it is difficult to make notes on each commentator’s suggestions when standing at the podium. I do allow time for students to make oral comments at the end of the presentation, but having a complete written record to take home and ponder enhances the opportunity that these comments will be constructively utilized.
Just handing out such a sheet is not enough on its own, which is why step three is also important. Students earn a participation grade for each day of class, and the quality of their comments on the sheet is how I grade them on presentation days. So, they need to go beyond cheering along a friend or just being quiet and polite. I remind them that everyone can improve some aspect of his/her presentation and explain that saying that everyone did everything “great” suggests to me that they did not really listen. In addition, regardless of what path they pursue after college, I tell them that they will most likely have to conduct some form of evaluation of others, whether it is their bosses or those that they supervise. They can use this experience to practice giving constructive and honest feedback, a necessary skill to advance in today’s world, and I have a “stick” to push them to do it.
I generally allow students to create their own research topics within the parameters of the class subject. First, this method in-creases the likelihood that students will work on a subject within their interests, hopefully encouraging a desire to learn more. Second, it ensures variety in what issues or geographic regions are presented, thus eliminating the potential boredom of repeatedly hearing the same points. Third, it provides a deeper exploration of a subject we have touched upon in class or expands the scope of material that is brought into the classroom.
Using these three steps—structured evaluation, meaningful feed-back, and the “stick” of grading the evaluator—has helped me to engage all students on every presentation day. This method also presents students with chances to advance their knowledge in political science and learn skills that will help them regardless of what career they pursue after college. By employing evaluation sheets in this manner, it is possible to increase active learning during presentations and keep the daydreamers and text-messagers at bay.
Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List presents select PSE articles from the previous 15 years. APSA Educate is please to announce it will feature all future Political Science Educator‘s issues.