Faculty Focus


Student Presentations: Do They Benefit Those Who Listen?

Almost everyone agrees that student presentations benefit the presenter in significant ways. By doing presentations, students learn how to speak in front a group, a broadly applicable professional skill. They learn how to prepare material for public presentation, and practice (especially with feedback) improves their speaking skills. But those of us who have students do presentations in class know there’s a downside—and that’s how the rest of the class responds to these presentations. When the teacher talks, students more or less have to pay attention, at least some of the time, but when their classmates present, they can be comatose. Not only does this make it more difficult for the presenter, it means the students listening are not likely having any sort of learning experience.

Peer evaluations are one way to get students listening and learning from the presentations of others, as the authors of the article referenced below have documented. Students attend more carefully to what their classmates are saying when the evaluations they are doing “count.” In this article, which describes the use of peer evaluations in ten 300-level political science courses, students evaluated every presentation and those evaluations constituted between 3 and 5 percent of their course grade—an amount the authors describe as “just enough to make the students take this assignment seriously.” (p. 806) The quality of the feedback students provide is improved when they use criteria (in this case the same one the teachers used) to assess the presentations. Without much experience critiquing presentations and with no specific guidelines, they are likely to offer feedback that is generic and not particularly helpful, such as “Good presentation.”

These authors had students in each of the 10 classes evaluate the peer evaluation assignment, and that feedback indicates the merit of having students do the evaluations. Seventy-three percent of the students agreed or strongly agreed that completing the evaluations made them pay more attention to the presentations. Almost 60 percent said doing the evaluations gave them a different perspective. “Students indicated they gained a different insight into the process, rather than just sitting through presentations without having any objective or direction as an audience member.” (p. 806) Another sizable majority, almost 74 percent, agreed or strongly agreed that completing the evaluations clarified expectations for the presentation assignment.

Students were equally clear that they did not want the evaluations of their peers to have any role in determining their grade for the presentation. This response is interesting in light of the fact that an analysis of a subset of the data revealed a high correlation between instructor and student grades (r = .740). Instructor grades were slightly higher than student-assigned grades. Even though small, this difference was statistically significant. And even though students didn’t want the assessment of their peers to count, over 80 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the feedback of peers would be helpful in improving subsequent presentations.

It is appropriate for teachers to consider the learning potential of presentations, not just for the presenter, but for the audience. Peer evaluations can be used to increase the level of attention paid to those presentations and the learning that might result from listening. They can also develop critiquing skills. Rather than incorporating peer critiques into the grade of the presenter, maybe part or all of the critique grade could be determined by the presenter, who rates the quality of the feedback provided. As these authors note, sometimes the logistics of peer evaluations discourage faculty from using them—multiple evaluations to collect, record, sort, and return. What about an online system of peer reviews? Or assign a certain number of peer reviewers to each presentation. That ensures that at least a portion of the audience are attending, and with fewer evaluations to prepare, students could be expected to provide more detailed feedback. Or how about some bonus points to the students whose presentations are rated highest by their colleagues? The details associated with using peer evaluations can be handled in a variety of interesting and useful ways.

Reference: Baranowski, M., and Weir, K. (2011). Peer evaluation in the political science classroom. PS, Political Science and Politics, 44 (4), 805-811.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 26.1 (2012): 5.