Sometimes we get our students to give talks – with slides – instead of writing yet another essay. I like this – it challenges them in new ways. Some students clearly find the experience very uncomfortable (maybe I would have, too, at that age) but it’s always interesting, and sometimes they surprise and delight us.
Mostly, we are fairly strict about the timing: talks are usually in the range of 10 – 15 minutes, plus a little time for questions. This partly reflects class size: any longer and we would have to find several afternoons in the timetable, instead of two or three; this would be hard, since time (particularly for staff) is at a premium. But even within that small space, students are able to demonstrate the extent of their knowledge and excitement about a particular topic. In fact, I’d say we’re probably giving them more than enough rope with which to hang themselves.
One of the problems I think students have with giving presentations is that they readily conflate slides, and slide content, with the presentation itself; this is often expressed as reams of text on slide after slide, which students then read aloud. They’re not thinking about added value – the value they themselves add. Perhaps this is partly the fault of lecturers and presenters everywhere who do this too, and perhaps institutions – mine included – are to blame for placing the emphasis on making slides available after lectures/presentations/workshops, as though the slides were a ready substitute for the talk. (They’re not; if they are, we’re in slideument territory.)
So if we’re going to assess students on the basis of their presentations, perhaps we should focus more on actual presentation skills. I get very excited about Pecha Kucha (20 slides at 20 seconds each: a 6-minute presentation) and Ignite (same format but 15 and 15, giving a 5-minute presentation). These represent the presentation equivalent of a sonnet: a strict form, but total freedom therein. Constraints are often a spur to creativity, which is why trying to write haiku is so much fun (graphic designers, pregnant women and those of a nervous disposition may want to steel themselves before clicking; I have never seen such frightening wallpaper).
Of course, there are potential downsides to using this approach: how do we grade a student who just loses it in the moment? Will the presentation content be too simplistic because of the time constraints? Is it even possible to stuff serious academic material inside one of these talks?
But I think there’s a counter-argument to be made there too: five or six minutes is enough to get a message across, but in a really focused way. Both formats force the presenter to think hard about what goes on the slide, and what they’re going to say in the allotted time; they encourage development of real, actual presentation skills. Ignite and Pecha Kucha also kill Death By Bullet-Point, kill it dead, since you can’t reasonably expect people to read more than a few words in 15 or 20 seconds.
If we shift the focus of making a presentation towards actual presentation skills, that’s surely good for students’ employability. Presentation skills are increasingly important in our blah blah knowledge economy, and employers want graduates with a bit of polish (yeah yeah, add your Modern Languages jokes to the pile by the door). And we need polish: I would do almost anything to avoid a repeat of the mortifying shared experience I once had, watching a presenter stumble over one of the fundamental technical terms in her presentation: after the first bungled attempt to pronounce it, she just skipped blithely over it – “yeah, I can’t say that word”. Ouch.
(Sometimes I think about starting an Ignite/Pecha Kucha club here, and then I remember how much free time I don’t have.)
Edit: My husband just pointed out that it’s not unusual at academic conferences to be asked to give a talk lasting less than ten minutes, so maybe it’s possible to squeeze enough science into five or six.