Student presentations in the classroom

Whenever I’m getting ready to teach a translation course, at either the graduate or undergraduate level, I run into the same problem as I prepare my course outlines: I spend several hours debating whether to incorporate student presentations into the course requirements. This happens mainly when I’m teaching theoretical courses, but it’s a dilemma that also used to come up as I was planning practical, undergraduate courses, until I abandoned student presentations as a classroom technique about two years ago.

On the one hand, presentations help students develop skills that will serve them well in the future. For undergraduate translation students intent on pursuing a career in the language industry, practicing presentations in the classroom should (ideally) help them after they leave the university and find themselves in situations where they need to speak to small or large groups of people. Someone who has grown comfortable doing a presentation in front of a classroom of students should be able to more confidently offer and justify their opinions in boardroom meetings, talk with potential clients, employers or co-workers at social functions, and be more conscious of how to express their ideas clearly and succinctly. For graduate students, who may also want to pursue a career in academia, in-class presentations are good practice for conferences, thesis defenses, teaching assistantships, etc. On the other hand, many students don’t seem sure how to do a presentation that will engage their audience and succinctly explain their ideas.

After several years of students reading directly from PowerPoint slides, handouts, or computer screens as they tried to show the class a new tool, website, or research technique, I abandoned in-class presentations in practical, undergraduate classes; I felt classroom time could be more effectively spent via group discussions or question-and-answer sessions than by presentations. I hesitated for quite some time this year as I planned my graduate courses, and I eventually reserved some classroom time for student presentations. I still feel, though, that the presentations weren’t as effective as they could have been, and I think that if I take a few steps to guide students through the process, the results could probably be much better next year.

Until now, I’d been assuming that students would take the initiative of attending one of the university’s various workshops on presentation skills if they felt unsure of themselves. But I think a more proactive role on my part is needed if student presentations are to become a valuable classroom tool. Next year, when I teach two theoretical translation courses, I will have students briefly present some of the texts we’re studying. As always, I will explain the goals of the presentation (to summarize the key theoretical ideas from an academic text, and to present these key ideas in a way that will engage their peers). But I will also suggest some specific presentation techniques they should follow. Here are two I’m considering:

The first is called Pecha Kucha. This Wired magazine article (and its accompanying video) provides a brief overview of this type of presentation, which involves speakers presenting 20 slides in 6 minutes and 40 seconds. In Pecha Kucha presentations, PowerPoint slides are automatically set to advance every 20 seconds, so speakers must carefully rehearse to ensure they’re keeping pace with the slides. In addition, each slide is supposed to contain not a summary of the points the speaker will cover, but rather an image that will help listeners focus on the point in question. I see some good potential for this technique in the classroom. Although the suggested 20 sides x 20 seconds format results in a presentation under 7 minutes, there’s no reason why students couldn’t be allowed to work with a few more slides or a few more seconds per slide. A 10-15 minute presentation could therefore adhere to the following format: seven or eight minutes to present the material, and seven or eight minutes of discussion.

The second is a question-and-answer format. The presenter would have to devise 5-6 questions that address key theoretical issues arising from an academic article. The questions would then be posed to the class so the student could discuss the author’s views while giving students a chance to offer their own perspectives. For instance, someone presenting James Holmes’ “The name and nature of Translation Studies” might ask students “Can you think of any categories we could use to describe the kind of research involved in Translation Studies?” The presenter could then compare the categories devised by the class with those proposed by Holmes. In theory, the student should summarize the main arguments in the article in about 15 minutes without having to lecture non-stop to the class.

I’ll be looking for additional presentation techniques so that I can compile a list of them to offer to my students next year. We may also spend some time together in class watching one or two language-related TEDTalks so we can discuss what makes a presentation effective and students can then offer some of their own ideas for the in-class presentations. Part their presentation marks will be based on how well they have applied one or more of these techniques. I’ll follow-up on this post next year, to discuss whether the in-class presentations were a more effective classroom tool than they’ve been in the past.

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