Student management

Presentations are not real student engagement

The heartbreaking news that Natasha Abrahart, a student at the University of Bristol, chose to take her own life rather than give a presentation to staff and students should prompt us to reflect on the value of this method of teaching and assessment widely widespread.

In my 40 years of teaching in higher education, I have seen student presentations become if not ubiquitous, at least very common. The general pattern is that of a block of weekly four-hour modules divided into one or two hours of speaker-centred presentation, with the remainder of the time comprising student-centred presentations or workshops of some sort.

I had assumed this had only become the default arrangement in the social sciences, arts, and humanities, but Natasha’s subject was physics. His presentation was part of what was called a “lab conference” and, as is often the case, an evaluation was built into it.

Natasha’s fear stemmed from a level of social anxiety that amounted to a disability. But, in my experience, graded presentations induce unhealthy levels of anxiety in most students for days or weeks beforehand. When they come to present themselves in front of their colleagues, many students tremble with nervousness.

This anxiety affects their performance: the presentations are generally not very good, and often very poor. Despite the many tips we give students about the best forms of presentation, they rarely feel confident enough to improvise or challenge ideas, preferring to skim through notes or read dense PowerPoint slides verbatim. Their trembling voices are not easily heard, and despite their willingness to support their colleagues, the other students often seem disengaged. The cynics among these colleagues might notice that they do not pay substantial sums in tuition to hear other students give weak presentations on the subject in question.

Rather than demonstrating the criticality we’d like to see, students invariably think the safest bet is to present an assortment of putative facts gleaned from websites and textbooks. To wean them off the deep-rooted illusion that this is a good presentation strategy, tutors should spend an inordinate amount of time discussing epistemology and the value of critical thinking. In addition to teaching presentation skills, it would leave much less time for the subject at hand.

The practice of using student presentation usually goes through module validation exercises on the grounds that it helps develop ‘transferable skills’, primarily focused on communication. But why do we think we need to teach “skills”, transferable or not, in the first place? Students come to college to study physics, psychology, English or whatever – not presentation or communication.

“But they should learn those skills very well,” I hear my detractors say. “It’s part of the college experience and, on top of that, it’s skills they’ll need in life. Well, there are many skills that students would find useful in their work or personal life, from how to reset the consumption unit and organize a spreadsheet to dealing tactfully with colleagues and speaking up. voice at a meeting. But these, rightly, are not included in the program.

Communication and presentation skills: great. But don’t pretend they are a necessary part of a physical program.

And don’t rate students on them. To do so is manifestly unfair. The qualities needed for a confident and skilful presentation are far removed from those needed to empty a topic – agility in thought, retention of facts, critical analysis – in any topic. The biggest name in my own field, education, is John Dewey. He was an acclaimed lecturer and communicator, but that did not stop him from making some of the most important and enduring contributions to modern day educational thought.

The ubiquity of presentations, if we’re being honest, has as much to do with the math behind teaching hours as it does with developing communication skills. It is about managing face-to-face teaching time in a way that there is student engagement and involvement. We all want student engagement – ​​but don’t confuse it with some notion of “transferable skill” because the latter is a validly assessable feature of a university curriculum.

Gary Thomas is Emeritus Professor of Inclusion and Diversity at the University of Birmingham and a Registered Psychologist.