Teaching presentation skills and engaging students in large lectures

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How do you engage students in large lectures? Richard Gratwick, University Teacher in the School of Mathematics, describes how he redesigned the “skills” component of a third-year mathematics course to ensure that students in a large lecture got extensive practise in developing their presentation skills… 

Giving a presentation will be an unavoidable exercise for most of our graduates. Indeed, one of the University of Edinburgh graduate attributes is being a “skilled communicator”.  But too often at university presentation skills are only assessed, and never taught.  Moreover, presentations are often one-off, high-stakes components of, for example, a final-year project, for which feedback, coming after the event, is useless.  Last year, we sought to address this in the School of Mathematics.

I redesigned the “skills” component (15%) of Honours Analysis, a 20-credit course for third-year mathematics students, to develop presentation skills. The guiding principles were that students would have repeated opportunities to present, and would receive immediate feedback.

Approximately 140 students were enrolled on the course. My total contact time was four hours every fortnight for five sessions: twenty hours.  How on earth do 140 students deliver repeated presentations and receive useful feedback in twenty hours?

The logistics were intricate, if not nerve-wracking. Each two-hour workshop was attended by 60-80 students, in a large teaching studio.  I introduced the session, outlined elements of good practice relating to the marking criteria, and gave feedback on previous sessions.  This left about thirty minutes to prepare and practise for students’ individual presentations, to be delivered in the last hour.

These presentations were delivered in parallel, in groups of at most eight, all around the room, removing the intimidation factor of facing a roomful of silent faces. Presentations were two minutes long (a formidable test of time-keeping) and on a choice of topics from the course (except the first week, where complete free-rein was given: maths, non-maths, hamsters, whatever).  Each group was either joined by a tutor, or conducting peer-assessment.  Explicit marking criteria included choice of content, clarity of explanation, structure, time-keeping, delivery, and quality of any visual aids.

Eight two-minute presentations, with feedback and changeovers, take about half an hour.  We then did exactly the same thing again, but with students changing whatever they liked, in response to feedback, and having observed their peers’ presentations.  Groups previously conducting peer assessment were now joined by a tutor, and the tutor-marked groups switched to peer assessment.

By the end of one session, each student had delivered a presentation not once but twice, gained feedback both from a tutor and from their peers, and marked their peers’ presentations – this critical attention to other presentations forming an important component.

The final session involved longer (five-minute!) presentations, delivered to their groups in individual rooms, double-marked by tutors: more like typical high-stakes presentations, but for which students had now had guidance, practice, and feedback. Any student attending all the preceding sessions would already have delivered a presentation eight times.

Attendance and engagement were extremely high. Many students disliked the exercise, but grudgingly accepted its usefulness – and these students had the most to benefit.  The effectiveness of the course is best captured in this (winning) EUSA teaching award nomination, which describes exactly the outcome we intended:

If someone would have told me in week 1 that I would give a five minute presentation in week 10 to a group of other students and two tutors I would not have believed them. But I did and the confidence to get up and do that was mainly down to Richard and the way he organised his skills section of the course.

Richard Gratwick

Dr Richard Gratwick joined the School of Mathematics in 2016 as a University Teacher, and in the 2017/18 EUSA Teaching Awards won the van Heyningen Award for Teaching in Science and Engineering.

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