Student presentations: why they’re vital and how to build them into your SoW

Student presenting to class

Some students relish the opportunity to hold forth to a captive audience, whereas others may be more reticent or suffer from serious performance anxiety. Either way, I think all students should be encouraged to give regular presentations in their A Level lessons.

Why?

  1. Giving presentations is an essential life skill that our students will need in the future.
  • Many university courses incorporate presentations as part of assessments for particular modules, and their quality of communication and organisation will contribute to the mark obtained for that course, affecting overall degree grades.
  • If students are not intending to go university, they may find they have to give planned or spontaneous presentations as part of assessment days for apprenticeship schemes or jobs.
  • They will certainly need to be able to present confidently to other people in small or large groups as part of their future work life.
  • It is arguably more important for young women to develop confidence in presenting, as social norms may make it more difficult for them to put themselves forwards in some contexts, so they may have fewer opportunities to practise. As sixth-form teachers, we can give them opportunities to develop their skills in a supportive environment where their grades do not depend on it.
  • Many students need to be explicitly taught how to stand, make eye contact, keep PowerPoint slides clear and simple, and give the audience time to take in new information by breaking it up with questions, summaries or illustrations.
  1. It makes a change from teacher-led lessons and enables deeper processing.
  • Have you observed other teachers’ lessons recently? It’s fascinating – you learn so much about what works in communication (and what doesn’t!) by observing, as well as gaining knowledge from hearing someone else explain something. The same is true with presentations. Students can learn from each other’s mistakes, as well as benefit from their good modelling too.
  • Students are motivated to get the explanations right when they are presenting. This pays dividends in their understanding. For example, my new Lower Sixth students were given a choice of topic for their first psychology presentation: a piece of research from any approach, with an explanation of how it typifies that approach. Many chose Little Albert, and as a result of preparing this, making a PowerPoint, and practising with their group, they knew it really well (due to deep processing, retrieval practice and distributed learning). They went on to get very high marks for the Behaviourist question in their end-of-unit test.

How?

I plan formal presentations into my SoW, and use a form (Word doc) to give detailed feedback. I also use a research-and-present format for many small sections of topics within lessons.

  • My Lower Sixth students have an hour per fortnight of ‘Directed Study’, which I have set up as research-based tasks over a few weeks. The first was book/internet research culminating in a five-minute presentation to their class. I used the feedback form to give them a grade, and talked through my comments with groups at the end of the class. The form is based on the one used by Winchester University for assessing psychology undergraduate presentations, but adapted to A Level grades. I assigned grades fairly subjectively, mainly for the purpose of encouraging the students and highlighting stronger and weaker areas, with specific tips for improvement.
  • Some presentations were extremely fluent and thought-provoking, incorporating new ideas from beyond the specification, such as Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. I am now giving these high-flying students the opportunity to present to a larger audience at our lunchtime Psychology Society.
  • The next Directed Study task is planning a memory experiment, with the end goal of presenting the plan to the class. The best experiment in the year group will then become a Psychology Society experiment, and the winning group will lead the experiment. Download instructions for this task (Word doc).
  • Rather than ‘PowerPoint karaoke’, when I get bored of talking and I see the students’ eyes starting to glaze over, I flip it. The students get 5 minutes in pairs to summarise evaluation points from the textbook, then explain them to the rest of the class, using the PEEL format. I support them with this to start with, but they improve their summarising and PEELing skills with practice – a very useful AfL tool, with instant feedback from me and the rest of the class. This also helps them to develop their note-taking and summarising skills. To differentiate this, after they have attempted the task I give weaker students copies of the summaries from the Revision and Exam Companion which have been ready-PEELed, so they can see what we’re aiming for.

What if they won’t or can’t?

There are inevitably some psychology students with anxiety issues who refuse to present. I see this as an opportunity to help them work through their issues, if they are prepared to do so. It is a practical exercise in applying their CBT or relaxation skills to this situation – a sort of informal Systematic Desensitisation process. We talk about negative reinforcement of a phobia by avoidance, and how to overcome this. To take the pressure off, I let these anxious students take part in planning the first presentation without any requirement to stand up and present. They have an option of talking it through with me one-to-one instead in order to be given a grade, and I use this meeting to help them to understand the value of overcoming their anxiety, and to plan how we will tackle this together in the psychology classroom, step by step. This is an individual plan depending on the particular aspects of presenting that the student finds anxiety-provoking, and I encourage them to take ownership of the process, choosing what they would feel able to try next, with my support and the goodwill of the class.

Sometimes this anticipated anxiety is self-fulfilling, but on other occasions I have seen students who thought they would be unable to present doing so with apparent ease and self-assurance, because of their excitement about the material and the support of their colleagues. Maybe it’s the encouragement of seeing other people’s presentations and realising that theirs is just as good, or better! They also see that other people get nervous but it doesn’t matter. I remember a very anxious student, who had recently suffered a bereavement, and whose group won the memory experiment planning competition. She thought she would not be able to talk to a large group, and I was there as a back-up, but I was not needed as she successfully led the whole year-group experiment, with humour and style. This transformed her attitude in class, giving her a love for psychology and a new confidence in expressing her ideas. One of my best teaching moments!

Rachel Moody photo

Rachel Moody was a biology, science and maths teacher and examiner for twenty years before becoming a psychologist. She has taught psychology A Level in four sixth form colleges in Hampshire, examines for AQA, and is currently Head of Psychology at King Edward VI School, Southampton. She has recently contributed to the Year 2 Mini Companion and the Year 2 Revision and Exam Companion, both part of the Complete Companions for AQA series.

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