Presentations as a Type of Formative Assessment

Response paper for the session "Assessing Student Learning"
Certificate in University Teaching Program - University of Waterloo

We may have all experienced the elevating feeling of having a great idea inspired from thin air, and suddenly wishing to share it with someone. This must be an ancient human characteristic indeed, one that may have driven the evolution of the modern human by a significant factor. The feeling of “sharing through words” not only makes us feel good for “giving” to others, but can cause us to self-reflect on our own thoughts on a deeper level, as well as give other people a chance to comment on our ideas, thereby potentially improving them. In fact in a more organized and developed manner, this is the fundamental idea behind “presentations” and the response to them, either by the audience or an instructor, in which case it is a type of formative assessment. In this essay, I wish to take a closer look at presentations and their assessment as a means for student learning.

I believe that the primary most important outcome of a presentation, is the effect it has on the audience. The effect can be considered in varying degrees of weighting to be the amount of information retained by a listener, or the influential effect it has on a person, in the short or long run. Certain effects may be qualitatively measured, while some are hazier matters of opinion. What I believe to be certain is that every presentation must have a set of clear objectives - primary, secondary, and else. Objectives assist in the overall structuring and branching of a presentation, while their clear statement in the beginning may help guide the presentation itself. Indeed the structure is the linking bridge from the stated objectives to the observable outcomes. Thus an effective communicational channel opened by the presenter, must have a trait of clarity and didactic structure, serving as the master plan of a master manipulator, which any great presenter must ultimately become.

As far as the specific skillsets - implicit or explicit - required by the intended outcomes of presentations, they all revolve around the idea of effective communication, which I define for myself as the ability of opening a communicational channel, maintaining it, and then applying it for the channeling of information to the audience. Clarity not only in structure but in mere speech itself is obviously a must for such a channel to open, in addition to adjusting the proper sound volume to the situation, and maintaining the continuity of speech. Eye contact may serve as a means to keep the channel open, in addition to actually opening one potentially. Subconscious signals sent via facial and postural expressions, serve to enhance communication. For a presenter, they provide a chance to take their self-expression to the next level, creating an audio-visual orchestra of signals with varying intonations and perceptibility. According to certain theories of the birth of human languages, initially we all communicated via sign languages, which may be why certain regional cultures - such as the Mediterranean - have still retained them to the present day.

In addition to the skills of speech, the speaker's proficiency in the material can influence the presentation to a major extent. It not only gives the impression of knowledgeability, but raises the level of self-confidence in the speaker. Self-confidence in turn may influence a wide range of other factors mentioned above, such as continuity of speech and clarity of structure. Self-confidence is radiant. It shines from the presenter on the audience, and in turn influences the level of trust and confidence the audience has in the verity of the communicated information.

An important dilemma to be decided prior to assessment, is the weighting of the relevance of feedback by either the instructor or the peer students in the audience, as well as the sequential method of communication of the formative assessment. I believe the ideal resolution of this to be as follows: peer assessment should have temporal precedence, while instructor feedback should serve as the deciding factor. Most students may sub/consciously agree that the instructor has a right to serve as a presiding “judge” having the final say. On the other hand, peer opinion must be upheld as valuable for its inherent spectral characteristic, providing a wide range of opinions to consider. This semi-hierarchical relationship must serve as the definitive template for any specific explicit assessment, to ensure the relevance and reliability of the overall reflection on the presenter.

In considering the efficiency of student presentations and their peer discussion as a formative assessment in terms of student and instructor time, one must identify the given base constraints, such as class size, class time, and meeting frequency. Clearly, such constraints require advance planning on the part of the instructor, in order to ensure the smooth flow of class activities, by minimizing the unnecessary pressures of the constraints. Thus considering time limitations, presentations may or may not be considered efficient, depending on the situation. The point of “presenting” however is not necessarily efficiency, but rather that of creating an atmosphere of open communication, by finding and maintaining the right channel for this experience. Therefore the student must be aware of this fully, so that s/he can focus on the more relevant aspects of the presentation and its subsequent interactive assessment.

One may consider alternative forms of assessment, other than the suggested weighted instructor-peer partition. These can range anywhere between the absolutely autocratic, relying on solely the instructor's criteria, to the entirely laissez-faire, whereby peer feedback is the main mode of formative assessment. We may clearly find virtues at both ends of the spectrum. However, a more weighted approach can minimize the weaknesses and maximize the effectiveness of the assessment. The advantages of the autocratic method, is the reliability of expert opinion by the instructor, and the projection of security on the classroom due to it. Peer feedback however, can increase the students' involvement in the betterment of one-another's presentation skills. Some students may be more receptive to their peers’ opinions than an instructor’s, since they are on an equal hierarchical level. Thus the quest of finding an ideal middle way for a specific situation, may result in a more optimal assessment strategy.

The verbal formative assessment matches quite well the desired outcomes and required skills mentioned above. A communicative feedback approach fits appropriately into the format of presentations, and may be viewed as their natural extension. The marking scheme or specific criteria should in my opinion be reserved for the instructor, who is to give a more rigorous and analytical assessment. The audience of students however must be allowed to engage in free conversational feedback with the presenter, for an optimal active learning outcome of all students.

In summary, I have discussed “presentations” as serving the assessment of students of various topics. I have considered a number of analytical questions to observe my ideas in this regard. I found this endeavor to be quite valuable in its self-reflective potential, making me think deeper about the conceptual approach to this type of assessment.