No one remembers an exam. Those words, spoken by a faculty member at the University of Iowa where I was completing my M.A. degree, have remained with me ever since. When I joined the faculty at Otterbein and designed (and redesigned) my courses, I kept coming back to that statement.
Roughly two decades removed from my undergraduate degree, I thought about all the courses that I completed. I recalled the courses that I worked hard in and the courses that I coasted. To aid my memory, I thought about what I could recall (if anything) about each course. I wrote down each thought on a Post It note. I kept a color code to mark whether the courses fulfilled general education, major, or minor elective requirements.
I organized the Post It notes on a wall and looked for themes. For the elective courses, I could remember very little about the course. For example, from my business law course, I can recall the three elements of a contract (offer-acceptance-consideration) and that the instructor looked like Wilfred Brimley’s doppelganger. For the general education courses, I remembered even less than the elective courses. I could, however, relate how some of those courses such as the acting for the non-major influenced me today through my presentation ability. The courses for my major and my minor still resonated because most of those courses incorporated a presentation or a set of presentations instead of an exam. In turn, I used this skill regularly throughout my professional life. If I wanted a student to remember my course or, at least, some lesson from my course, then I needed to make it memorable by adding presentations.
In my remaining courses, save for INST 3014, I stress presentations of various types. Some presentations last two to four minutes while others last between eight to 10 minutes. Some presentations include only one slide while others include as many as 10 slides.
All of my presentations are graded on presentation content, presence, and design with the grading weight assigned as 40%, 30%, 30%, respectively. The grading weight signals the relative importance of each area related to an overall presentation. This grading weight appears consistent regardless of format or length.
For content, students need an introduction and a conclusion. The introduction should include not just what will be presented but reminding the audience of its role. For upper division students, the introduction should include a hook or a story that brings the audience into the presentation. The conclusion should be obviously stated and said in a louder tone to get the audience’s attention. Finally, the middle section should include a problem, a recommended solution supported by analysis, and an impact of that decision.
I model presence in all my classes. I explain to students that presence includes making eye contact, shoulders back, and head up. For upper division courses, I add that presence includes movement in the room, actively incorporating the white board into the presentation, and speaking in chunks to aid in comprehension.
For the design element, we watch videos on design philosophy that emphasizes contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity. I then show students advertisements, reports, and flyers. Students then pick elements of design that do and do not appear in practice. I also review their work with suggestions on how to improve.
My expectation of students varies based on standing in college. For freshmen, I expect students to follow an outline, make eye contact, and understand the needs of one audience type (e.g., the owner of the business). For seniors, though, I expect students to develop their outline, identify a thesis, and understand the needs of different audiences (e.g., senior management, advertising agency, store managers).
Similarly, my method of feedback changes depending on the course level. In my lower division courses, I point out things that I like, and things that need improve and how to improve those things. In my upper division courses, following the final presentation for the unit or topic, we move into a circle so that everybody can face each other. Students then call out things they like and things that need improvement. Students explain how they created or practiced a highlight. Together, we talk about to improve a low light.
Regardless of course level, all students receive an assignment packet that includes deadlines, the audience, and the rubric. Hence, students start from the same place in terms of learning how to develop a presentation. By planning and implementing each course with a focus on knowledge developed and expressed through presentations, I try to ensure that every student can remember something about the course. In turn, the students can take a skill that they will need for the rest of their professional life. Hence, my course creates an opportunity for lifelong impact in the same fashion that my courses did for me as an undergraduate student.