A snapshot of the fourth TEAMS on “Preparing Materials to Present Effectively and Engage Students”

Contributed by Dr. Nachamma Sockalingam, TLC

This post is a snapshot of the fourth TEAMS (Teaching Excellence for Associates: Meetings and Sharing session) for associates, that was held on the 17th of October, from 5 to 7 pm. The topic of this discussion was “Preparing Materials to Present Effectively and Engage Students” and it focused on the preparation work needed for effective presentation.  I had the opportunity to facilitate this TEAMS session (as well as the other sessions) and I should say that engaging with instructors has been a fantastic learning experience. Overall, the feedback for the sharing session has been positive and encouraging, which gives us more energy to continue on.  I would like to thank all the TEAMS participants for their contributions. Hope that those who were not able to join us would be able to do so asynchronously through this post.

I am trying out a new presentation style here, one inspired by a book by T. S. Spivet in which he intersperses his ideas with reflective thoughts. Hope it is not too confusing. My thoughts are in blue font.

There 4 subtopics covered in the session as well as this blog are: 

  1. What are the critical factors that determine the effectiveness of a presentation (in the teaching context)?
  2. Challenges in presenting effectively and suggestions 
  3. Three basic principles of effective presentation: “COR”
  4. How to prepare materials to present effectively (more specifically in UniSIM context)?

The discussion started out with an engaging icebreaker on what constitutes effective presentation skills (for the purpose of teaching). Two sample video clips of about 2-3 minutes each from YouTube on “Hypothesis Testing” were shown and participants were invited to share their views on the teaching style and presentation skills . This led us to discuss some of the challenges in presenting effectively. Participants shared their experiences in overcoming such challenges.  Finally, the various points were summed up and the basics of what is expected at UniSIM (in terms of presentation skills) and how to prepare (to present effectively) were shared with the participants.

(I used divergence – convergence method to generate ideas and facilitate the discussion. The act of showing concrete videos – using two different examples and asking participants to compare engaged the participants not just cognitively (i.e., got them thinking and engaged) but also socially (as everyone of the participants contributed and shared their views). 

1) What are the critical factors that determine the effectiveness of a presentation (in the teaching context)?

Participants shared their thoughts on the videos and a mini-discussion ensued. There was a general consensus that there are different teaching styles and that the choice of teaching style depends on several factors such as (1) purpose, (2) discipline, (3) time factor, and (4) students’ prior knowledge.  It was generally agreed that the purpose is one of the most important factors.

Purpose can be defined to be the (learning) outcomes. If the purpose is simply to list out concepts- then probably didactic teaching would be efficient and suitable, since didactic teaching is transfer of information, from lecturer to students, say in the traditional sense of lecture. However, if the purpose is to engage students and ensure that they understand, and make them think about what they have learnt beyond the class space and time, then there is a need to include activities to allow students to participate and contribute their ideas. This need not be physical activities where students are required to do something. It can simply be mental activities whereby students are given a cognitive puzzle to think about or solve/work out an answer. The idea is to engage the students cognitively.

While it is sometimes acceptable to use didactic teaching, it should be noted that an entirely didactic lesson would not be suitable in UniSIM’s context of student-centric teaching. If the idea is to pass/transfer information, UniSIM provides various channels through which information can be shard, such as provision of online resources and recorded lectures. UniSIM also encourages that the class-time is used for more engaging seminars so that learning is active and meaningful to students.

(Take the example of this very discussion session. One of the learning outcomes was understanding the three principles guiding effective presentation: Clarity, Organization, and Reasoning. And I used the mnemonic “COR” to drive the message.

Now, instead of showing videos and asking participants’ thoughts on them, it would have been easier to just tell them the points directly. It would have taken less than 2 minutes. This would be didactic teaching. Yes! Participants may remember the points for a short while, especially because of the mnemonic. But would that be deep-rooted?

Alternatively, I could simply ask participants to think of various videos that they have watched or various lectures they have attended. But these visualizations do not provide concrete examples. And different participants could imagine different things. Hence, the choice was to show the carefully selected videos (I had initially prepared 3 but due to time constraints, I had to be flexible and choose 2. This is also an essential presentation skill) so that participants have concrete examples to work on.)

Challenges in presenting effectively and suggestions

Participants also discussed about using case – studies or newspaper clippings as a trigger for discussion in a lesson. While most agreed on the use of such heuristics, there were also concerns raised (1) if some disciplines are more suited for such methods, (2) if there would be sufficient time and (3) whether our students are ready (since students may come from diverse backgrounds).

These are valid points and genuine questions that we have as instructors. Participants shared their experience on these various issues. Here is a tabulation of their suggestions.

Challenges Participants’ suggestion
Discipline-specific 
  • While it was felt that certain content might seem more suitable for didactic teaching (the assumption here is that some disciplines/content is more suited for didactic teaching), it was felt that it is possible to use concrete, real-life examples. This certainly requires instructors to be creative and on the lookout for such examples. 
Time
  • Upload resources ahead of class to give students sufficient time to be prepared and use seminar time to interact with and involve students
  • Prepare more examples, but be flexible and tailor to students’ needs
  • Teaching and learning need not be restricted to class time. We can use social media such as blogs or upload materials in Blackboard(LMS)
Diversity in students
  • Upload resources ahead of class to give students sufficient time to read and be prepared.
  • Set expectations that students need to read ahead of class
  • Use multiple modes of content delivery (visuals, audio, textual) to cater to different student learning styles.

(Throughout the discussion, there were many references to learning outcomes, clarity and reasoning/organization, which is what I wanted to achieve (my learning outcomes). So that gave me an indication that I was on the right track. I did not have to tell my participants. But they were bringing out these concepts.

Sometimes, students expect the instructor to tell them everything and think that if they figured out “on their own”, the teacher is not doing his/her part. But contrary to this, good facilitation guides/drives students to the learning outcomes and makes the student a contributor/creator of content.

In the last section of the presentation, I brought together the threads of discussions on   1) what constitutes an effective presentation- what factors to consider, (2) what are the challenges and strategies, to the final part on (3) how to prepare to present effectively.

(How to present effectively was skewed towards power-point slide presentations since it is the one of the most common forms but the principles discussed are generic and applicable to a wider context.)

Three basic principles of effective presentation: “COR”

As you know, there is no “one size – fits all” for an effective presentation. As mentioned earlier, one has to consider various factors such as (1) purpose, (2) discipline, (3) time factor, and (4) students’ prior knowledge in preparing the materials for the presentation.

Here are the three basic principles for an effective presentation. It can be remembered as “COR” principles. “COR” stands for Clarity, Organization, and Rationale/reasoning. Let us take a look at the definitions and explore how to incorporate the “COR” principles in material preparation  to engage the students.

(I have coined this mnemonic “COR” – so you may not find it in the literature)

Broadly, Clarity refers to clarity in content and clarity in the various modes of presentation, be it as speech (volume, tone, pronunciation), as visuals (brightness, contrast, color, font size, fuzziness) or as explanations (use of examples, analogies etc.).

Organization refers to the coherence material and ideas. In other words, it is about how the slides/ideas are sequenced, if the points in the slides have a certain pattern, say from most important to least important, chronological order, etc., and whether the ideas flow together.

Rationale or reasoning refers to whether the various ideas flow together logically, whether the assumptions are explained clearly, if sufficient evidence is given to support logically. 

How to prepare materials to present effectively (in UniSIM context)?

Step 1: Review

In order to present effectively, whether the material is self-prepared or prepared by another colleague, the idea is that as the instructor, we need to go through the material to ensure that the “COR” principles are in-built, and if not, to build it in. For instance, we may find that sufficient example is not used or the font color is unclear. To present effectively, we need to address such issues.

(Personally, I find it useful to print out the slide material as handouts and see whether the slides are organized clearly and the ideas are logically and structurally flowing. To see if this works for the participants, I printed 2 examples of power-point handouts and ask my participants to compare the slide set.  They found the simple exercise to be “insightful” on the “COR” principles).

(One of the questions asked was whether it would be alright for different instructors to prepare differently. I think the answer is that there is going to be innate differences in teaching style in any case. What must be consistent is that all the different instructors teaching the same module should be working towards the same learning outcomes. Having said that, it would be beneficial if the whole team of HoP, AF and instructors to work together for more consistency even in materials).

Step 2: Improve

You can add in additional and relevant but concrete examples where needed (for instance, a scanned copy of a newspaper article). While instructors may choose to mention such examples or case-studies, they may not actually show an artifact. But this simple act tends to make a lasting mark.

(Another questions asked was “How many examples are enough? How do we know?”

I think that the answer to this is “it depends”. The guiding principle is to ask ourselves “why”- “what is the purpose of example”. We want to use examples to enhance understanding. In doing so, we want to choose something relevant to the student so that it is easier to understand. Given the limited time, we want to choose the most appropriate example and where it is needed most, such as explaining a difficult concept. It is also not necessary that the instructor provides all the examples. Students can be encouraged to cite examples too. ).

You may find that adding in an overview mind-map helps to orientate the students. The same mind-map could be referred to throughout the lesson or module.

Instead of using the content as it is, you may want to reorganize the material and “re-present”. One important thing to avoid is to follow the text book style of order for the sake of it. As you know, different text books are organized differently for their own purposes. Hence, the instructor should try to reorganize the material as needed. For instance, instead of lifting/using exact table from textbook, you can “re-present” it as necessary to drive your point. This will also help students to learn how to represent materials.

Step 3: Plan

You can also reorganize the slides/chunk the material and divide the class time to smaller chunks. So instead of giving a 1.5 hr. straight lecture you can plan for a schedule as below. This is just a suggestion but the message is that instructors would have to plan

Activity Discussion Summary Q an A Case study Discussion Summary
10 min 15 min 15 min 10 min 10 min 15 min 15 min

Not only do we have to plan the presentation of the content and activities, but we would also have to  also plan the questions to ask the students. While instructors often wait for students to ask questions, it may very well be that students wait for instructors to ask.

Reviewing, Improving and Planning (“RIP”) will allow us to ensure that the content is clear, organized and with sound rationale, which would in turn to lead to a more clear presentation in class. Hope that these practical tips are useful. For more teaching and learning notes on presentation skills in class, you want to refer to an earlier post: Effective presentation skills.

(Come to think of it, these principles are not earth shattering or groundbreaking. It might look like there were no “new” concepts about presentation skills. Just as countless musical melodies can be constructed from just the basic 7 notes and variety of DNA and protein could be encoded using 4 nucleotides, the basic elements tend to be simple. So the important thing to know is not just the “what factors” but also “how these factors are put together”. )

If you have any comments on this post or suggestions, feel free to drop in your views in the comment box.

Till next time…

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About tlcunisim

This is the TLC UniSIM blog: the virtual community space for associates and faculty members to share ideas on teaching and learning. This blog is edited by Dr. Abdel Halim Sykes, Lecturer, Teaching and Learning Centre, SIM University, Singapore.
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2 Responses to A snapshot of the fourth TEAMS on “Preparing Materials to Present Effectively and Engage Students”

  1. tralvex says:

    For my entrepreneurship related classes, I usually include Venture Capital competition for the groups to compete, co-operate and fund allocation.

    • tlcunisim says:

      Thanks. That sounds interesting. Would you like to share more please? For instance, what is the competition about? What do students have to do and what is there response to this format? Is it difficult to manage?

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