by Anna Atkinson, Teaching Faculty Member, English Department, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, VIU

Some years ago, the English Department undertook an exit survey of its graduating students. In that survey, one of the things that surfaced struck my colleagues and me as both surprising, and, upon reflection, perhaps a bit obvious. The problem had to do with oral presentations, which many of our courses require.

Students were saying that these presentations were frequently very poorly done, and were sometimes a bit painful to sit through. I believe the words “waste of time” may have even come up! Since then, many of my colleagues and I have been searching for ways to help students improve their presentation skills. The problem is that English courses are writing-centered, for the most part; very few of them actually have time to also teach oral presentation (there are a couple of exceptions).

I’ve tried various things in the past. I’ve handed out marking rubrics. I’ve had student assessments as part of the marking process. I’ve told classes about the assessment of students concerning oral presentations, and asked them what they would like to see. None of this seemed entirely successful. Upon reflection, I thought perhaps that this might be because students really needed clearer guidelines within the assignment structure itself. I also thought perhaps the presentations seemed less important to students than written material, when it really is a strong adjunct.

This term I’m teaching a 200-level course on the connections between the Bible and C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. What I decided to do in order to clarify what I was really looking for in an oral presentation was simply lay out the parameters clearly:
•    3 good, open-ended discussion questions (I gave an explanation of “open-ended”)
•    At least 2 cases of textual analysis (at least one each from the Bible and from the novel they are presenting on)
•    An activity that speaks directly to the theme or the point their presentation focuses on

I also gave several models of an oral presentation: “Introduction to the novel”; “Special Focus on a Plot Event”; “Special Focus on a Theme”; “Special Focus on a Concept.”

Because I asked for so much, I wanted to make it worthwhile, so I made the presentation worth a full 20% of their grade.

I realize that a single presentation isn’t a large enough sample to conclusively determine success, I have to say that the presentation I saw last night was one of the finest and most fruitful I’ve ever seen. Class discussion was lively and well-led; the “game” the group invented was both hilarious and very topical and illustrative; the textual analyses were well thought out and well done.

Perhaps more importantly, the feedback from the group that presented was also positive: they were still nervous about the presentation, but were really grateful for the guidelines, since it gave them a frame to “hang” their ideas on. I am now completely incautiously optimistic about future presentations!