Some Experiences and Suggestions for Successful Student Presentations

With the exception of “presentations” students prepare and present in-class with very little preparation, I have discovered when they hear “presentation,” they automatically think of PowerPoint. 

Last semester when I told my students in African American History they could not use PowerPoint for their presentations, they were all alarmed and shocked and responded, “How is that even possible!!”

Since then I have been committed to prohibiting PowerPoint for student presentations–with some exceptions for those who have an image or something similar that needs to be displayed.

This past week we finished three weeks of presentations in my First Year Seminar classes at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. As part of the standardized curriculum, students across the university in FYS classes are required to give mini-presentations (5-6 minutes each) over either the Civil Rights Act of 1965, Title IX, DACA, or the ADA. When explaining the requirements and my expectations, I told students–no PowerPoint (or any other presentation tool)! And, the first week of presentations just about everyone had a PowerPoint that functioned as a teleprompter.  


This was surprising to me because I don’t use PowerPoint in the FYS classes ever. (I do sort of use it in History classes but not in the typical way. I use it exclusively for images, video clips, and important quotations that we read together. I use black backgrounds and white text exclusively.) Upon reflection, I realize they have don’t have any or little experience giving or seeing a presentation or being in a classroom that doesn’t depend on PowerPoint to provide blood circulation. PowerPoint and presentation are one and the same to too many. 

Experts generally regarded PowerPoint (and similar tools) as an ineffective tool. There are countless articles about why we need to “dump” PowerPoint, as one article puts it. In its 10 points, this article says PowerPoint discourages active learning, spontaneity, thinking, and overwhelms our attention and concentration. 

Death by PowerPoint” is absolutely the best presentation I’ve seen on this topic. 

After the first week of presentations in the FYS classes, we had a class-wide feedback session and discussion of the presentations. Similar to an in-class peer review or writing workshop, we discussed as a class what worked and what did not work. I strongly encouraged students to not use PowerPoint, to practice in advanced, to move around when talking, and to use good inflection, for example. I also encouraged and reminded them to answer the assigned question, since most presentations, instead of focusing on how the selected act affects us today, gave history presentations. So I also used the feedback session to give students a chance to add to their presentations and answer the assigned question. 

Over the next two weeks there continued to be a number of PowerPoint presentations, some were good, but the presentations all three weeks that did not use PowerPoint were better without exception – very good and in cases, outstanding.

I really wish and hope people would and could realize, they do so much better without PowerPoint. Without PowerPoint they prepare more, the audience is focused on them and not a million little bright dots, they aren’t as locked into a specific script, and it’s new, different, and creative. 

We continued the feedback and followup sessions after presentations with increasing success each week. Partly, the students got used to not just presenting and being done, and partly, I figured out better and better ways to conduct the feedback and followup sessions. The second week my “philosophy” of sorts was to ask specific questions (some especially challenging ones, too) of each student in order to give them a chance to fill in any gaps and to add to their presentations. The third week the approach was similar, but I thought of it as both modeling and asking for “thinking on your feet.” I also asked both specific questions individual-by-individual and questions to every one presenting on the same basic topic. 

The students did most well. Many of them did better in the feedback/followup portion because they weren’t as “on stage” and were all standing in the front together. They also had time to think about what they actually said (in contrast to what was planned) and then followup or clarify. 

In all weeks, other students provided the first bit of feedback and asked the first questions, and students were each asked, “is there anything else you would like to add?”

Presentations take a great deal of class time, but are a great deal of fun!

In sum, the most successful presentations come from bans on PowerPoint and a 5-10-minute-per-student discussion where feedback and followup questions and comments are shared. Such a process empowers students and professors and relies on critical thinking.