• Improving Student Learning Theory and Practice - 10 Years on

    Title: Students' experiences of learning to present

    Author(s): Dai Hounsell and Velda McCune
    Institution: University of Edinburgh
    Session: Research paper  

    This paper is concerned with undergraduate oral presentations as an aspect of student experiences of learning in higher education. Oral presentations are typically undertaken as part of the formally assigned coursework for a specified module or course unit, and take the form of a prepared talk of up to 15-20 minutes in duration on an assigned topic or problem, followed by questions and discussion. Oral presentations have become increasingly prevalent in post-school education, where they are seen as having a potentially powerful contribution to make to the development of students' communication skills. However, oral presentations have rarely the subject of thoroughgoing empirical enquiry. We therefore know little about how students' go about preparing and delivering their presentations, what kinds of communicative and learning demands these presentations make of students, or what their substantive impact is on the evolution of skills or the grasp of subject matter.

    The exploratory study reported here was an attempt to begin to narrow that gap in our present understanding, while building on previous experiential and phenomenographic research into other key learning and studying tasks such as academic reading, essay-writing and self-directed projects. The data gathered in the course of the exploratory study were drawn from a series of semi-structured group interviews with a total of 39 students - mostly in their third or final undergraduate year - immediately or shortly after they had given an oral presentation. The students concerned were in three contrasting subject areas: the physical sciences, the social sciences and the humanities.

    Intensive analysis of the interview data has focused on two major themes which emerged from extended initial scrutiny of the interview transcripts by the two researchers. The first has been reported elsewhere and concerns the 'sense of audience' displayed by the students, the dilemmas to which their uncertainties over audience gave rise, and the communicative stratagems which they adopted to meet perceived audience needs. The second strand in the analysis (and the strand which is to the fore in the present paper) has focused on those aspects of the students' experiences which seemed to be particularly germane to the challenge of learning how to present effectively.

    Six important sources of influence on the students' experiences are identified and examined in depth: their prior experiences of presenting, in other course settings or elsewhere; the guidance and support on presenting given to the students by their tutors; the students' experiences of giving the talk component of the presentation; their experiences of handling post-talk questions, comments and discussion; feedback from tutors on the presentations; and learning from other students' presentations. These influences are seen as mediated by students' emerging grasp of what will be appropriate and feasible for them in presenting effectively, and thus contributing to the evolution of personal styles of presenting. The paper concludes by considering the implications of these findings for teaching-learning practices as well as for future research in this field.