After reading about Pecha Kucha presentations in Jason B. Jones’ Professor Hacker post, I experimented with the format for student presentations for the first time last semester, and I am hooked! Adopting Pecha Kucha conventions (20 PowerPoint slides automatically advancing after 20 seconds each) contributed to some of my most effective and engaging student presentations ever.
My department includes effective oral communication as one of our learning goals for majors, so my colleagues and I look for ways to incorporate formal and informal presentations in most of our classes. To name just a few examples, I’ve had students present critiques of outside readings to broaden the geographic and topical coverage in my Latin American history courses, students collaborate on projects investigating Brazilian popular culture, and students in my quantitative methods class create a poster session explaining their research using the Trans-Atlantic Slavery Database.
While I’m convinced that oral presentations of their research in multiple formats is crucial for improving students’ communication skills and comfort speaking before a group, I find myself weighing the balance between meeting this learning goal and maximizing the entire group’s opportunities for active learning in seminar. At their most effective, student presentations benefit the class as a whole by bringing in new ideas and engaging us all in productive discussions. They let students take greater ownership of the course content by allowing them to integrate outside interests with course themes. However, in the (relatively few) cases where student presenters are inadequately prepared, or have not thought carefully about effective presentation design, the seminar audience is not engaged. I worry that in these worst-case scenarios, student presentations can be a waste of the entire group’s time.
This fall, I had students in my first year seminar create Pecha Kuchas to share their semester-long research projects on mapping and the spatial history of the Americas. Two weeks earlier each student had submitted rough drafts of their research papers, and they were working to focus their arguments and clarify their use of evidence as part of the revision process. I’m convinced that the quick pace and the formal design constraints of Pecha Kucha presentations improved oral presentations’ pedagogical utility not just for the student presenting but for the audience as well.
In terms of individual critical thinking and clarity of communication, preparing for their Pecha Kuchas forced students to think carefully about how to put the suggestions for improvement they received on their written first drafts into action. They developed more explicit theses, improved their arguments about historical change over time, and clarified the “take away messages” of their research. In addition, creating their PowerPoint slides dramatically improved students’ consideration of visual evidence. Their interpretations of historic maps became more nuanced, and visual analysis more sophisticated. Happily, developing their oral arguments translated into stronger final written projects as well.
The Pecha Kucha format appreciably raised the quality of presentations. The visual-heavy format and rapid pace engaged the audience. Shy presenters appreciated the audience focus on the screen, and found it easier to relax. Even students prone to procrastination realized that the formal constraints required prior planning and practice; there were few presentations where students seemed to be “winging it.”
I think that the class as a whole benefited from watching the Pecha Kuchas. Although they had read and responded to each other’s rough draft essays, these presentations brought ideas percolating over the entire semester to completion. Students asked engaged questions, and made connections between disparate research projects. In this case, I felt much more confident that allocating several class sessions to student presentations had been a sound pedagogical decision.
With the presenters’ permissions, I’m including examples of some of the successful projects here: