No more death by PowerPoint: A peer feedback process to replace student presentations

This blog post is a little different. I’ve written it to complement a presentation I gave at the 2017 UTS Teaching and Learning Forum where I presented about a subject that I teach in the Master of Education (Learning and Leadership) called Designing Innovative Learning. This post gives some more of the “how to” detail that I didn’t have time to include in my session at the forum. A copy of the slides can be found here.

Who has sat through several hours of presentations either as a student or as an instructor? While there’s a time and place for in-class presentations often they are not necessarily the optimal way to assess student learning or meet the learning goals. When running Designing Innovative Learning for the first time I was faced with this choice. Continue with the planned 10 minute individual student presentations which would use up over half of the final block (all day) class or go back to first principles and think about what type of activity would better suit the learning goals for the subject and the students? I chose the latter and changed the activity from presentations to small peer feedback groups.

Here’s how it works.

  1. As part of their final assessment for the subject, students design a learning initiative for an issue they have identified in their work context. There are two parts to this assessment. The first is the compulsory but ungraded peer feedback activity. The second is a report which students submit a few weeks later once they have their feedback.
  2. In class, all students are assigned to groups of three or four (depending on numbers in the class).  These groups use a template based on the Ladder of Feedback to provide feedback on each other’s learning initiatives which they are designing for their final assessment for the subject. Students are assigned to groups intentionally based on an earlier assessment where they outline the learning issue that they have identified. This ensures that students in the small groups are all working on similar projects which helps in terms of providing useful feedback and not needing to explain context to the others in as much detail.
  3. Each student has 20 – 30 minutes (depending on group numbers) to present an overview of their learning initiative.  It is up to students what they present.  Some students present an overview of their whole design or some just select parts where they want feedback – the choice is theirs based on what would be of greatest value to their learning and professional practice. The only limitation is that students only have 20 minutes. The remaining students in the group who are not presenting make notes during each presentation/discussion using the Ladder of Feedback template.
  4. Following the presentation, there will be 10-20 minutes for other group members to ask questions and give feedback.  The feedback sessions are timed and the instructor monitors when the time is up for each person and the group needs to move on to talking about the next person’s learning initiative.
  5. After all group members have had the chance to present and receive feedback, we spend some time as a class consolidating the feedback students received, discussing any questions that have been raised, and talking about how to incorporate the feedback into their final reports (which are graded).

Students who cannot attend class are still assigned to a group for feedback and they then prepare a short video or audio recording which is uploaded to a discussion board on our learning management system. Their peers then leave feedback in the comments of the discussion thread using the same Ladder of Feedback approach.

The benefits that I’ve observed from making this change include:

  • It made the activity a lower stakes part of assessment but still authentic in terms of how learning initiatives tend to be designed in the “real world” as negotiated collaborations
  • Students love being able to talk to peers in detail about their learning initiatives and work contexts – this provides a great opportunity for social learning and networking opportunities for students
  • Reduction in time from around 4.5 hours to 2 hours, freeing up block time for other activities and discussions to further the learning goals and finish the subject with more of a bang than a presentation whimper
  • Takes pressure off students who are not confident presenters or for whom English is a second (or third) language. Also means less preparation time for students who no longer need to prepare a full presentation if they don’t want to
  • Better quality and more detailed feedback for students to improve learning and assessment performance than they might expect following a more formal presentation
  • The opportunity for students to talk about their initiative and critically reflect on what they were planning. Often students comment that just talking about it out loud helped them process what they wanted to do and they have then changed their whole approach

Key take home messages:

  • Go back to first principles when designing or re-designing an activity or assessment

What are you trying to achieve?

How does the activity or assessment further the learning goals?

  • Simple is often very effective. Learning doesn’t always need to be high tech and you need to select the best tool for the job (see my last post for more about that)
  • Provide guidance and structure for students, don’t leave success to chance. I intentionally assign students to groups based on their projects as well as provide structure in terms of instructions and templates for feedback. This ensures that students can get on with productive discussions without worrying about what they are supposed to be doing.
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The song must further the story

At present, I have the tremendous good fortune to be spending a few days visiting a friend in Honolulu – I know, life’s tough. On the way over on the flight from Sydney I couldn’t get this song from the Disney movie Moana out of my head.

For those of you who don’t have small children, you may be blessedly unaware of this song…until now. You’re welcome for the ear-worm!

Having this song on infinite repeat for around 9 hours reminded me of a saying attributed to Walt Disney which I used in a workshop a few weeks ago. The workshop was part of a research project I’m involved in with the RAAF and myself and my colleagues were facilitating a workshop about the use of blended learning tools in learning design. One of the participants asked how to select the right tools for the job which prompted me to remark that Walt Disney once said that the songs in Disney movies are not just there for the music but they must also be there to further the story. The clip above from Moana is a good example of this. In the song, Maui, the demi-God of the wind and sky, sings a song with gives his back story and legend for viewers who are not familiar with it in a catchy, fast, and easy to understand way through the song.

In the same way, the tools that we use when designing learning initiatives must also “tell the story” of the learning. Often the new and shiny blended or online learning tool (Kahoots anyone?) is used because it’s just there, or it’s exciting, or managers want it used maybe because they’ve paid a lot for it). It’s important to stop at such points in the learning design process and ask how that tool or approach will further the learning goals – how does it help you to tell your learning story? If it doesn’t push your learning story forward, do you need it? Is there something similar but more effective that you could use instead? The tools that you select may be catchy and appeal to learners initially, but their enthusiasm may pall once they realise that there is an activity or tool there more for the sake of it than for any real pedagogical benefit. Effective learning design should help the learners meet their learning goals in the most coherent and engaging way possible, whether or not the tools used are new and shiny. What you end up with may not necessarily be Shiny but it may well do a better job for the learners.