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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Always nice to achieve a goal

Hooray! This week I have achieved two goals in my learning journey. I love the feeling you get when you can “tick” something off your list as complete/achieved/attained or whatever you want to call it.

My first achievement, after a pitiful two and a half years, is the completion of my Certificate IV in Business and Workplace Coaching. I’ve used the skills for ages but have now finally got my act together and finished the damn assessments so I can get the piece of paper. Ah, the good old piece of paper. If you’re anything like me part of the motivation is getting the certificate sometimes at the expense of the actual learning. I don’t think I’m alone here 🙂 While I certainly did learn from the course I was most motivated in the end to complete the assessments, not of some sense of consolidating my learning, but for the piece of paper and the sense that I had left it long enough.

My second achievement, of which I am extremely proud, is being notified today that I have been given Ethics Clearance to start my PhD research. That is both a good and scary thing. Very good because it passed with no changes required to the design (a rare feat apparently) but scary because now the hard work starts. The Ethics Proposal was a very definite deadline for me to get to before I move to Germany in late November. It really got  me thinking about the importance of deadlines in getting things done. Even though I love to learn I can be scatty about it and jump around topics and projects like a fly at a picnic. I find, and again I don’t think I’m alone here, that I really need a deadline to keep me motivated and on-track. Case in point – my Cert IV did not have a deadline but my Ethics Application did. The result of this was that it took me two and a half years to complete the certificate and only a month to complete the dreaded Ethics Application.

My question is – how can we build in more “deadlines” to help learners like me? Even when there are no assessments for a workplace course or for some self-study how can we as learners and educators impose meaningful parameters on the experience so that we have that important sense of completion and achievement to keep us spurred on for more? Sadly I don’t have an answer yet but I would be curious to know what others think about it. Assessment isn’t always “bad” or “scary”, sometimes it provides the motivation.