Oral Presentation by Peers

Podium outside the Capitol


Doug Coulson

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I’m teaching an upper-division rhetorical theory course about legal rhetoric that requires students to write a 2,500-4,000 word research paper in which they rhetorically analyze two or more opposing arguments regarding an evidentiary controversy in a forensic dispute (typically this will be a trial or similar proceeding), and critique or extend a particular theory of forensic rhetoric as it applies to the rhetorical analysis they provide. This is a staged writing assignment that begins about a thirdd of the way through the semester and is concluded at the end of the semester. During the second half of the semester, I have students deliver oral presentations on the papers in progress.

This semester, rather than have students present their own papers to the class, I've paired them with a peer and asked each to present the other's paper instead. The detais of this exercise may be found here. After participating in such a peer presentation format myself at a professional workshop, I became convinced that such a format could facilitate a deeper level of peer review and collaborative learning as well as facilitate classroom discussion regarding the writing process in undergraduate and graduate student environments as well. No classroom technology is required for this assignment, although a media consolae/projector facilitates students who want to use technology in their presentations.

The assignment requires students to deliver an 8-12 minute oral presentation to the class (1) restating their peer’s paper, (2) identifying the conversation in which their peer’s paper is situated, and (2) offering constructive feedback or questions regarding their peer’s paper that might be helpful for the class to discuss to assist the author. Their peer in turn delivers a presentation regarding their paper. After each presentation, a brief Q&A period is permitted for the class to discuss the paper and ask the author questions if desired. The author may respond to questions during this period, but otherwise the author is discouraged from intervening to explain their work during the presentation but encouraged instead simply listen to the restatement and commentary offered by the presenter and the class. Part of the pedagogical value of the assignment is to liberate the author from the defensiveness that often accompanies presenting their own work and allow them to carefully listen to their peers' interpretations and comments on their work.

Students are encouraged to approach the presentations as writer sharing a peer’s work with fellow writers and to not be overly formal. The presentations are required to follow a formal outline, contain the content called for by the protocol below and be in the order set forth in the protocol, and be delivered within the stated time limits. When the time limit is up, the presentation is stopped. Students are allowed but not required to use audio-visual materials during their presentations as long as they’re not used to substitute for extemporaneous commentary.

The protocol I provide to students as an arrangement device is to spend the first 4-6 minutes describing the paper and identifying its central arguments and contributions. What appears to be the central question that the paper seeks to address? How would the presenter state the author’s central argument or thesis? How does the author develop the paper? In what debates or discussions does the paper situate itself? What does the author contribute to the conversation the paper engages? The presenter is then asked to spend a couple of minutes identifying the evidence and methods the author uses to support the claims made. Finally, the presenter is asked to conclude with 2-6 minutes of constructive feedback identifying one or two broad areas in which the paper might be improved and raising issues for the group to discuss to assist the author.

The assignment is graded based primarily on the basis of completion, contingent only on the students meeting the minimum requirements that the presentation follow a formal outline, contain the content called for by the protocol and in the order set forth in the protocol, and be delivered within the stated time limits. 

Students have reported some anxiety both as author and as presenter of a peer's paper, particularly regarding losing control of the presentation and not being in a position to defend their work as author or mischaracterizing their peer's work as presenter. My experience is that students take the presentations more seriously when presenting a peer's work than when presenting their own, however, and in some ways experience less anxiety because they don't have to defend their work. They also appear to value the experience of hearing a peer restate their paper's content. Requiring them to read a peer's paper in sufficient depth to deliver a presentation regarding it has also proved educational about the writing process.

All in all I've been impressed with the results of peer presentations as opposed to author presentations of student work in the classroom. It offers presentations with some perspective for the benefit of the class and offers student authors a much deeper experience of peer review of their work while liberating them to carefully listen to how a peer is reading and interpreting their writing. It also challenges presenters to develop their skills of offering metacritical commentary for a larger audience. Students have approached the assignment with great care and discipline, and I expect the format contributes to this improved presentation ethic over author presentations.


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