I teach an EAP module which focusses on language and study skills. It’s aimed at first-semester students starting an English Studies degree where English is a foreign language for almost all students. They’re at the B2+ level.
In a 15-week semester, we spend the first five weeks or so looking at what makes a good academic presentation in English. We cover topics such as narrowing down a topic to make a point, logically building up an argument, linking pieces of information, maintaining the audience’s attention, formal langauge and appropriate use of register, body language and eye contact, volume and pacing, using sources effectively, and lots of sub-skills and langauge features that are relevant for presentations. In the second 2/3 of the semester, students give presentations (in groups of 3) on a topic of their choice related to the English-speaking world, and we discuss feedback altogether so that the others can learn from what was good or could be improved in the presentation they have watched.
This blog post describes my journey through trialling different ways of getting the best feedback to fulfil our overall learning aim.
(Note: Don’t worry, we also use class time to practise other study skills pertaining to listening and speaking!)
1. ‘Who would like to give some feedback?’
I have experimented with various ways of getting audience members to give feedback. When I first started teaching on this module, I used to ask after the presentation ‘Who would like to give some feedback?’, which was usually qualified by saying something like ‘Remember the points we’ve covered on what makes a presentation good.’ Usually, only a few people commented, and they focussed mainly on the good things. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is important to highlight what students have done well! But the overall goal of having students give presentations was that we could constructively critique all aspects of these presentations. I had hoped that we could use these ‘real’ examples to review what we had learnt about good academic presentations. So this approach wasn’t as effective as I had hoped.
2. Feedback questions
It seemed that requiring students to keep in mind all of the features of a good academic presentation was asking a bit too much. And so, together with a colleague, I drew up a list of questions students could ask themselves about the presentation. Example questions include: Was all of the information relevant? Was the speech loud and clear, and easy to understand? Students were given the list before the first presentation and instructed to bring it each week to help them to give presentation feedback. Most people brought them most of the time. Still, students were pretty selective about which questions they wanted to answer, and (tactfully?) avoided the points where it was clear that the presentation group needed to improve. So we still weren’t getting the full range of constructive feedback that I was hoping for.
3. Feedback sandwich
It was clear to me that students wanted to be nice to each other. We were giving feedback in plenum, and no one wanted to be the ‘bad guy’. This is a good thing per se, but it meant that they were slightly hindered in giving constructive criticism and thus achieving the learning aims I had set for the course. So, before the first presentation, I set up an activity looking at how to give feedback politely and without offending the individual presenters. We explored the psychological and linguistic concepts behind ‘face saving’ and how people may become defensive if they feel their ‘face’ is attacked, and then psychologically ‘block out’ any criticism – so the feedback doesn’t help them improve their presentation; nor does it make for good student-student relationships! I explained the idea of a ‘feedback sandwich’ in which the positive comments form the bread, and the negative comments are the filling. This idea is said to ease any feelings of ‘attack’, thus making the feedback more effective. Students embraced this idea, and did their best to ‘sandwich’ their feedback. Overall, this was a helpful step in moving the class feedback towards waht I thought would be most effective for the learning aims.
4. Feedback tickets
Since I noticed we still weren’t always getting feedback on all aspects of the presentation, a colleague and I decided to make ‘feedback tickets’, each with one question from the list we had previously prepared. The tickets were handed out before a presentation, and each student was then responsible for giving feedback on that point. Combined with the ‘sandwich’ approach, this overall worked pretty well. The minor drawbacks were that sometimes the presenters had really done a good job on a certain aspect and there wasn’t much ‘filling’ to go with the ‘bread’; however, sometimes the ‘filling’ was important, but students seemed to counteract their constructive criticisms by emphasizing their lack of importance, especially compared to the positive comments. For me, though, the major downside to using these tickets was the time factor. Running through a set of ~15 feedback tickets (and feedback sandwiches!) after each presentation was productive for students’ presentation skills, but ate into the time in class that should have been used for practising other oral/aural skills. In extreme cases, with two 30-minute presentations plus Q&A in a 90-minute lesson, we simply ran out of time for feedback! Those poor presenters got no feedback on their presentations, and we as class were not able to learn anything from the example they had delivered.
5. Google forms
Actually, I first used Google Forms to collect feedback after one of these lessons where our time was up before we’d got through the plenary feedback round. I copied all of the feedback questions into a Google form (using the ‘quiz’ template) and emailed the link to the students. I was positively surprised by the results! Perhaps aided by the anonymity of the form, students used the ‘sandwich’ idea very effectively – suitably praising good aspects of the presentation, and taking time to explain their criticisms carefully and specifically. Wow – helpful feedback! I printed out the feedback to give to the presenters, along with my own written feedback, and also picked out a couple of poignant comments to discuss in plenum in the next lesson. Right from the off, this way of collecting and giving feedback seemed very effective, both in terms of time taken and achieving learning aims. It seemed presenters had some time to reflect on their own performance and were able to join in the feedback discussions more openly, and focussing on just a couple of key aspects meant it was time-eficient, too. I immediately decided to use the Google form for the next couple of weeks, and have continued to find it extremely useful. Sadly, we’re at the end of our semester now, so these are just very short-term observations. Still, I’m encouraged to use the online form in future semesters.
Just goes to show how important reflecting on our classroom practices can be!