Using oral presentations to assess learning
Oral presentations are a form of assessment that calls on students to use the spoken word to express their knowledge and understanding of a topic. It allows capture of not only the research that the students have done but also a range of cognitive and transferable skills.
Different types of oral presentations
A common format is in-class presentations on a prepared topic, often supported by visual aids in the form of PowerPoint slides or a Prezi, with a standard length that varies between 10 and 20 minutes. In-class presentations can be performed individually or in a small group and are generally followed by a brief question and answer session.
Oral presentations are often combined with other modes of assessment; for example oral presentation of a project report, oral presentation of a poster, commentary on a practical exercise, etc.
Also common is the use of PechaKucha, a fast-paced presentation format consisting of a fixed number of slides that are set to move on every twenty seconds (Hirst, 2016). The original version was of 20 slides resulting in a 6 minute and 40 second presentation, however, you can reduce this to 10 or 15 to suit group size or topic complexity and coverage. One of the advantages of this format is that you can fit a large number of presentations in a short period of time and everyone has the same rules. It is also a format that enables students to express their creativity through the appropriate use of images on their slides to support their narrative.
When deciding which format of oral presentation best allows your students to demonstrate the learning outcomes, it is also useful to consider which format closely relates to real world practice in your subject area.
What can oral presentations assess?
The key questions to consider include:
- what will be assessed?
- who will be assessing?
This form of assessment places the emphasis on students’ capacity to arrange and present information in a clear, coherent and effective way’ rather than on their capacity to find relevant information and sources. However, as noted above, it could be used to assess both.
Oral presentations, depending on the task set, can be particularly useful in assessing:
- knowledge skills and critical analysis
- applied problem-solving abilities
- ability to research and prepare persuasive arguments
- ability to generate and synthesise ideas
- ability to communicate effectively
- ability to present information clearly and concisely
- ability to present information to an audience with appropriate use of visual and technical aids
- time management
- interpersonal and group skills.
When using this method you are likely to aim to assess a combination of the above to the extent specified by the learning outcomes. It is also important that all aspects being assessed are reflected in the marking criteria.
In the case of group presentation you might also assess:
- level of contribution to the group
- ability to contribute without dominating
- ability to maintain a clear role within the group.
See also the ‘Assessing group work’ section for further guidance.
As with all of the methods described in this resource it is important to ensure that the students are clear about what they expected to do and understand the criteria that will be used to asses them. (See Ginkel et al, 2017 for a useful case study.)
Although the use of oral presentations is increasingly common in higher education some students might not be familiar with this form of assessment. It is important therefore to provide opportunities to discuss expectations and practice in a safe environment, for example by building short presentation activities with discussion and feedback into class time.
Individual or group
It is not uncommon to assess group presentations. If you are opting for this format:
- will you assess outcome or process, or both?
- how will you distribute tasks and allocate marks?
- will group members contribute to the assessment by reporting group process?
Very often assessed oral presentations are performed in a class in front of peers. It is important to consider what role the peers will play and to ensure they are fully aware of expectations, ground rules and etiquette:
- will the presentation be peer assessed? If so how will you ensure everyone has a deep understanding of the criteria?
- will peers be required to interact during the presentation?
- will peers be required to ask questions after the presentation?
- what preparation will peers need to be able to perform their role?
- how will the presence and behaviour of peers impact on the assessment?
- how will you ensure equality of opportunities for students who are asked fewer/more/easier/harder questions by peers?
Hounsell and McCune (2001) note the importance of the physical setting and layout as one of the conditions which can impact on students’ performance; it is therefore advisable to offer students the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the space in which the presentations will take place and to agree layout of the space in advance.
As a summary to the ideas above, Pickford and Brown (2006, p65) list good practice, based on a number of case studies integrated in their text, which includes:
- make explicit the purpose and assessment criteria
- use the audience to contribute to the assessment process
- record [audio / video] presentations for self-assessment and reflection
- keep presentations short
- consider bringing in externals from commerce / industry (to add authenticity
- consider banning notes / audio visual aids
- encourage students to engage in formative practice with peers
- use a single presentation to assess synoptically; linking several parts / modules of the course
- give immediate oral feedback
- link back to the learning outcomes that the presentation is assessing; process or product.
Neumann in Havemann and Sherman (eds., 2017) provides a useful case study in chapter 19: Student Presentations at a Distance, and Grange & Enriquez in chapter 22: Moving from an Assessed Presentation during Class Time to a Video-based Assessment in a Spanish Culture Module.
Diversity & inclusion
Some students might feel more comfortable or be better able to express themselves orally than in writing, and vice versa. Others might have particular difficulties expressing themselves verbally, due for example to hearing or speech impediments, anxiety, personality, or language abilities. As with any other form of assessment it is important to be aware of elements that potentially put some students at a disadvantage and consider solutions that benefit all students.
Oral presentations present minimal risk of academic misconduct. Avoiding the use of a script can ensure that students are not simply reading out someone else’s text, whilst the questions posed at the end can allow assessors to gauge the depth of understanding of the topic and structure presented. (Click here for further guidance on plagiarism.)
Student and staff experience
Oral presentations provide a useful opportunity for students to practice skills which are required in the world of work. Through the process of preparing for an oral presentation, students can develop their ability to synthesise information and present to an audience. To improve authenticity the assessment might involve the use of an actual audience, realistic timeframes for preparation, collaboration between students and be situated in realistic contexts.
As mentioned above it is important to remember that the stress of presenting information to a public audience might put some students at a disadvantage. Similarly non-native speakers might perceive language as an additional barrier. Discussing criteria and expectations with your students, providing a clear structure, ensuring opportunities to practice and receive feedback will benefit all students.
Some disadvantages of oral presentations include:
- anxiety - students might feel anxious about this type of assessment and this might impact on their performance
- time - oral assessment can be time consuming both in terms of student preparation and performance
- time - to develop skill in designing slides if they are required; we cannot assume knowledge of PowerPoint etc.
- lack of anonymity and potential bias on the part of markers.
From a student perspective preparing for an oral presentation can be time consuming, especially if the presentation is supported by slides or a poster which also require careful design.
From a teacher’s point of view, presentations are generally assessed on the spot and feedback is immediate, which reduces marking time. It is therefore essential to have clearly defined marking criteria which help assessors to focus on the intended learning outcomes rather than simply on presentation style.
Joughin, G. (2010). A short guide to oral assessment. Leeds Metropolitan University/University of Wollongong http://eprints.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/2804/
Race, P. and Brown, S. (2007). The Lecturer’s Toolkit: a practical guide to teaching, learning and assessment. 2nd edition. London, Routledge.