Breaking down a successful student presentation

Poll Everywhere welcomes Dr. John Rich from Delaware State University as the guest author of this post.


Every few semesters, when I am planning my courses, I make some changes.

If I do the same thing, teach the same way, and give out the same assessments, I get bored. In my lifetime, I’ve noticed that when I’m listening to someone who is bored with what they are saying, I’m bored too.

So, it makes me (and my students) a lot happier if I keep things fresh. I’ll still deliver the same content, but I may find new media to supplement what I’m saying. Or, I may find new examples to use. Or, I might brainstorm new stories to tell. If I am teaching a section about classical conditioning – and I’ve been talking about my need for coffee in the morning – perhaps I’ll switch it up and talk about love, or roller coasters, or competitive sports.


“The presentation I’m going to share with you was created by two students studying what good presentations should look like.”


The other way I can make my content more engaging is to use alternate forms of assessment.

As an educational psychologist, I am very familiar with the research (including my own) about what traditional, paper-and-pencil exams miss when we are trying to gauge what a student has learned.

I am also convinced in the power of learner-centered assessments, where students are given creativity and flexibility in how they express what they have learned, to more fully capture student understanding. In addition, since learner-centered assessments require students to engage with the course material at a conceptual level, educators are not only finding out whether students have learned, they are also getting students to learn while they are completing the assessment.



I’ve used a variety of learner-centered assessments: papers, videos, having students write exam questions for themselves, take-home assignments, jigsaw classrooms, etc. Two years ago, I made the decision to incorporate another type of learner-centered assessment – presentations – into one of my classes. While many students grumble about having to stand up in front of their classmates and present, I believe that presentations are a fantastic way to accomplish several things:

  1. Students’ anxieties about presenting may motivate them to learn the material more comprehensively.
  2. Any students who go on to be professionals will need to deliver presentations to their colleagues, and my class will give them another chance to practice their skills.
  3. The more times students deliver a presentation, the more they will realize that no one is going to ridicule them, or throw tomatoes at them, or boo when they are finished.
  4. The students learn some of the material in another voice, which could make the course less monotonous.
  5. When students are finished with their presentations, I require their classmates to ask questions, which can make the presentation more collaborative.
  6. In addition to getting students to learn the material about which they will present, I am secretly teaching them life skills such as confidence and communication.

When I go over the rubric for their presentations, I discuss the rubric with (wait for it) a presentation! This presentation not only covers how they’re graded, but it also teaches them what slides should look like.

The presentation that I am going to share with you was created by two students from my Senior Thesis class (their names have been removed), studying what good presentations should look like. I asked them to create a presentation that simultaneously taught my Psychology of Learning class, as well as how to construct a presentation that would ‘wow’ me. Let’s go through it.


Title slide

Include a short description of what you’re about to teach the audience

Large font. Engaging background. Your personal information on the bottom in a smaller font. No nonsense. This is the slide that will be up on the screen as your audience enters the room. It doesn’t need anything special, just confirm for your attendees that they’re in the right place. If you’re at a conference, you can put your contact information here as well.


Outline slide

Tell them what you are about to tell them

Map out what the audience is about to hear.

For this presentation, my students were discussing the four topics that were addressed in their class with me, and that would be discussed in the presentation they were about to deliver.

Notice that there are very few words. I tell my students, “If you put a lot of words on the screen, three negative outcomes can arise. First, your slides can give your audience ‘PowerPoint overload,’ which may elicit turned-off minds that don’t have the energy to engage with so much content. Second, some audience members will read your screen, which means they’re not listening to you, and then turn their attention to their phones, emails, or mental to-do lists. Third, it makes it much more likely that you, as a presenter, will ‘cheat.’”

Your goal in a presentation is to deliver the content in such a way that there is no question that you are the expert in the room. When everything you want to say is on the slide, you will be tempted to just read the slide, which takes your eyes off the audience and your attention off of your delivery. Another element of this slide is the use of “action images.” Action images are images which indicate movement – arrows, lines, lightning, large punctuation. These action images provide a dynamic view of your text that is much better than simple bullet points.


Story slide

Craft a story – whether it’s fictional or real – about a person who has a problem

You can make the story funny by using a photo of a person in the room (your professor, or the organizer of the conference), or a celebrity with a positive association (Mr. Rogers, Mr. Bean, the Count from Sesame Street).

Take the content of your presentation, and tell a story about this person, and a problem that s/he is having. Some parts of the content could be about the problem, and the other parts could be about the solution. People connect with stories more than facts. You can deliver the facts in the context of the story, and your audience will be picturing your character, possibly relating to her in a way that lets the facts seep in without hitting a wall of skeptical resistance.

In the case of this presentation, my students told the story of Clarisse, a black teenager from a sexually abusive household, who is trying hard to use positive parenting practices. If you can make your audience feel something, they will want to learn more about those feelings.


Content slide

A presentation should be treated like an exam: study for it and know your material

When this slide comes up, you should be so well-rehearsed that the word “Therapy” calls to mind everything you want to say about how and why therapy is going to help Clarisse.

Once again, you are the expert. Look at your audience, move around, talk about Clarisse with feeling, and give your audience the opportunity to emote with you. All the while, your audience is thinking about the facts you are delivering as they relate to Clarisse, perhaps at a deeper level than if they were looking at your list of bullet points.


Video slide

Light on the information that is on the screen, and heavy on the images

In this case, we are showing the audience a video about a woman who is overcoming a history of sexual assault. You can find videos on YouTube, click on ‘share’ underneath the video, and then click on ’embed.’ A window will come up with an embed code. Copy it, and then, in PowerPoint, you click on ‘Insert,’ and then ‘video.’ When you select ‘online video’, it will let you paste the embed code into the box next to the YouTube logo, and this will put the video right into your current slide.

In my opinion, videos should be kept under 90 seconds. If you’ve found a video that is longer than 90 seconds, I would suggest that you find a 90 second segment in the video that you want to show.

When you click on ’embed,’ there is a place where you can identify where the embedded video should start. Click the box that says ‘start at,’ and then indicate that you want the video to start, say, 3 minutes and 22 seconds into it, by typing ‘3:22.’ Then, when you practice your presentation, make sure you know where in the video you are going to stop it, and be prepared to stop it at that point. Videos are a way to give your audience a different voice, and provide any listeners who have tuned out a reset on their attention.


Bad content slide example

This slide is meant as an “anti-slide”

This slide is where I get tricky. I purposely asked my students to put in this slide, with no pictures, small font, and a ridiculous amount of content.

Unfortunately, I’ve attended far too many conferences where all the slides look just like this. To me, a slide like this is borderline insulting. The presenter hasn’t shown enough care to engage me, nor enough time to deliver the content without all of it right there for the taking. A slide like this makes me skeptical that the presenter knows and understands what s/he is teaching me, and I am ready to tune out.


Good content slide example

The story is your foundation. Don’t let it go.

Same content as the above slide, but now I’m giving you just enough to pull you into my narrative, without giving away the farm. This slide should be delivered as part of the overarching story of Clarisse, who is at risk for each of these psychological disorders. The story is your foundation. Don’t let it go. You want your audience to think about Clarisse, and people like her (perhaps people that your audience recognizes), so that they are motivated to learn more about how she can be helped.


Final slide

End your presentation with a quick summary of what you just taught them

Don’t put a summary on the screen. When I do presentations, I often ask the audience to find a partner and ask them to name one takeaway that they could use when they go home. Your audience can take all of the thoughts and feelings they’ve been having, and then put them into words. This could give them the impetus to actually remember and apply what you’ve taught them in real life.

And that’s what we’re looking for, isn’t it? To share what we know, and impact our audience in a positive way. I sincerely hope that these tips can help you do just that.


John D. Rich Jr., Ph.D., is an educational psychologist, associate professor of psychology at Delaware State University, a retired United Methodist minister, a husband and father of two sons. He is a regular guest on a popular radio show in New Hampshire. His writing appear regularly on Psychology Today, The Good Men Project, the educational site for the American Psychological Association, Edutopia (funded by the George Lucas Foundation) and a news-based website. His first book is coming out in March 2018. Visit his website.