Teaching IR #2: The Conventional Presentation

I thought I ought to also provide some discussion of the conventional presentation method, since it is perhaps one of the most basic student-centered teaching method. Also, I made an extensive critique of it in Teaching IR #1, so I might as well explain why I don’t really like it. Though easy to execute, poor execution actually brings more harm than good.

Nature of activity

The conventional presentation is what it is. Students, either individually or in small groups, deliver a presentation on a particular topic which has some relevance to the syllabus. Depending on the level of study, students may deliver general or in-depth presentations. For higher levels, i.e. postgraduates, they would be expected to present a specific presentation on their proposed area of research. As for undergraduates, the purpose of the presentations is largely exploratory—they are expected to explore a certain field of knowledge at a superficial level.

Expected benefits

This is a basic method when instructors want students to learn materials on their own pace and based on their own interests. The presentation basically forces students to master their selected topic of presentation, to be articulate within a specific field of knowledge. This is also why I sort out presentations based on a broad theme, such as civil wars in Africa. Students then would be expected to have a general knowledge on African civil wars, while being able to compare several cases of civil wars to understand why they happened.

If the presentation is conducted individually, it is expected to allow students to hone their own articulation and public speaking skills. If it is a group presentation, add elements of teamwork and self-governance to the mix, as students wrestle over who should do that part and how to punish freeloaders.

In reality, pitfalls of the method

Though these are the expectations—and don’t get me wrong, a good presentation is indeed fulfilling—there are also multiple pitfalls which often make me doubt the efficacy of this method.

Communicating expectations

Often, instructor expectations and student capacity are out of sync. The instructor comes into the room and has a certain bar which they believe the student(s) should achieve. However, since the student does not know this bar, they often feel that they have performed well, though the instructor would think differently. For example, in a previous presentation in my undergraduate course, “The Study of War and Peace”, one group presented about the cause of World War 1. However, they simply stopped at listing the causes, without any deeper exploration of which cause was more influential in igniting the powder keg.

To circumvent this pitfall, I find it helpful to conduct voluntary pre-presentation briefing sessions after declaring the larger themes which would be the subject of presentations. I would allow each student (or group) to first tell me what they intend to do, then I would provide suggestions and recommendations. By listening to what they had in mind, I would be able to adjust expectations and gauge their abilities. I found that after doing this, students would be able to deliver better presentations, which I believe is mostly a result of my expectations being in sync.

Death by PowerPoint

The main problem that I have with presentations is when students rely excessively on PowerPoint. It’s one thing if their slides amplify their message, but what often happens is a game of “PowerPoint karaoke”; you know, when students only read text off the PowerPoint. This effectively delivers ‘death by PowerPoint’.

I have tried to remedy this by discouraging the use of PowerPoint and some other methods which I explain in the next section.

The ‘carry’ and the ‘carried’

(The term ‘carry’ alludes to the most skilled player in a team in team-based multiplayer games. They are often well above their team and hence, ‘carries’ them to victory.)

This is a dynamic often found in group presentations. Usually, there will always be that one ambitious student who shoulders all the work and ‘carries’ their teammates. They will take a lion’s share of airtime in the presentation and subsequent Q&A session, thus leaving others out of the spotlight. It is difficult to ascertain whether they do this out of malicious intent to make their peers look bad (the Singaporean term kiasu comes to mind) or unintentionally due to their idiosyncrasies.

When this happens, it becomes difficult to distinguish whether the group or the individual be credited for the work. Furthermore, it also discourages participation from other members as they are either reluctant to step up or intentionally let themselves be ‘carried’ (see social loafing).

It’s a lazy teaching tool if used alone

The presentation should not be considered as a stand-alone tool in delivering course materials. What I mean by this is that instructors should not structure a single class session around a single student presentation (which again, I admit guilt). Instead, the presentation should be combined with other methods, such as a group discussion. It could serve as a more in-depth exploration of a topic after a general lecture has been delivered. For example, after I deliver a general lecture on the political dynamics of Southeast Asia, a group of students then zoom in to an issue of their choice, such as transboundary haze and how ASEAN handles the problem.

Some modifications on the conventional model

As I have written in Teaching IR #1, the conventional model may be improved by changing the way it is conducted.

PowerPoint seems to be a primary culprit, so let’s try removing it altogether. I’ve emphasized to students that they should not always rely on PowerPoint and have encouraged other ways to use the software (or abandon it altogether).

Role-playing may be an option. In one case, a group of students engaged in a simplified reenactment of an ASEAN meeting on transboundary haze. They even concluded with the signature ASEAN handshake. Throughout the re-enacted meeting, they would cover key ASEAN documents pertaining to transboundary haze.

If we insist on keeping PowerPoint, then instructors should clearly communicate how it should be used. PowerPoints may be limited to only visual aid, such as graphs, charts, or videos, which helps enhance the student’s presentation. This way, the possibility of ‘PowerPoint karaoke’ can be lowered.


As you can see, I’m not particularly a big fan of the conventional presentation. While the conventional presentation method does have its benefits as a student-centered learning method, the pitfalls, if not avoided, may actually detriment the learning experience. Much of these pitfalls may be avoided by active engagement with students—by understanding their abilities and adjusting expectations. Other pitfalls can be avoided by encouraging students to think more creatively in presenting their ideas. That way, instructors may create class sessions that are much more interesting.

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