March 18th, 2016

The Worst Lecture Ever


boring lecture

Instructor: “OK class, this semester we’ll be giving presentations.”
Students: Collective groan
Instructor: “AND…you’ll be providing each other with feedback.”
Students: Deep sighs and suspicious glances around the room, wondering if they can trust their peers

Does any of this sound familiar? So many professors require presentations and peer feedback in their courses. Indeed, effective oral skills, well-designed presentations, and quality feedback are attributes that employers typically want from graduates. However, these skills are often expected to exist without appropriate support and training.

Recognizing that public speaking often induces fear, a more positive, out-of-the-box approach could ease students into developing presentation skills. Regardless of personal perceptions regarding their own lecture proficiencies, students possess life experiences that give them the ability to evaluate the effectiveness of other presentations; sometimes they just need a prompt to acknowledge the value of their own experience. In addition to cultivating their own skills, it’s also essential for students to work on peer feedback skills. With these goals in mind, we created the Worst Lecture Competition.

Designing the Worst Lecture Competition
We held the Worst Lecture Competition during the first full week of classes. The instructors and a graduate student competed for the Worst Lecture award, while students evaluated and voted for the worst lecture.

Drawing on literature about effective presentations as well as personal feedback and our own experiences, we identified characteristics of the worst presentations. Then we divided those characteristics among ourselves, determined the personas we would adopt, and prepared to deliver the worst possible lecture.

The Worst Lecture Competition begins
Heather presented a lecture about her cats. With slides full of cat photos and the enthusiasm of a devout cat lover, she shared plenty of useless facts and deviated from the topic to include photos of her trip to Australia. Heather was disorganized, unprepared, and tangential. She dressed sloppily, included quotes without citations, and cited problematic sources. On the plus side, she did have a clear learning objective. Unfortunately, she didn’t meet it… perhaps because she ran over the allotted time.

Amy posed as a pretentious, arrogant, and unsupportive astrophysics professor. With slides filled with difficult-to-read text, she spent 10 minutes behind a podium simply reading the PowerPoint slides. She didn’t make eye contact with audience members, displayed closed-off body language, spoke in a monotone voice, and exhibited zero passion for teaching. The content proved to be her expertise, but that was it.

Kealin’s tour de force about Coronation Street and its links to globalization was replete with technological malfunctions, aesthetically painful PowerPoint slides, and ill-conceived use of animation. While delivered with unbridled passion for the topic, Kealin was unable to meet any learning objectives, which she never shared with the students.

Following each presentation, students provided both positive and negative written and verbal feedback based on predesignated criteria. The students correctly identified many of the presenters’ shortcomings, including missing learning objectives, inadequate time management, a detached tone, multiple design flaws, a lack of credible sources, and poor body language and movement.

Students also balanced their negative feedback with positive comments, including passion, great subject knowledge, effective use of visual aids, and valuable learning engagement (except in Amy’s presentation). The students even identified a few elements that we hadn’t intended.

These unique sessions provided many teachable moments. Students discovered that presentations are rarely perfect. In addition, they realized that it’s important to be mindful of their own personal tendencies when presenting, such as speaking too fast or using closed body language. Of course, we discussed the need to prepare and practice—something they would be doing throughout the semester.

Final observations
The Worst Lecture Competition offered a positive format to both support and develop students’ presentation and feedback skills through the use of humor and our own willingness to make mistakes in front of them.

Part of our teaching philosophy acknowledges that each student brings real experiences that contribute to the active classroom space. We knew that our students had experienced good and bad presentations, but the depth and thoughtfulness of their feedback did surprise us. We celebrated this finding at the end of class, thus validating the feedback skills they already possess.

This fun and unique exercise can be adapted to fit any size of class, and unearths some assumptions about giving effective presentations and feedback. As the instructor, you can adapt your own Worst Lecture Competition to fit the norms of your discipline and use this exercise to clarify your expectations.

This competitive experiment proved incredibly fun both for professors and students. And, by the way, Amy won the award for Worst Lecture!

Amy Blanding is an educational developer at the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology and a Master Candidate in Natural Resources and Environmental Studies at the University of Northern British Columbia.

Kealin McCabe is the research and learning services librarian at the University of Northern British Columbia.

Heather Smith is the director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning Technology and a professor of international studies at the University of Northern British Columbia.

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  • Rich

    What a fun and effective way to not only warm students to task of giving presentations but also learn how to present effectively. Thanks for sharing!