From Passive Audience to Active Learning: Engaging the Class in Team Presentations

Students giving group presentation.

We know well the many benefits of team projects, including enhanced learning outcomes, consideration of multiple perspectives, opportunities for risk-taking, development of conflict management techniques, and more. Across disciplines, we commonly require students to present their collaborative projects to their peers. These presentations can be informative for the class audience, and may also serve to reinforce the teams’ content knowledge.

However, team presentations may inadvertently provide opportunities for passivity if students tune-out their peers during the presentations. After all, if the professor is not teaching the material, how important could it be? To address this potential pitfall, group presentations in my courses take a different approach.

I require project teams to collaboratively prepare, submit, and direct a learning activity associated with their research. Team members submit to me, in advance of the presentation, a completed template explaining how their learning activity meets each of these seven requirements. Here’s what the template includes:

Collaborative Learning Activity Requirements 

  • Activity Title: 
  •  Objectives:
    (What specifically do you want the class to do/demonstrate?)  
  • Materials:
    (What materials, handouts, notes, and items will you use?) 
  • Process:
    (Exactly what will the project team do, say, show? What directions will you give, etc.? Remember that directions must be depicted on a slide.)  
  • Small Team’s Success:
    (How will you know if the class teams met the objectives?) 
  • Accountability:
    (In what ways will each class team member demonstrate responsibility? I.e. how will every class member show that they have participated/learned from your team’s projects and activity?)
  • Debrief:
    (How will the class teams share what they learned? AND What will your project team do to lead a discussion, give feedback, and review important information?)

In order to guide project teams with designing their collaborative learning activities, we practice using the seven step model several times early in the semester. Students engage in various  learning activities designed for application, analysis, synthesis, or evaluation of course concepts. They begin to learn the model’s terminology so they may apply it to their collaborative learning activity design. I provide class time for student teams to design their activities and workshop with them. It is sometimes challenging to guide students away from designing activities with lower-level learning outcomes, such as listing facts. I therefore provide and review additional active learning examples including gaming, but disallow games that encourage guessing, such as Jeopardy and Kahoot multiple choice polling.

I also encourage students to consult Macpherson’s open access article for collaborative learning activities ideas.

The model works very well across disciplines. It both assists the presentation team in planning their learning activity (reinforcing their own comprehension of the content), and insures that the student audience synthesizes important content from the presentation. This model holds the audience accountable for listening, and understanding and applying the content their peers taught them through the presentation.

I am generally quite pleased in students’ creativity, and have found that friendly competition among the class audience’s small groups adds lively discussion and develops students’ higher-level thinking and communication skills, self-esteem and responsibility, and affords practice with teamwork skills essential in social and employment situations.

Macpherson, A. (2015). Cooperative Learning Group Activities for College Courses. Kwantlen Polytechnic University KORA: Kwantlen Open Resource Access

Joanne Marciano Crossman, professor of education, School of Education and Social Services, Saint Leo University.