"Pechakucha Night! Buenos Aires Vol.13," Manuchis. Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0.

Student Pecha Kucha Presentations

I have seen PowerPoint presentations go horribly wrong (haven’t we all?). Long pieces of text slapped onto a slide, paragraph after paragraph – I’ve witnessed presenters turning their backs on the audience to face the projector screen and read a massive amount of small-font text unceremoniously squeezed onto one slide. Heck, I’ve certainly made slides that have entirely too much text on them for anyone’s good.

In all my classes –  theatre introduction courses, theatre history, composition, or liberal arts – my students make at least one presentation (usually far more than that) every semester. The formats have varied: in theatre history for instance, my students pitched a production within its historical moment – students had to know the play, performance logistics, the economics of performance particular to that time period, as well as who they were and to whom they’d be pitching the idea. It required an immense amount of research, as students not only had to present this pitch but also be prepared to field questions from a faculty panel (more on that project here). In composition and liberal arts I’ve run Reacting to the Past role-playing games, requiring students to present speeches at least twice during game play. I have noticed, however, that the outcomes I find so exciting in the Reacting pedagogy – the game’s ability to immerse students in the “big ideas” of a moment and emboldening them to engage verbally and intellectually in novel ways – did not always translate into better presentations outside the game in terms of content. I must emphasize this distinction: students’ public speaking, confidence, and general presentation skills improved overall, but their ability to curate and frame ideas while playing the role did not necessarily carry over into the post-game setting. This is not a flaw in the games, but reflects larger issues I grapple with in terms of pedagogy: students who intuitively grasp the logic of building arguments using relevant evidence thrive both within and outside of the games (and when writing thesis-driven papers generally), others need more support to apply the logic so inherent to the games to other academic work.

Slide-show presentations are required of almost every student in college at some point. While using graphic narratives to teach a composition classes this past fall semester, I wanted to prepare my students for academic presentations using a slide show while avoiding common pitfalls (some of which are alluded to above): text-heavy slides, stilted scripts, rambling, lack of content curation, ignoring the audience, disorganization – the dreaded “death by PowerPoint.” I also decided that this activity would be useful for my Humanism, Science, and Technology capstone classes to redeploy their Trial of Galileo game presentation skills into a non-game venue. Students in the capstone course for liberal arts must submit work anonymously to a college assessment committee, addressing a Critical Literacy competency and an Oral Communication competency – recording a student’s narration during a slide presentation would address the latter.

I had heard of Pecha Kucha slide-show presentations and ultimately chose this format: Japanese for “chit-chat,” these timed presentations rely almost entirely on images (with very little text) distributed among 20 slides, each displaying for only 20 seconds (thus the “Talk 20” alternate name). In a recent study published in the Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology, Alisa Beyer, Catherine Gaze, and Julia Lazicki found that students reported more engagement and “higher ratings for visual purpose” than “traditional PowerPoint presentation[s]” with “no differences in retention.” 1 For the sake of time and my comp students’ sanity (the idea of a presentation scared the bejesus out of them, as the words “oral presentations” tend to do to any first-year student), I modified the format to 10 slides for 20 seconds each – each presentation would be 3 minutes and 20 seconds.

I dug around a bit for sources and examples (there are many). Among the most useful results were Jason B. Jones’ post on Pecha Kucha on the Profhacker blog, and Mark Sample’s post there as well. George H. Williams at University of South Carolina Upstate had a helpful assignment outline and student examples. 2 Students in my composition sections could “riff” on any aspect of their chosen graphic novels (either Mark Siegel’s Sailor Twain: Or, the Mermaid in the Hudson, Strange Attractors by Charles Soule et al., or The Couriers, Brian Wood et al.). The Humanism, Science, and Technology capstone students had a bit more liberty: they could elaborate on any aspect of the game and Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo. For all classes, I severely curtailed the amount of text they could use on their slides and encouraged them to rely almost solely on images. Students also had to upload a source list on Dropbox (my preferred paper submission method) for all presentations. Most of all, I emphasized that this was a more creative approach to presentations and that they should have fun with it (as much fun as some could have while being terrified by the idea of public speaking, that is).

I developed a rubric and detailed tech directions (weirdly, the computer labs at LaGuardia did not have microphones). The most developed assignment outline, after running through the activity in my composition classes and working out some kinks, resides on our Humanism, Science, and Technology class site. One of my students generously gave me permission to post his riff on Freud, Brecht, Galileo, and George Berkeley below.

Students found the format challenging, but it forced them to organize and curate their ideas logically (with some creative flexibility) and embrace the economy of words. The level of preparation became abundantly clear during the presentations as well. Post-Pecha Kucha reflections led to productive conversations about presentation skills in college and beyond – without devolving into individualized critiques. Next time I use Pecha Kucha in LIB 200 I’ll probably require the capstone students (i.e., close to graduating) to do the full 20 x 20 format, but I plan to keep the 10 slide modification for first year composition students.

Anyone else tried this method? Successes/failures? Feedback is welcome on any of the assignment materials.

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  1. Alisa Beyer, Catherine Gaze, and Julia Lazicki, “Comparing Students’ Evaluations and Recall for Student Pecha Kucha and PowerPoint Presentations.” Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology 1, no. 2 (December 2012): 32.
  2. I showed Jared Jameson’s Pecha Kucha on graffiti to my students, as our location in Long Island City and the recent white-washing of the Five Points warehouse provided timely connections.

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