Most graduate programs in ecology and evolution have a graduate student seminar series in which students in the program talk about their ongoing work. These seminars give students practice at public speaking, and give them feedback on their science and their presentation of it. Usually this feedback takes the form of post-seminar question-and-answer, just like after any other scientific talk. Sometimes audience members also fill out written comment forms. That’s all well and good. But here at Calgary, we have a much more structured and, I think, more effective system for giving feedback to student speakers. I’ve never heard of anyplace else that does anything like what we do, so I want to share our system in the hopes that you might find it of interest and perhaps even try it out at your own university.*
First, the student speaker is introduced by another student (chosen by the speaker). Then the student speaks for about 20 minutes.
So far, so conventional. But now it gets different. Rather than have question-and-answer after the talk, or fill out comment forms, here’s what we do. The graduate students in the audience break into two groups (they actually get up and arrange the chairs into circles for this purpose). One group is assigned to give feedback on presentation, the other group is assigned to give feedback on content. Each group discusses its assigned topic and agrees a list of comments, both positive and negative. Each group appoints a secretary (someone different every week) to write down the comments on an overhead, in order of importance. Further, the “content” group has to phrase their comments as questions to the speaker (the purpose of these last two features will become clear in a moment). Last year, we also tried giving each of the groups a “rubric”–basically, a list of content and presentation features that a good talk should have–in an effort to guide and improve their discussions. But I didn’t see that it made much difference, so I don’t know that we’ll bother with rubrics this year.
Meanwhile, the speaker goes to the back of the room where the faculty (and any postdocs in attendance) have gathered around a table. The faculty provide private feedback to the speaker on both content and presentation. This feedback is fairly unstructured, except that if there are many faculty in attendance, we’ll go around the table with each faculty member getting to provide one piece of feedback or ask one question. The student’s supervisor takes notes and doesn’t ordinarily speak, so that the student is free to interact with the faculty without having to take notes.
About 15 minutes after the end of the talk, we all get back together. The speaker goes and sits at the front of the room, and the secretary for the “presentation” group goes up to the overhead projector and presents to the speaker (and everyone else) the group’s presentation feedback. That only takes a few minutes. Then the “content” secretary goes to the overhead and poses to the speaker the most important content-related question, which the speaker addresses. They work their way through the other content-related questions in this fashion, and at the end the secretary gives any other (generally minor) content-related comments the group had that couldn’t easily be phrased as questions. At the end, the overheads (which are written in permanent marker) are given to the speaker, so the speaker doesn’t have to take notes.
Then, and only then, is the floor opened to any remaining questions from the audience, with student questions getting priority. Faculty aren’t allowed to raise their hands until the students are done asking questions. By this point, there are only a few minutes left for this. The whole thing takes 50 minutes.
I think this system is terrific. It has a long list of virtues:
- It gives students feedback on presentation, which they wouldn’t get from conventional question-and-answer.
- It teaches students how to listen to talks as well as how to give them. Listening well is active, not passive. Good listeners think about and evaluate what the speaker is saying as the speaker is saying it. They don’t just sit there with their ears open but their brains off, and then turn their brains back on at the end of the talk to figure out what they think about what they heard.
- It leads to better questions. For instance, let’s say a student just misses something the speaker said. Instead of having to waste everyone’s time asking the speaker to repeat part of her talk, the student can just ask her group, who’ll say “Oh yeah, she went over that, you just missed it.” It also leads to better questions in more substantive ways. For instance, when group members disagree on some point, they can discuss the issue, and then turn that disagreement into a well-developed question for the speaker.
- Obliging students to introduce each other, and present group feedback, gives the students more practice standing in front of an audience and talking.
- It encourages students who are reluctant to raise their hands after a talk to contribute to giving feedback.
- Giving faculty feedback to the student privately prevents the student from being embarrassed by very negative faculty feedback. (In my experience, student feedback is never extremely negative, which is a good thing in some ways but a bad thing in other ways. Students also tend to be better than faculty–well, better than me–at framing negative comments in a constructive way.)
- It ensures that the speaker gets substantial feedback from a much broader group than just their supervisor, labmates, and committee. In particular, faculty not on the speaker’s committee often draw on their “outsider” perspective to raise really good points which the speaker’s supervisor, labmates, and committee never thought of.
- Separating faculty and student feedback encourages speakers to compare and contrast them. In general, I find that faculty tend to hit on different points than the students, faculty tend to be more demanding (and thus more negative), and faculty often raise deeper and more challenging questions about the speaker’s whole approach than do the students.
- Giving faculty feedback before the student feedback means that speakers usually get positive feedback last (since students tend to be more positive than faculty) and so hopefully leave the room feeling good about the experience.
- The formality of the whole process encourages students and faculty to take it seriously, and encourages students to take it seriously as both speakers and audience members. Not that it’s not fun. For instance, there’s a tradition that the secretaries draw some sort of cartoon of the speaker’s study system on the bottom of the overhead, which is always a good laugh. But student seminar series aren’t very useful as practice if speakers give poorly-prepared, overly-casual talks, and if audience members don’t put much effort into thinking about what they’re seeing and hearing.
I’d welcome any comments you have on the way we do things here at Calgary, and any other suggestions you have for making graduate student seminar series more useful as training exercises.
*In passing, I’ll note that at Calgary, the graduate student seminar series is a pass-fail course that graduate students are required to take for two years, during which time they’re required to attend all the talks, participate in the feedback, and deliver two talks of their own. But nothing about how our feedback system is structured depends on the seminar series being a formal course.