Teaching Thursday: Student Presentations

This week, my department, History at the University of North Dakota, enjoyed capstone presentations from our senior history majors. They were pretty decent, but there are several cosmetic quirks that drive me crazy, and I’m writing about them now mostly to remind myself to make a handout for my students next semester and on the off hope that an ambitious student might find this through the Googles and put it into practice.

I tell my students that the final “capstone” presentation is not just a chance to show off their research, but an opportunity to render it down a 20-30 page paper to its essential argument. So, taking time to prepare the presentation is a way to reflect critically on one’s work and often is a useful guide to making revisions to the final paper and ensuring that the argument is strong and obvious.

Things to think about when preparing short presentations (a guide for students):

1 Make sure I know the paper’s topic, your research problem (or research question), and your thesis within the first 30 seconds of your paper. Your audience has a short attention span, so get to the point.

2. Avoid “background information.” To be clear, background information is not historiography. I like historiography (or for our social scientist types: the literature review), but I don’t like historical background. If it is not vital to your argument, leave it out of your paper.

3. Do not tack on “sources and historiography” to the end of your presentation. Historiography are the things that justify your argument. They provide the answer to the dreaded “who cares?” question. Sources are what makes your argument possible. So both historiography and source should appear early in your presentation. 

4. Do not put up a Powerpoint slide with only words on it unless it’s a text you are discussing in your paper. This means no Powerpoint slides that spell out your thesis, list the organization of your paper, or provide bibliography.

5. If you do need to put a text in your Powerpoint, do not read it to us. We can read. The point of putting text on a Powerpoint slide is to avoid having to read during the limited time for presentation.

6. Avoid pictures of old white men. Do not include pictures of old white guys in your Powerpoint presentation unless your paper is on “the hair styles of old white guys.” They are too boring (and I say this as an old white guy). In general, avoid photos that are not of analytical value. Do not just post a nice photo or image.

7. Stop calling sources or people “biased.” All sources are biased. All people are biased. It is not a meaningful or useful term. If you feel compelled to use the word “bias” tell me what the basis for this bias is!

8. Do not respond to question from the audience by saying “That’s a great question…”. Most people know their questions are good. In fact, that’s why they ask them. 

9. Read it or prepare. I know that people have increasingly turned against the idea of reading a paper, but in history (and Old World Archaeology) scholars still tend to read their papers. This allows us to use our time efficiently, articulate complicated arguments clearly, and levels the playing field between people who are comfortable with public speaking and those who aren’t. I suggest all my students read their papers, but I also know that some performers like to ditch the script and present their research in a more spontaneous way. That’s fine, but if you go that direction, prepare your talk.


  1. This is good advice but the one thing I don’t agree with is “don’t read the text on the screen.” In my experience, most people can’t read text while paying attention to what the speaker is saying, so I find that it’s better to read the text.


    1. Dimitri,

      Fair enough. I can see that for a philological argument where you really want to emphasize some part of a text or articulate it in a certain way. Our students rarely make those arguments. Instead we get students reading quotes.



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