(Editor’s note: this post is part of my not-necessarily math related posts. I spend a good portion of time in non-math classes these days. And thank goodness, because it exposes me to practices that I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced.)

I had the pleasure of sitting in on some student presentations on a recent site visit to a school. The presentations were for a English-Social Studies project in which students were giving a “Shark Tank” style pitch for a particular social issue. The format of the presentation was fantastic.

Before I describe the presentation format in question, let me describe how my (read: bad) presentation formats went.

  1. Students present solutions
  2. I ask, “Any questions from the audience?”
  3. *crickets chirping*
  4. I say, “So uhh… how did you convert miles per hour into kilometers per minute?” Presenters respond.
  5. *every student except the three or four students presenting are staring at the clock and not paying attention in any way whatsoever*
  6. I say, “Any other questions?”
  7. *crickets have stopped chirping and have now also fallen asleep*
  8. I say, “Thanks gang! Who’s next?”
  9. Repeat with the next group

By about the third set of student presentations I was barely paying attention. Part of that was probably the oft-poor design of the problem or project at hand – it is said when multiple groups are presenting the same solution, they didn’t solve a problem, they followed a recipe – but it was also due to the nature of the presentation format. Even when solutions were different, or solution paths varied, I had the same problem of “any questions?” followed by silence.

Scripted initial questions, student panels, reconvening with deeper questions

The following presentation format was the brainchild of Kay and Chizzie. And it resulted in a level of student-to-student discourse more authentically than I ever achieved.

Here’s how the presentation format went according to this “Shark Tank” project.

  1. Students presented their work. They had about 30 seconds.student_prez1
  2. A few students served as a panel (if we’re sticking with “Shark Tank”, these are your Mark Cubans, your Mr. Wonderfuls, etc.). The teacher had prepared a few scripted questions, which the panel asked psuedo-randomly. The presenters knew these questions ahead of time and had to be prepared to answer them.student_prez2
  3. Students responded to the questions that were selected.student_prez3
  4. The panelists convened with their groupmates to discuss the presenters’ responses and to develop deeper, more probing questions. The presenters also had a couple minutes to regroup and confer.student_prez4
  5. After convening, the panelists return to their station and ask the questions that they and their group came up with. The presenters respond. From this point, it becomes semi-conversational as all the panelists are interested in getting their question answered.he presenters then answered those questions, which were generally more specific in nature and based on the initial responses of the presenters.


The two design features that separates this presentation format from my terribly ones are the following:

Design feature 1) Having a few “starter” questions that the students were aware of ahead of time, if only to get the conversation started.

Design feature 2) Letting the panelists confer about what they just heard with their group before proceeding to ask further questions.

There are so many things I like about this format over my non-format. Let me break down all the ways in which I like it:

  • Having a set of pre-written questions (designed by the teacher, presumably, but asked by the students). This got the conversation going. It normed the students into question-asking mode. Even though the questions were scripted, it was coming from the panelists and the presenters were speaking to the panelists. It became a conversation which allowed for more, in-depth explanation and gave the class more info to go on when designing their deeper, more specific questions.
  • The format involves the entire class during presentations. Even students who aren’t part of the panel or the presentation need to pay attention in order to design deeper questions upon convening.
  • Students have an opportunity to brainstorm and develop questions at a not-immediate pace, rather than coming up with questions on the spot. It’s hard enough for you and I as teachers to ask immediate off-the-cuff questions, in retrospect it was probably foolish of me to expect that of students in a consistent manner.
  • Conversations during the convening pretty much necessitated that kids pay attention to the content presented by the other groups.

Despite it being toward the end of the class period and several presentations already having been given, students were still engaged in the questioning process. And of the presentations I saw, student panelists asked excellent, varied questions after convening with their group mates. The group conversations during the convening were meaningful and related to the content presented. Everything I’d hope for in a formal presentation of learning to peers.

I’m sure there are also some meta-lessons to learn: giving students time and space to develop their questions, scaffolding the design of questions via some scripted prompts, and the like. While the premise of the project at hand was tied to the “Shark Tank” format, I see no reason why this or something like it couldn’t be a ubiquitous presentation format for a class throughout the entire year, or, better yet, an entire school.

28 thoughts on “A presentation format for deeper student questioning and universal engagement

  1. This is so awesome. The pictures were super useful in following your explanations. I love it. I’m trying to think of some contexts for it. Any insights as to how students were introduced to it?

    1. Aww thanks Robert.

      I will say that student presentations is a pretty regular part of this particular school’s DNA. That is, it’s a PBL school and many of the units culminate in some sort of presentation. But this was a particularly effective means of such presentation.

      You’re welcome to reach out to Kay and Chizzie, whose twitter handles are linked in this post!

    2. Robert Kaplinsky, if you come up with math contexts for this, please write about it on your blog or tweet about it. I am going to try to dig deep to come up with a context for this too. It is phenomenal!

  2. Yes, I love what Kay and Chizzie are doing here. I can see this working well in my statistics class. I want to find out how we bridge this out to math that’s not a PBL situation? Can this be modified for problem based? I WILL be using this for the final project in stats. Thanks for sharing. (Full disclosure: I work on the same campus as Chizzie and Kay – lucky me!)

  3. I love this! I had a project in grad school where each of us had to represent a different stakeholder group in the panel for the presentations. This ensured that each panel member had a different perspective. It has always been in the back of my mind to use this approach with my students. This format has made me think of it again. Each team could represent a different stakeholder group. Or for PrBL, each team could have a different lens/focus for looking at the student work/solution/presentation.

  4. Seeing as how this testing week for us, this first thing I thought of was performance tasks. We did one performance task (PT) to prep for SBAC which I pulled from here http://www.smarterbalanced.org/assessments/sample-questions/ . With shark tank I am thinking teacher provides PT’s that span the 6 domains (different task for every group). Since students are asking questions about each presentation, all students are exposed to PT’s across all domains. Finish up with students working individually on the practice PT from SBAC sample.

  5. I just did this today in Algebra 1 – it was a blast! At one point I scanned the room and EVERY kid was engaged and listening to the speaker. The kids asked the BEST questions of each other. Totally awesome way to share work.

    1. We started the task yesterday and most groups finished. Each group had two car loans to analyze and determine when each would be paid off and when the balances would be the same. Groups worked really well, but we ran out of time to share. There was some awesome math strategies used, so I wanted a way to get them to listen to each other. I remembered reading the Shark Tank approach and thought I would try it, even though the scenarios were not set up for “pitching” well. I had each group prepare the answers to the 3 planned questions and chose a spokesperson. I had the 3 students judges (all of whom were absent yesterday) ask “Tell us about your problem and how you chose to solve it”, How long does it take to pay off each car? How do you know? When will both loans have the same balance? (Pretty boring math teacher questions.) The kids were really engaged and they asked Group X – How did you solve your equation? (Most groups had used a table, so kids seemed really interested in the idea of finding the answers using equations. It was so awesome to watch kids go to the board and proudly show their work.) Another student was asked why he didn’t finish the table, but he still had an answer. He was able to articulate the mental math process he used to take a guess at what the answer would be and then plug in his guess until he found the payment that made the balance go negative. The class seemed really into trying to come up with really tricky questions for the other groups to answer. They were 100% into this – so amazing.

      I think the structure of having a spokesperson create a pitch is powerful. Also that the whole group helped that person get ready. The other part was when the “audience” wrote new questions after the judges has asked the planned ones. I was so impressed with the intensity and specifics of the questions. Also, I had each judge say which group they liked and why. It was interesting to hear students explain their reasons.

      This exercise showed my how much I underestimate what my students are really capable of. They CAN think and challenge each other.

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