It’s all in the presentation: how to engage international students during lectures

The visual dimension of lectures and seminars can create additional challenges for international students, but simple strategies can help in creating useful presentations that support learning

Mark Whalley's avatar
20 Jun 2024
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University of Chester

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We spend lots of time crafting our presentations for lectures and seminars, but what may be intellectually and aesthetically pleasing to us may create barriers to learning for international students, many of whom are learning in their second or even third language. And that is further complicated by the lecturer’s idiosyncrasies and a potentially perplexing PowerPoint presentation they must simultaneously decode. 

The visual presentation is, for many of us, a crucial element of our lectures, forming the basis of the spoken dimension of the lecture, summarising key points and allowing us to present tables and diagrams to support the content. However, we must take care not to overload our students cognitively, and in doing so completely negate our hard work. So, even before preparing lectures, I would suggest being clear about the purpose of your presentation and how it will relate to the spoken element of your lecture. Share your thinking with students – if the slides are merely an aide-mémoire for you, tell them and then they will know to give you their full attention.

Here are some of the simple approaches I use to keep students engaged throughout lectures:

Keep slides simple: I see so many slides that include mostly spurious and at best vaguely related images. These are often “suggested” by the presentation software or come as part of pre-formatted slide decks, the purpose being mainly to prettify the slides. They may look attractive but they can cause issues. They use up space and distract the student, requiring them to work out the relevance to decode their meaning and fathom how they fit with the content. Only include images that are directly relevant to the lecture and that you are going to discuss.     

Keep slides accessible: in a previous role, I followed the guidance from the British Dyslexia Association when producing presentations, and I soon realised that these principles were helpful to my current students. Their dyslexia-friendly style guide focuses on written materials but I apply these to visual presentations. I keep slides simple, use simple language whenever possible, choose simple sans serif fonts (such as Arial, Calibri or Verdana) and I do not overcrowd my slides. Leaving spaces to reduce clutter helps all students. This makes the slides easier to read and translate. Also, bear in mind that some students will want to use their phones to provide visual translations of the slides, and so simplicity further helps them. You can also use an ivory background to slides (as opposed to white) by using the hex code #FFFF0. Another tip is to avoid text in green or red/pink; students with colour vision deficiencies find these colours difficult to read. 

Provide access to presentations: many of us share our presentations with students after lectures and seminars, but it is good practice to do so beforehand. This gives students time to read and translate slides before lectures and allows them to pay more attention to what you’re saying during the lecture, as opposed to translating and understanding the visual elements of the presentation. If you are not willing or able to do this, ensure you give students time to read your slides in lectures; take them through the content and explain any technical language or peculiarities of English.

Punctuate presentations: lectures are cognitively demanding, especially when being delivered in an unfamiliar language. They require a high level of attention from students, making them a tiring experience. Where possible break up your lecture with different tasks, to give students breathing space and enhance the learning experience. Of course, the size of the group will often determine the practicality of different activities, but I find using online questioning packages, such as Vevox, allows students to engage in the lecture, gives them time to think and provides me with some simple feedback as to the success, or otherwise, of the lecture. At some point during the lecture, you could ask students to contribute to shared online spaces using Padlet, Jamboard or a shared OneNote, or you could give them a short discussion exercise. Videos can also provide a helpful break, especially if you share a link to the video and the video platform can provide a real-time translation. This way, you lower the cognitive demand.

Following up: if you are using lectures as a core mode of delivery (as I do) there’s a chance that some of your students will not comprehend everything you say and that key messages will be lost. Sharing the presentation materials helps, but the slides on their own will never replace the depth of the lecture content. I have taken to producing shortened recorded presentations using Teams (I am the sole attendee of a Teams meeting and I record it). I then download the transcript and place links to both the recording and transcript on our virtual learning environment. 

Simple actions, which may seem commonsensical, can significantly improve the experience of international students. Improving accessibility will enhance engagement and attainment and show students that we care about their learning and progress. 

Mark Whalley is senior lecturer in education at the University of Chester.

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