April 12, 2009
In praise of student presentations
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

We shifted to student presentation mode in my Lifecycle of a Corporation seminar about 2 weeks ago.  Here are a few reasons why I'm a fan:

Public speaking is a vital skill for a fledgling transactional attorney--right up there with drafting and negotiating.  I was floored when a 3L told me that this class, in his last semester, was the first in his law school experience to require a sizable presentation.  I'm not sure we law professors are asking enough from our students in this regard.  Being able to stand up in front of people and explain a topic is key.

It lets students guide the class.  My class is structured as a kind of "greatest hits" of a corporation's life: founding, venture financing, going public, being public, M&A, and bankruptcy.  After that foundation, the class takes us where it wants.  I'm always amazed at the variety of topics: this year we've heard about series LLCs, taxing hedge funds, say on pay, the EU market for corporate charters, orphan drugs, off-shoring, XM/Sirius, poison pills, and angel investing, to name just a few topics

It makes students more thoughtful listeners.  Before class I pass out index cards to the student-audience, and ask them to list one aspect of the presentation to maintain and one to improve.  Prompted by a student suggestion from last year, the cards keep the students focused on the presentations and provide the presenter instant feedback in a way that I cannot.  As an unexpected side benefit, the process of thinking critically about their peers' strengths and weaknesses has improved the student presentations as a whole.  They're grappling with the problem of presenting difficult concepts to an uninitiated audience.  Many are even assigning homework to try to get the class up to speed and make better use of precious class time.

It gives students a newfound respect for what I do.  OK, this wasn't why I started the student presentations, but it's a pleasant side-effect.  They're consistently amazed at how fast 20 minutes goes by, and several have asked, "How do you know how much time something will take?"  Answer: I don't.  Timing was the hardest thing for me as a rookie and I still struggle with it.  That's the thing about the Socratic method: last year the student you called on might have floundered around point X for 10 minutes. This year's student might get you to X in 30 seconds. 

Oh, and on the Socratic method: I evaluate the students on their ability to engage the class, and several brave souls have attempted calling on their peers.  My favorite exchange thus far:

Student presenter: Question

Student: Answer

Student presenter: "That wasn't the answer I was looking for..."

How many times have I felt that way in a classroom?

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