Assessed presentations to a non-expert audience

Isobel Gowers

What is the idea?

When we talk about active learning it is also important to discuss how we are going to assess this learning. We want students to be able to go beyond regurgitating facts, we want students to develop communication skills they will need for work, so we need to think about what assessments we use to enable this to happen. In this idea, students had to take technical information and present it to a lay audience. It meant that the students needed to think deeply about the content to include the right amount of background and to keep technical jargon and academic speak to a minimum, whilst still correctly conveying the information in an engaging and informative manner.

Why this idea?

Many of our graduates will work in multi-disciplinary teams and need to converse or write for a range of audiences with a varying level of knowledge. In my experience exams and academic essays do little to prepare students to do this, so I was looking for an alternative form of assessment. As Race (2014, p. 90) put it: ‘There is often a considerable gap between what we get learners to do in our assessment and what they will need to be good at throughout their careers’.

Exams and essays often require students to communicate in an academic style, not in a way they will need to communicate in their professional life. Through using these presentations to a lay audience I wanted to assess both the students’ knowledge and application of the content but also their ability to communicate in a method appropriate to their future professional career. I also wanted to use authentic assessment as there is evidence that this increases both students’ engagement with learning and their satisfaction, recently reviewed in Sokhanvar et al. (2021). There are a number of slightly differing definitions of authentic learning available in the literature but for me the definition of Gulikers et al., (2004 p. 69)  sums it up nicely as: ‘An assessment requiring students to use the same competencies, or combinations of knowledge, skills and attitudes that they need to apply in the criterion situation in professional life.’

I used this idea when teaching equine behaviour and veterinary physiotherapy students. In both cases they will need to work with both veterinary surgeons and other professionals as well as horse owners. Secondly, they will often be self-employed and need to be able to market themselves. Therefore, getting students to present technical information to a non-expert audience not only encouraged application of complex knowledge and critical thinking in selecting what detail needed to be presented but also provided a scenario that they might find themselves in once they have graduated.

One of the criticisms other academics have directed at me is that students do not have the opportunity to develop the assessment literacy skills they need if you keep changing the format of the assessment. I disagree because one of the first things I do when designing these types of assessment is to include the chance to engage with the assessment criteria and include lots of formative opportunities. The two methods of engaging students with the assessment criteria I most frequently use are getting students to mark three examples of students work against the assessment criteria and then having a discussion to see what marks were given in line with the criteria. The second is getting students involved in writing the assessment criteria once they know what the task is.

I used two specific formative exercises. The first was following a taught session where they used the practical time with the horses to make a short video that presented the technical content from the session to a public audience, for example a video that could be used on their website or video channel (YouTube, Vimeo etc.). I provided them with some example videos from other specialists in their area. The students completed the videos in class and they were shared via the VLE where they had to provide peer feedback. The second was a journal club activity, where in small groups they had to present a recent academic paper to their fellow students, making sure that they presented all the technical information from the paper in a way that all their fellow students could understand. In both cases this gives students the opportunity to practice communicating in this alternative manner that is often unfamiliar to them and secondly it provides opportunity to get feedback from their peers as well as the tutor.

How could others implement this idea?

Think of a scenario where your graduates might have to present technical information to a non-expert audience. This might be the public or other areas of a company or industry. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a presentation; it could be an alternative form or writing such as a magazine article or technical bulletin if that is more appropriate to your discipline.

Think about what learning activities you could do in class that will help students learn the content alongside the skills they need to complete the assessment. This might include exercises to think about the language used to communicate to different audiences, I have previously had students compare language used in newspapers, magazines and journal articles. Another exercise that can be used is students doing short in class presentations explaining a single complex and technical idea so that others can understand it. The students in the audience can provide peer feedback on whether they understood the content but also on how engaging the presenter was.

Transferability to different contexts

This idea could be used in many different subject areas and at all levels (I have used at levels 5,6 and 7). It doesn’t necessarily need to be a presentation, it could be an alternative form or writing such as a magazine article or technical bulletin or it could be a video, podcast or something similar if that is more appropriate to your discipline. The key behind the idea is that the students need to share complicated and maybe technical content in a way that is understandable to an non-expert audience. To be able to communicate well on the topic students have to have developed a good understanding of the topic and the depth and breadth of their research is evident in their delivery even though this is not received in a typical academic form.


Gulikars, J., Bastiaens, T., & Kirschner, P. (2004) A five-dimensional framework for authentic assessment. Educational Technology Research and Development, 52(3), 67-85.

Race, P. (2014) Making learning happen: A guide for post-compulsory education (3rd ed.). Sage.

Sokhanvar, Z., Salehi, K., & Sokhanvar, F. (2021) Advantages of authentic assessment for improving the learning experience and employability skills of higher education students: A systematic literature review. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 70, 101030.

About the author

Throughout Dr Isobel Gowers’ teaching career, she has been interested in active learning. Initially using techniques such as problem based learning in her teaching but gradually increasing her repertoire of active learning methods. After 10 years as a lecturer Isobel shifted to educational management and currently works to promote active learning at ARU.


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100 Ideas for Active Learning Copyright © 2022 by Isobel Gowers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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