Matching Students to Presentations

The presentation portion of my classes is now the focus. I now have the task of figuring out which students should present which problem.

Here is my system for my calculus I and calculus III classes:

  1. I tell all students to try 12-15 problems the night before. The students do not need to successfully do the problems, but I want them to at least know what the problems are asking.
  2. Students submit presentation preferences to our online course management system (Moodle). They can submit as many or as few problems as they want to present, and they order them according to their preference in presenting.
  3. The morning of the presentations, I look at their preferences.
  4. I maintain a list of problems that each student has presented, which also lets me know how many problems each student has presented. I start by ranking the students by the number of presentations they have already done; the students with the fewest presentations get the highest priority. In case of ties, I go alphabetically by last name.
  5. I then give a number code to each student based on the student’s priority (“1” is the top priority).
  6. I copy the list of problem numbers that will be presented. In order of priority, I go through the students’ preferences, writing down the student number and the priority next to each of the problem numbers. So if the 3rd student wants to do problem 21 as her 4th choice, I would write “(3,4)” next to 21 (in practice, I write “34,” since I am lazy).
  7. When I have completed this, I do a greedy algorithm-thing. I start with Student 1, and assign her her top choice (which will be her first choice, of course). I continue with Student 2, giving him his top available priority, and so on. This ensures that as many students as possible present that day.
  8. I then try to shuffle things in an ad hoc way to make people as happy as possible.

This is nothing too impressive, but it actually took me a little while to come to this. I am envious of Andy Rundquist, who has the motivation to create a similar computer program for his students. There are a couple of reasons why I have not coded this up yet:

  1. This is still a pretty new system for me, and I think I might be able to improve it (or radically change how I do presentations).
  2. I like doing this by hand.

Do any of you have suggestions on how to improve this? Better yet: just explain how you choose to assign students to problems.

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13 Responses to “Matching Students to Presentations”

  1. Joss Ives Says:

    Like Andy, I would make a program that could do it if only because it would be an enjoyable mental exercise.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      I agree, and I have thought about coding it up in Python. But this would take time, I might want to improve things, and I might not use the program once it is created anyway, since I enjoy doing it by hand.

      Maybe this summer I will take a stab at coding it. Bret

  2. TJ Says:

    I see where this would be a suitable method for the beginning of the term when you are learning your students capabilities. Do you think you can abandon it later when you know more about them?

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Quite possibly. How do you run things?

      • TJ Says:

        Well, one class is pretty old-school Moore Method. I Just ask “Who would like to share something today?” and then pick from the hands that go up. I try to pick first from those who have been at the board least.

        But I am thinking about trying an alternate approach to get greater engagement with all of the material. Right now, some students will pick a problem out of the set, and ignore the others.

      • bretbenesh Says:

        Hi TJ,

        I hope this is read as “someone looking to improve” rather than “defensive:”

        Your previous comment suggested that my system is flawed (which. I can easily believe—I am new to this), but I am having a tough time seeing how our systems are different. In particular, it seems like I am doing exactly what you are doing, only electronically. I can see some advantages to my system (shy students can more easily volunteer, I can more equitably choose students if I know the entire landscape), but I am having a tough time seeing the disadvantages (as is often the case for the person who creates something).

        So I think I am missing something (or misinterpreting something from your first comment). I would love some help—be blunt.

        My attempt at greater engagement was to have all students attempt each problem (“spend 10 minutes on each problem”), but not expecting them have all the problems (or any, for that matter) ready to present.

        Again, feel free to critique. Bret

    • TJ Says:

      Hi Bret,
      I just wanted to engage you in some thinking out loud. I did not mean to imply that your method is somehow deficient. In fact, I think it is a fine way to handle a common problem.

      Well, except I don’t think it will work for me. I am terrible at administrative bookkeeping. Even the minor set-up you propose will give me headaches.

      You are right that at the foundation, our methods seem the same. But I find that after six to eight weeks of a semester, all of my “do this now” items pile up so high, that small details like this record-keeping just collapse. I’ve partly embraced this and given up on such things. But this means I have to go by memory. So I am not always sure that I am being fair…

      And that is the real genesis of my question. To ask it more clearly:

      Do you find that after the first month or so of your course, you know well enough where your students are that you can do away with the system you have devised and still run things fairly and effectively?

      Of course, if you start the IBL portion of your class late, maybe you don’t have time to find out.

      • bretbenesh Says:

        Hi Theron,

        I appreciate all of that. In fact, your question (below) is the reason why I thought that that my method should be improved:

        Do you find that after the first month or so of your course, you know well enough where your students are that you can do away with the system you have devised and still run things fairly and effectively?

        (well, that and the fact that +Dana Ernst also suggested that we should talk about the system).

        Since I am starting IBL late in the semester, I feel like I know my students’ capabilities well right now. But I am not sure how this should affect things (which is why I took your question as suggestive). Do you think that I should be assigning problems to students based on skill level? Bret

      • TJ Says:

        I don’t want to dictate what you do in your courses.
        I do not assign problems to students directly. I have a colleague who is teaching an IBL flavored bridge course at the moment, and she is definitely “assigning groups of students to problems.” So it is possible, and I can see the upsides possible.

        Sometimes, after a few weeks, I “suggest” to students that they should try certain problems for the next meeting. I usually do this for students who don’t naturally choose a problem of the appropriate difficulty. Since I let students go after results in a rather free-form way, some of them choose problems that are too challenging for their current skill set, or that are too easy. If this becomes a habit, I try to redirect them.

        You can do this by choosing who presents, but sometimes you need to make sure they spend their energies appropriately _ahead of time_ rather than after the fact.

  3. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    For my grad class, where students give one 10-minute presentation during the quarter, I don’t have the luxury of picking from among those ready. We have 2 lecture slots to get through 15 presentations, so everyone has to be scheduled a week ahead of time.

    This year, each student is presenting a technique from Teach Like a Champion, so I had students come to class with a priority list of techniques, and went around the class in the order the hands went up, letting people select any technique not already selected and any time slot not already selected. Those who had not prepared their priority lists will have fewer selections.

    Incidentally, this class is not for education majors, but for bioinformatics grad students, several of whom will be TAs and many of whom are aiming at academic research positions. I chose Teach Like a Champion as the most pragmatic guide for college-level teaching I could find (though it is aimed more at elementary-school teaching). If you, or any of your readers, have suggestions for a more relevant book for a quick-and-dirty intro to pedagogy for students whose main interest is elsewhere, let me know.

    • bretbenesh Says:


      I will have to look at Teach Like a Champion. It seems like you have hit on an interesting point: there might not be a book well-suited for college-level teaching. Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do probably wouldn’t be right.

      Does anyone else know of one? Bret

      • TJ Says:

        I only know of things like this article by Halmos, et al.
        Smaller attempts at advice for teachers, nothing systematic.

      • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

        I tried reading Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do this summer, hoping it would be a suitable replacement for Teach Like a Champion. Unfortunately, I found it incredibly soporific. I’m about half way through it, and one page is enough to put me to sleep. Bain doesn’t let the “best college teachers” talk, but insists on putting a Bain-spin on everything. I decided the book was totally useless for my students—if there is something of value in it, is too deeply buried for them to dig it out.

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