George Lucas Educational Foundation
Communication Skills

How a Simple Presentation Framework Helps Students Learn

Explaining concepts to their peers helps students shore up their content knowledge and improve their communication skills.

July 14, 2021
Bob Daemmrich / Alamy Stock Photo

A few years ago, my colleague and I were awarded a Hawai‘i Innovation Fund Grant. The joy of being awarded the grant was met with dread and despair when we were informed that we would have to deliver a 15-minute presentation on our grant write-up to a room full of educational leaders. If that wasn’t intimidating enough, my colleague informed me that he was not going to be in Hawai‘i at the time of the presentation. I had “one shot,” just a 15-minute presentation to encapsulate all of the 17 pages of the grant I had cowritten, but how?

I worked hard to construct and deliver a presentation that was concise yet explicit. I was clear on the big picture of what the grant was composed of and provided a visual of it in practice. I made sure the audience understood the “why” behind the grant. I showed how it worked, the concrete elements of it, and how they made it successful. I finished with a scaffold that would help others know how to initiate it within their context, giving them the freedom to make it authentically their own.

I received good feedback from the presentation, and more important, what was shared positively impacted student learning in other classrooms across the state.

A Simple Framework for Presentations

That first presentation took me over a month to prepare, but afterward I noticed that my prep time for presentations shrank exponentially from a few months to a few (uninterrupted) days. Interestingly enough, as a by-product of creating the original presentation, I created an abstract framework that I have used for every professional learning presentation I have delivered since then. The “What, Why, How, and How-To” framework goes as follows:

  • What? What can the audience easily connect to and know as a bridge to the unknown for the rest of the experience?
  • Why? Why should they care to listen to (and learn from) the rest of the presentation? What’s in it for them to shift from passive listeners to actively engaged? The audience needs to know why you believe in this so much that you are compelled to share it.
  • How? What are the key elements that make it unique? How is it effective in doing what it does? What are the intricacies of how it works?
  • How-to? How could they start doing this on their own? How could this knowledge serve as a foundational springboard? Connect it to “why.”

Benefits for Students

One of the best parts of presentations is that they help the presenter to improve their communication skills. The presenter is learning how to give a presentation by doing it. To prepare a presentation, the presenter must know the intricate elements of what they are presenting and the rationale for their importance. In the presentation delivery, the presenter must be articulate and meticulous to ensure that everyone in the audience is able (and willing) to process the information provided.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that preparing and delivering presentations could provide a valuable learning opportunity for my students.

I recall teaching mathematical concepts whereby students would immediately apply knowledge learned to accomplish the task in silence and without any deeper questioning. Only after I asked them to provide presentations on these concepts did they regularly ask me, “Why is this important, again?” or “What makes this so special?” My students’ mathematical literacy grew through preparing presentations with the “What, Why, How, and How-To” framework, which supported them in their ability to demonstrate content knowledge through mathematical rigor (balancing conceptual understanding, skills and procedural fluency, and real-world application).

  • The “what” served as the mathematical concept.
  • The “why” demonstrated the real-world application of the concept.
  • “The “how” demonstrated conceptual understanding of the concept.
  • The “how-to” demonstrated skills and procedures of the concept. 

In addition to content knowledge, the sequential competencies of clarity, cohesiveness, and captivation ensured that the presenter could successfully share the information with their audience. When combined, these framed a rubric that supported students in optimizing their presentation deliveries. The competencies are as follows:

1. Content knowledge. The presenter must display a deep understanding of what they are delivering in order to share the “what, why, how, and how-to” of the topic.

2. Clarity. The presenter must be clear with precise, academic language. As the content they deliver may be new to the audience, any lack of clarity will alienate the audience. Providing multiple modes of representation greatly addresses a variety of processing needs of a diverse audience.

3. Cohesiveness. When making clear connections, the presenter bridges gaps between each discrete component in how they all work together as integral elements of the topic. Any gaps too large may make the elements look disjointed or, worse, the audience feel lost.

4. Captivation. The presenter must captivate the audience through any combination of audience engagement or storytelling. They make the presentation flow with the energy of a song, and in the end, they leave the audience with a delicate balance of feeling fulfilled and inspired to learn more.

Anyone can build an effective presentation with the “What, Why, How, and How-To” framework, along with competencies of content knowledge, clarity, cohesiveness, and captivation. The better we teach and coach others on how to create and deliver presentations, the more we learn from these individuals through their work.

In my class, one multilingual learner responded to the prompt “What are the non-math (life lessons) you have found valuable from this class?” with “I learn what is learning and teaching... I truly understood how teaching is actually learning when I had presentation. I found a bit of desire to being a teacher. I hope you also learned something from this class.” I always learn from my students when they present.

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  • Communication Skills
  • Critical Thinking
  • Math
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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