How to Run a Dissertation Lightning Round (American Historical Association)

By Stephanie Kingsley, American Historical Association, September 2016

Using This Guide: This how-to guide is designed to take you through the steps of setting up and running a dissertation lightning round. We see it being particularly useful in the course of a graduate-level research seminar, but it could easily be adapted for any graduate-level topical seminar.

Purpose of This Exercise:Participating in a lightning round encourages students to identify the main points of their research and develop facility in speaking about it before a group of people. This skill will be most useful when students have the opportunity to speak about their work at conferences or job interviews. The exercise can also be used to help students learn to address different kinds of audiences.

Skills This Exercise Addresses: Communication, Intellectual Self-Confidence

Preparing for the Round

  1. Before you get started, consider how long you want the round to last and how many students will be presenting. Lightning round presentations can be any length you like, but durations of 3-5 minutes work well, depending on the number of participants and the time available. (Ex. If your seminar lasts 90 minutes and you have 15 students, you might consider assigning 3-minute presentations with 1 minute after each for questions from the audience, leaving 5 minutes to get started, 5 to close the round, and then 20 minutes for post-round discussion.)
  2. Let students know the date of the round in advance and the purpose of the exercise. Emphasize that you will be timing presentations, and encourage them to time themselves while practicing.
  3. Encourage them to be creative and use whatever visual or other aids they feel is necessary to communicate their message. Such aids might include slideshows, demos of digital tools or exhibits, posters, images, etc. There are a variety of ways one can go about preparing a lightning presentation, depending on the subject of the talk.
  4. Many students may be anxious about having to distill a complex, lengthy dissertation or term paper into 3-5 minutes.

Running the Round

As the leading faculty member, you will moderate the round. You will need:

  1. A timer
  2. A program with the name of each student and the title of her/his presentation; distribute copies to the students so they know when they will be presenting (optional)
  3. Brightly colored signs displaying the text “1 Minute” and “30 Seconds” (or something equivalent)
  4. Audio/visual equipment if your students will be using digital materials. This might include a projector, computer, speakers, and an Internet connection. If you’re unsure of what you’ll need or what equipment is available, consult your institution’s technical support staff.

At the beginning of the round, welcome everyone to the round and explain its purpose. If you have attendees from outside the class, explain the main topic the students will be addressing. Then announce the first participant’s name and the title of her/his presentation. When she begins, start the timer. Hold up the “1 Minute” sign when there is one minute left, and then the “30 seconds” sign when 30 seconds remain. Sit directly in front of presenting students so you can get their attention without distracting auditors from the presentation itself. Once the student is finished, if there is time, consider allotting a minute for questions from the audience.

Repeat the process with the next student.

Follow-up Discussion

After the round is over, hold a discussion about what your students got out of the experience. What were the challenges they faced in preparing a brief presentation on extensive, complex research? Do they have any tips to share with each other? Do they feel more confident about discussing their work in the future in various settings?