“Tell Us About Your Research in Three Minutes”

Book Writer & Publisher: 
David McMurray, The International University of Kagoshima

This issue’s Teaching Assistance discusses a novel way in which graduate students can succinctly present their research findings to general audiences. A two-year Master’s thesis can culminate with an oral defense to an examination committee that is often an hour’s grilling. Doctoral candidates are required to speak even longer and must answer in an open-to-the-public venue. Their research papers can run for hundreds of pages. An 80,000-word academic thesis could take 9 hours to read aloud as a presentation in a classroom setting. The hypothesis supported in this essay is that students can efficiently explain a research thesis in just three minutes.

“What is your research about?” is a common question which graduate students are asked to field during entrance examinations, orientation sessions with supervisors, research fund and granting agency reviews, and at job interviews. That same question can also pop up while students collect data from survey participants or during seminar question periods with classmates.

To keep things moving at academic society meetings and conferences, organizers have come up with various presentation formats and venues for presenters. Pecha kucha (which literally means prattling) rules that include showing 20 images, each for 20 seconds, have been used successfully in classrooms (Hayashi & Holland, 2017). Willey (2014) suggested that pecha kucha rules be changed to allow groups of three students to practice as a team under time pressure.

Altering the usual venue and revising the normal rules that graduate students follow to explain their research can lead to creative presentations. Restricting content, medium, time, and length can creatively stimulate students (and indeed their teachers). Shorter presentation formats can make a creative person even more creative. Creative people like to talk at length about their work, but long presentations that depend on Powerpoint software can stifle an audience. Scientific findings and difficult to comprehend reports and analyses by doctoral candidates must routinely be explained to scholarship granting agencies and occasionally to journalists. Researchers may be asked to wrap-up their findings in a few sentences. Some have even started to comply by composing haiku (“An Astronomers Meeting,” 2018).

A severe drought in the Australian summer ten years ago triggered an idea that now challenges graduate students to explain their research in a way that can be understood by non-specialists. Limited to a 3-minute shower to save precious water, a professor at the University of Queensland came up with the founding idea for the Three Minute Thesis competition. Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) is now a registered trademark and challenged by university students at 600 universities and institutions across 65 countries including Japan.

In Japan, Hiroshima University, Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Ritsumeikan University, and the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability host 3MT competitions. For this essay I observed 24 students from Trent University and Catherine Parr Traill College share their research at a town hall in Peterborough, a medium-sized Canadian city (see Figure 1). I photographed the presenters and took video recordings of their presentations with a handheld camera. I also participated in the audience vote.

Presenting in a 3MT competition increases a student’s capacity to effectively explain their research in a language appropriate to a non-specialist audience. Competitors are allowed one PowerPoint slide, but no other resources or props. Such creative limitation is the concept of how purposely limiting a task can actually drive creativity.

Implicit in the challenge to present a compelling spoken presentation on their research topic and its significance, graduate students must write a manuscript. A few of the competitors told me they wrote their scripts and started practicing two months prior to show-time. Although their supervisors encouraged them to enter the contest, lent an ear during rehearsals, and offered lexical advice, students said they relied more on their peers or family for support. They needed to make their speeches comprehensible and interesting for the judges and audience rather than for professors, and their supervisors or teaching assistants. To prepare for their 3-minute presentations, students whom I interviewed told me the process involved dozens of conversations, a bevy of emails, and lots of practice to comply with the following contest rules:

  • A single static PowerPoint slide is permitted. No slide transitions, animations or ‘movement’ of any description are allowed. The slide is to be presented from the beginning of the oration.
  • No additional electronic media (e.g., sound and video files) are permitted.
  • No additional props (e.g., costumes, musical instruments, laboratory equipment) are permitted.
  • Presentations are limited to 3 minutes maximum and competitors exceeding 3 minutes are disqualified.
  • Presentations are to be spoken word (e.g., no poems, raps or songs).
  • Presentations are to commence from the stage.
  • Presentations are considered to have commenced when a presenter starts their presentation through either movement or speech.
  • The decision of the adjudicating panel is final.

From the very start of the competition, student presenters tried every trick in the book to get around these strict rules. For example, psychology major Ashley Robertshaw got around a no-rapping rule by having the emcee introduce her title, I’ll Drink My Beer and Smoke My Weed–My Good Friends is All I Need. Alison Fraser chose to rant against higher economic groups in society buying up the area where she hangs out as a black-clothed and colored-hair Goth. Her 3-minute rant The City and the Dispossessed: Canadian Goths and Urban Realities was communicated through dance-like gestures performed against a backdrop photo of the gothic Velvet Lounge on Queen Street in Toronto. The emcee, a principal at Catharine Parr Traill College, jokingly bantered with a competitor to check if he thought the 3MT acronym meant three minute title. Joshua Feltham’s 22-word title was Habitat Selection, Spatial Ecology, Mating Strategy and Sexual Size Dimorphism of an Ectothermic Vertebrate at the High Latitude Limits of its Range. Eric Bridle was stymied however, because he couldn’t use his cellphone to get his message across during his presentation Was it Good For You?: Sexting and Satisfaction.

The international contest stipulates English-only presentations. That rule could have created an unlevel playing field in Canada with its three official languages and a diverse population of citizens who speak over 200 mother tongues. English was a second language for half of the 24 students in the competition, including Shengnan Kang who analyzed the effects of air pollution on the economy of her hometown Tianjin, China. In such an ESL context however, these short presentations provided a rich field for learning that extended beyond basic language communication. During two intermissions in the 3-hour event I overheard international students counter the statement “it must be hard for you in a second language” with “it was too bad you forgot your lines halfway through.” Although students knew their research topics like the back of their hands, several stammered and two dropped out of the running when they couldn’t remember their rehearsed lines.

As one of 100 attendees I was asked to vote for the best of 24 graduate student presentations. Sumiko Polacco’s efforts to accent blood-red high heels with a black dress to assist her talk Blood-in-the-Dark: Designing a Forensic Blood Substitute did not go unnoticed. She garnered The People’s Choice Award and the School of Graduate Studies Prize from the university’s dean of graduate studies Craig Brunetti. The President’s Prize went to Chris Magwood, a Sustainable Studies grad who started off by telling the judges he wanted to “grow my house.” The winner received a $500 cash award (approximately 50,000 yen) and a travel stipend to compete in the provincial finals at York University in Toronto.

The central benefits of these short presentations were pedagogical. As students graduate into an increasingly competitive global marketplace, the skills gained through presenting in a short format are transferable to real-world settings. Speed and intensity is what made 3MT presentations enjoyable for the audience and presenters (see Figure 3). There is growing recognition among university educators about the need to provide students with such opportunities outside the classroom to demonstrate their English and ICT skills to help make them employable. The next Asia-Pacific 3MT Competition for universities in Australia, New Zealand, Oceania, Southeast and Northeast Asia will be held on Thursday 27 September, 2018 at the University of Queensland, Brisbane.


An astronomers’ meeting turns into a haiku competition. (2018 March 24). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21739148-pick-your...

Hayashi, P. M. J., & Holland, S. J. (2017). Pecha kucha: Transforming student presentations. In P. Clements, A. Krause, & H. Brown (Eds.), Transformation in language education. Tokyo: JALT.

Willey, I. (2014). Powering up presentations: Pecha Kucha style! The Language Teacher (38)6, 26–27.