Class Projects and Presentations: Guidelines for Writing and Rubric for Grading

Donald Byrd, Indiana University, rev. early April 2007


In general, I'll use the same four criteria to grade all project papers and presentations, whether they describe your own work or work by others. The criteria are:

1. Clarity. The more clear and easily understandable the product (either paper or presentation) is to your audience, the higher the grade will be. This is partly a matter of good writing style; see the section on written products below for more on this. But who is your audience? In general, assume it's the entire class for either a paper or presentation, but see below for more on this, too.

Clarity in presenting information graphically is important in technical writing, and even more important in technical presentations. For help with this, I recommend several extraordinary books by Edward Tufte: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information; Envisioning Information; and Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. There's a fair amount of overlap among them, though the first concentrates on displaying information that's basically numerical, the others more on information of other kinds. Envisioning Information discusses music notation very briefly, dance notation in some depth. Visual Explanations includes a description of how a last-ditch effort by well-meaning engineers to stop the doomed 1986 launch of the space shuttle Challenger failed, with a fascinating and convincing argument that a single well-designed chart (which Tufte shows) would have made all the difference to the officials who decided to ignore their warnings and proceed. It also discusses the visual display of several aspects of music and music history.

2. Justification of claims and technical accuracy. The importance of technical accuracy should be self-evident. Justifying whatever you claim is closely related but needs much more explanation, at least to those without a strong technical background. It's an important aspect of the "scholarly method" (a term I might have invented; anyway, it's the same thing as the scientific method). You may believe strongly that your redesigned user interface is better than the one you started with, that your program identified all the chords in a song accurately, or that tuba players hear melodies differently from trumpet players, but how do you know? (That is, as well as it's possible to know anything about music.) As I often say in class, it's so easy to see or hear what you expect to see or hear! The more consistently I feel any claims you make are justified, the higher the grade. Ordinarily, you should justify any claims you make that aren't obvious by citing some kind of evidence in their favor. However, an annotated bibliography is a special case. It should have only a few sentences on each book or paper: that’s not much room to justify anything, so, in this case, I’ll generally accept claims (e.g., how good, bad, readable, or incomprehensible something is) that seem reasonable without specific justification.

There's one way in which presentations of other peoples' work are different from presentations of your own. In the former case, it's very easy to do a good job on justification of claims: simply be skeptical of any claims the authors make unless they're obviously valid. Also, if possible, try to find independent evidence on the subject, e.g., from other researchers. For your own work, it's harder, but still not that hard. The basic rule is a commonsense one: the more surprising a claim is, the stronger the evidence you need.

I've often been disappointed by previous students' papers and presentations making strong claims without adequate justification. This really isn't difficult -- everyone should get an "A" on justification!

3. Interest. The more interesting the product, the higher the grade. An important source of interest in any research report (including yours) is connections to other work in the field. Specifically, the more connections you draw between your work and other work on music representation and searching, and the more interesting I find the connections, the better. Another important source of interest is technical depth. However, note that going into depth takes time, and it can easily lead to less clarity.

A factor that occasionally has a great effect on interest is significance of results. As an extreme example, if you come up with something that might really have a noticable effect on the field of music informatics, you'll get an A or A+ for your work, even if you don’t do well on the other criteria. Of course, the vast majority of student papers and presentations are of no significance at all other than educational.

Obviously there are additional factors that make a live presentation interesting; see below for more on this.

4. Professionalism. Adherence to an appropriate standard of style in terms of formatting in general, bibliographic format, etc., is important. Anything you turn in should begin with a title or assignment number, your name, and the date and/or course number. This applies to slide shows as well as to normal written work. See below for more on professionalism.

Overall. Criteria 1 thru 3 are all about equally important; I'll weight "Professionalism" (silly word, I know) somewhat less heavily. Also, since it's so easy to do a good job on the "justification of claims" part of item 2 in presentations of other peoples' work, it won't count for that much. Finally, I will take into account the difficulty of the project in grading: if, in my opinion, your project is particularly difficult, I’ll be more lenient.


Specific Comments On Written Products

Clarity. An excellent guide to quality writing is Strunk and White’s classic little book, The Elements of Style; it’s easily available in bookstores and libraries. Also, the Common Errors in English web site is very useful. However, be aware that neither focuses on technical writing. Also, Strunk and White has its flaws. It has an overly-authoritarian style, and -- worse -- an old-fashioned attitude that sexist language like using "he" and "man" generically for people of unknown gender is just fine. There's significant research indicating that that type of usage makes a real difference in a reader's mind, whether they're aware of it or not. (Details available from me on request.)

Two items that might affect your grade either on clarity or on professionalism are (1) using proper grammar -- both the Strunk and White book and the Common Errors web site cover this to some extent; and (2) the very basic idea that anything you turn in should have its pages numbered and stapled. (I mention this for a reason, and you know you are.) I'm flexible about grammar: for example, I don't object to sentence fragments where there's a reason for them (e.g., in an annotated bibliography, again, where terseness is valuable). And I sometimes start sentences with "and" myself :-) . But I'm not flexible about numbering and stapling together your pages! The only exception would be a case where you're turning in just a few pages, they're independent, and each is labelled.

Professionalism. Another very basic thing is correct spelling; misspelled words can certainly affect clarity, but it's more a matter of professionalism.

With respect to general style and formatting, bibliographic and citation format, etc., any well-thought-out style, used consistently, is okay. However, I suggest you find out what style is most common in publications in your area and use that! And an easy way to find out what style might be to ask your major professor. But I’d also be happy with the American Psychological Association (APA) style. In any case, all works cited must appear in the list of references. Exception: very few style guidelines pay much attention to musical works, which are significantly different from other types of works. If you want to mention Beethoven piano sonatas or recordings by Omara Portuondo, you can use my own Bibliographic Style Guidelines for Music, or the style described on the IU Music Library web site. As my Guidelines say, musical works need not be listed in the references.

A good summary of the APA style is available, from a journal that uses that style. From that page, click on "Guide for Authors". Also see the APA's own "Style Tips". The Byrd and Crawford paper "Problems of Music Information Retrieval in the Real World" follows the APA style, so you can use it as a model. Finally, in the unlikely case those sources aren’t enough, APA publishes a 400-page Publication Manual, which is available in several IU Bloomington Libraries; get the fifth edition, the current one, if possible.

What audience should you assume for a paper? To simplify things, just as for presentations, assume the whole class is your audience. However, in some cases this may not be appropriate, e.g., where explaining your project in full requires highly technical information that would be well "over the heads" of the class. If you think this applies to you, please talk it over with me.


Organization and Content of Written Products

Organization has a major effect on clarity and professionalism; content has a major effect on justification of claims and interest.

There are several types of technical papers: among them are survey papers, original research papers, tutorials, and position papers. Of course, some don't fit neatly in any category. Your project report will probably be closest to the "original research" category. This type of paper would usually (1) give some motivation for the work (why is the problem the paper is about interesting or significant and/or who work on the problem is likely to benefit); (2) talk about previous work on the problem; (3) say what this paper's author(s) decided to do; (4) say what the author(s)' results were; (5) draw conclusions from those results; and (6) talk about what research still needs to be done on the topic. All of this is as specific as possible! And, of course, every technical paper has a title and a list of references, and most have acknowledgements of people who helped in one way or another.

Project Proposals. Proposals, including project proposals, are a special case. In this case, you couldn't do #4, 5, or 6 yet, of course, and I wouldn't expect you to do #2 -- though if you can include a few sentences about previous work, go for it! You can and should do #1, and you can and should do #3 (written in future tense, obviously). You should also have a title and, if at all possible, a reference or three. And be as specific as possible; a few numbers can be very helpful in giving a reader (me) an idea of the scope of what you're proposing, even if the numbers are just educated guesses -- which, realistically, is probably all they can be anyway. Why references in a proposal? One reason is to reassure a reader that you already know enough about the problem you're tackling that your proposal is likely to be at least halfway reasonable. References can also suggest how you're thinking about the problem, if the reader is familiar with them. If you include #2 (discussion of previous work), include references for your sources.


Specific Comments On Live Presentations

Clarity and Interest. The most important, and perhaps the most often-neglected, things in a presentation are (1) that it be easily understood by your audience, and (2) that it be interesting to them. A great way to both help understandability and add interest is to use lots of pictures and diagrams and, for presentations about music, audio examples. (My own lectures are, I’m afraid, barely adequate in this respect.) Furthermore, if the amount of time you have for your presentation is at all limiting for the complexity of your subject -- and it probably is -- well-chosen images and sounds can save a tremendous amount of presentation time (at the expense of time preparing the presentation). Of course the pictures, diagrams, and audio examples must be well-chosen; otherwise they may confuse more than they help. Again, Tufte's books described above are superb. An outstanding example of achieving a high degree of clarity and interest via images and sounds is the video about sCrAmBlEd?HaCkZ! on its Web site (, which conveys the ideas behind audio mosaicing remarkably well. Or, if you've seen the movie Jurassic Park, do you remember the cute animation at the Visitor Center that explains how they get dinosaur DNA from fossil insects preserved in amber?

If the content of your talk is way over your audience's head, they're not going to understand, no matter how good your presentation! You may feel you have no choice, perhaps because you're presenting a very technical paper to a non-technical audience, but there's a good chance you can avoid the problem. Is it really essential to present the more technical parts of the paper? Often the answer is no: you can give people the main ideas of the paper, sometimes even the main ideas of the difficult sections, without going into detail.

Clarity and Professionalism. It's very desirable that you give your audience, in visual form, a way to organize the talk. Just showing them a series of images -- even if they're web pages that are designed to stand by themselves -- and talking about them is not ideal. It's better to have "slides" (in a very loose sense of the word) that say something about the images, and to use these slides as a point of departure for the images you really want to show your audience. Note that PowerPoint (for example) slides can have links on them, so you can do this very easily during your talk, and anyone you give your PowerPoint file to can do the same thing later. Of course the slides can actually contain the images. And of course web pages can also have links on them!: you can use a web page or series of web pages of your own instead of a PowerPoint presentation.

An excellent, common-sense set of guidelines for actually delivering a presentation is Paul Edwards' How to Give a Talk: Changing the Culture of Academic Public Speaking. If it looks like following his guidelines will require an overwhelming amount of preparation, note that Edwards' rules are really for giving an outstanding talk. You can probably give one that's well above average without doing everything he recommends.

What computer will you use? A final topic. You might prefer to use your own familiar laptop to give a presentation instead of a "generic" computer in our classroom, and if you're doing anything esoteric, that may be a good idea: your unusual programs may not work properly on another computer. But if you're just using routine software like PowerPoint and a web browser, using a computer that's already set up and working avoids problems with audio and, especially, video connections that can be disasterous. If this sounds like paranoia, I've had students fiddle around for 10 min. or longer trying to get their laptops to work with the classroom A/V setup before they gave up or I insisted they give up and use one of the standard computers. As a result, I now require students to use the regular classroom computer unless they can convince me they need something special. And if you do convince me, I'll expect you to try your presentation (or a rough version of it) with your laptop in our classroom far enough ahead of time that we can do something about it if there are serious problems.

Last updated: 11 Mar. 2007
Comments: donbyrd(at)
Copyright 2005-07, Donald Byrd