As a novice teacher, I frequently created assignments that included student presentations. A few of the presentations were phenomenal, many were nice, and some were downright painful to watch. On top of that, some students refused to present. For all but the best presentations, the non-presenters clock watched, bored out of their minds.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but for the next several years, I “solved” the problem by removing student presentations from my curricula.
Then, I began teaching a new class—freshman seminar—in which public speaking and presentations were part of the curriculum. I needed a new approach.
My first realization: it’s unfair to throw students to the wolves (their classmates) by requiring them to present without giving them tools, practice and feedback to be successful.
How I prepared the students:
1. Preparation. I began by teaching public speaking basics (voice, diction, eye-contact, emotion, don’t just read from your notes or the PowerPoint, etc.). I required students to present to family members or to record their presentations. We used class time to individually practice and to receive feedback from either a classmate or me. Public speaking is no different than any other skill in that it requires instruction, practice and feedback. While most subject matter teachers don’t have the time to spend on public speaking, if you’re going to grade students on their presentation, you must teach the skill first.
2. For the initial presentation, instead of presenting in front of the entire class, I broke the class into several groups. Students were strategically placed in groups where they would be most comfortable. Instead of standing in front of a class full of strangers, students “presented” while seated in a less-threatening environment. Yet, I still had some students who didn’t want to present, so I allowed them to present to the me during their lunch period. Another positive byproduct of this was increased student engagement and less class time spent listening to other student presentations.
3. I incorporated opportunities to hone public speaking skills into our lessons. By including Socratic Seminars, debates, and discussions, students learned public speaking skills without actually presenting.
4. Because students had to make several presentations throughout the year, I slowly added a minute to the required length of each presentation. In addition to becoming longer, the presentation topics became gradually more complex.
5. Add requirements. Require visuals, graphs or props. Ask students to include at least one story in their presentation.
6. Students who were not presenting have to be required to listen. Originally, I started off by requiring students to grade their classmates. But, I realized this only made the anxious presenters even more nervous. I shifted strategies; requiring students to either write or ask one question of the presenter.
What are some of your strategies to improve students public speaking?