Sunday, March 17, 2013

Empowering Students to Make Powerful Presentations

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?


Bill Davidson said...

One of the things that I do in my classroom is giving group projects. Each student is responsible for designing specific parts of a project. I assign a project manager (PM) to the various groups. I then meet with the PMs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The PM presents to me the status of the group project.

At the beginning of a project, I have a kickoff meeting with each of the groups. It is really more of a brainstorming session, but we all get on board with a good idea and the project gets some direction. (I keep good notes so I can follow up intelligently.) Everyone is encouraged to give input. If they do not voluntarily give input, I usually ask if they agree or disagree with the direction the project is going.

The next two meetings are only with the project manager. He/She has to explain every aspect of the project and each member’s progress. I usually ask of the status of each of the other people in his group. I even include a question about insubordination to find out how the cooperation is going or if I need to step in. We also discuss short term goals and long term goals for the project. During the second meeting I have the PM establish priorities as well as progress toward short and long term goals and we reestablish goals as necessary.

Any meeting following that, the PMs are allowed to bring whomever they would like. Usually they bring the person with the most responsibility on the project or they bring the person who is having the toughest challenges meeting the goals. By this time they have presented several times to each other on progresses that have been made or problems that need to be solved between each other. Most of the time, they already know their answers before they get to me and they only want confirmation that they have made the correct decisions.

At the end of the projects, we have a design review. The group stands in front of the class to share their design. Each person is responsible to share their own part of the design. The first time I did this something happened that caught me off guard. The very first PM to present asked if anyone in the class had any questions. They proceeded to ask really tough questions, and tell each other what they “should have done.” I have incorporated this as part of every presentation in class since then. The class usually takes the philosophy of “turnabout is fair play.” So they turn into spirited debates.

The advantage is that they learn to defend their ideas and can work as a group. If you do it enough, then you will be ready to do it individually when the time comes.

Reed Gillespie said...

Bill, thanks for the comment. What I love about your project manager approach is that it simplifies things for you as a teacher, but more importantly it mimics real-life situations and thrusts students into a leadership role and incorporates 21st century skills (collaboration, creativity, communication, etc.).