Department of Communication

Tips for Assigning Oral Presentations

Oral presentations can be among the best part of a class, or they can be the absolute worst. While there are few guarantees in the world of teaching and learning, here are some tips to make success a more likely outcome for you and your students.

1. Plan Ahead. Oral presentations take time—time for you to communicate your expectations and offer at least basic instruction on techniques; time for the students to prepare and rehearse outside of class; and time for them to actually give the presentations in class. Insufficient time devoted to any of these three things is likely to mean disappointing results.

2. Be Clear with Yourself About Your Goals. Why are you assigning presentations? Do you want to help your students become better speakers? Have them share the results of their research with classmates? Make them responsible for doing some of the teaching? Encourage active learning? Stimulate discussion? Transform your class from a monologue to a multi-voiced dialogue? Give yourself a break during a period you know will be busy? Break the monotony of exams and papers?

All of these are legitimate goals, and while they are not mutually exclusive, some require different planning and modes of evaluation than others. If you want to stimulate discussion and turn the class into a multi-voiced dialogue, for instance, you need to allow plenty of time for conversation afterwards and might want to have just one or two presentations a day. If your goal is instead for them to share research findings, it might be appropriate to schedule a number of presentations in the same class period.

3. Write a Clear and Complete Assignment. Writing the assignment out helps both you and your students. It forces you to articulate what you want and gives you something to return to when evaluating the presentations or pointing students to what might have been lacking in their performance. And having the written assignment gives students an authoritative document to return to for guidelines when they are preparing their presentations.

‘Clear’ and ‘complete’ means not assuming students know what you’re looking for but rather specifying all of the following in non-ambiguous ways:

Identify goals or aims of the presentation: spell out the purposes of the assignment and how it fits in with other course objectives. It is useful to put this right at the top of the assignment sheet under the heading ‘Purposes of this assignment,’ followed with a short list of 2-5 aims such as:

 Establish a reasonable time length: a specific range (e.g. 3-5, 8-10, or 15-20 minutes) is usually better than ‘about 5 minutes’ both because it reduces ambiguity and it encourages students to rehearse their presentation ahead of time.

Clarify all parts of the assignment: include both the steps leading into the presentation as well as the required components of the speech itself. One can require students to have their topic approved by you and hand in a working outline of the presentation, as well as a bibliography, several periods before they speak. On the day of the presentation, have the students turn in a formal, full-sentence outline along with the notes they use to speak from. You can ask them to bring a cassette tape to record their presentation and then hand in a self-evaluation during the next class period. They receive points for all of these parts.

For the presentation itself, be clear about what you expect: clear organization (introduction, body, and conclusion)? Supporting evidence or quotations from the text?A certain number of outside sources? A visual aid or handouts?

Highlight relevant due dates: specify due dates for both the different parts of the assignment and for the presentation itself. For the latter, decide who will give their presentations on what day (or let them choose).

Detail criteria for evaluation:exactly what will they be graded on? You might hand out the evaluation form you will use, or just make a list of criteria at the bottom of your assignment. Some possible criteria include:

4. Prepare Students for Success. Once you have determined the goals, component parts, and criteria for the assignment, you can move students toward success in three ways. First, discuss the relevant techniques they will need to use—from how to select a good topic to research, adapting to your audience, using appropriate language for oral communication, and raising productive discussion questions.

Second, show good and/or bad models of these techniques. You can do this through your own speaking, by the use of videos, or by drawing attention to good examples in your students (teaching from bad student examples is a trickier business).

Third, give them opportunities to practice. The best kinds of practice involve students getting to do more than one evaluated presentation. If this is not possible, give them in-class or at-home practice opportunities. You can use peer groups here—one-on-one or small group exercises—or you could require them to tape record a rehearsal of their presentation at home and evaluate it before they give it in class.

5. Evaluate the Presentations to Help Them Improve. While giving an oral presentation in itself can be good practice, evaluating student efforts and giving them a grade can help even more. This means that you need to develop a plan for grading them.

You can use a formal evaluation sheet that includes a list of the criteria and room for written comments at the bottom. For the list, you can give students a check, plus, or minus (fine, excellent, or needed work) for each criterion with brief comments on the reasons for such a mark.

Try to put the criteria in roughly the same chronological order as the speech itself will be given (e.g. introduction at the top, Q/A toward the bottom) and fill most of this part of the evaluation sheet out as the student speaks.
Take copious notes during the speech, but make certain to grade the speech soon after the presentation, otherwise the memory of the speech will slip.

Also, use the formal outline the students turn in; it makes following the speech and developing pointed comments much easier. Students respond best when you include positive comments along with constructive ones.

Rubrics often provide comfort to students concerned about how their oral performances will be evaluated. They also assist instructors in grading speeches consistently.

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