Teaching Oral Presentation Skills to Undergraduates

More and more, the faculty assign oral presentations in their courses. These can be very valuable learning experiences, but giving oral presentations in class can also be stressful for students. Not only are they worried about getting up in front of a group to speak, but also many of them haven’t had much instruction in what constitutes an effective presentation.There are a number of ways that professors and AIs can help students prepare for their presentations and improve their oral presentation skills:

  • Disseminate helpful guidelines for preparing oral presentations. Typically, students focus more on the content of what they are saying than how they deliver that content to the class. Remind them that their posture, gestures, eye contact, pace, and other such factors contribute significantly to the success of their presentation.
  • Communicate clear grading criteria to your students before they prepare. Criteria can include: choice of topic (if they have a choice), organization of material, effective use of visual aids, presentation skills, facility with answering questions, among others.
  • Let them know that more is not necessarily better. Students are often surprised that a double-spaced, typed sheet of paper corresponds to 2-2 ½ minutes of speaking time. Because of their relative inexperience, they can spend too much time amassing content and not enough time considering how to present the material. A few words from you about the virtues of concision will help them stick to the essentials of what they need to communicate to the class.
  • Encourage students to practice with one another outside of class. Doing so will allow them to determine whether or not their presentation is clear, engaging, and effective.
  • Offer on-the-spot feedback to speakers so that all might benefit. Provide written feedback to each student as well.
  • Consider assigning two brief presentations in a semester. Students will improve more as public speakers if given the opportunity to put into practice what they’ve learned from you and their peers the first time around.
  • Videotape each presentation. All speakers benefit enormously from actually seeing how their presentations come across to others, and students are no exception. A videotape coupled with your feedback can be a rich source of information for improvement.

Assessing oral presentations can also present a challenge to instructors. One effective tool is a grading grid that you use while listening to students’ presentations. You might divide this grid according to the grading criteria you’ve established, leaving space for questions and comments, and then give a copy of it to students along with a short description of the strengths of their presentations as well as areas for improvement.

For additional pedagogical resources, visit the Graduate Students and Faculty webpages.