Supporting students giving competent oral presentations

Speaker: Dr Silke Göbel, Department of Psychology

Monday 10 February 2020 in H/G09, Heslington Hall, Campus West 12.30 – 2.00pm  

Workshop Summary

Dr Silke Göbel discussed the factors surrounding student anxiety in giving presentations, and how teaching staff might build in measures to support students in this type of task.

We began by working together to produce a list of concerns and issues with oral presentations, and the different contexts in which students might be asked to give them, from academic poster presentations, to group work, to video presentations, to giving academic papers. Some of the issues identified were students’ worries about their confidence, their language skills, their vocal abilities and how they would look in front of their peers. As a group, we talked about our own departmental backgrounds and what we were hoping for form the session, and began to unpick the question, ‘what are presentation skills?’, since there are different forms of presentation. We might associate the idea of presentation skills with being well-prepared and well-rehearsed, for example, but often qualities such as spontaneity and improvisation are recognised as components of an effective presentation.

Dr Göbel described a module that she had taught on as an example of the difficult position of presentation tasks: those which are not assessed are sometimes dropped from the module, since they tend to be unpopular – many students do not turn up when it is their turn to present. In module evaluations, students may give ‘neutral’ responses on whether they had improved their presentation skills during the module or may react negatively to being given a substantial presentation to do as part of the module assessment. All of this makes it potentially risker to set presentation tasks, despite the key transferable skills that they allow students to practise and develop.

In the next section of the workshop, Dr Göbel explained some of the ways that PSA (Public Speaking Anxiety) can affect people. These include anxiety (heart rate, sweating, feeling faint, breathing difficulties, a sense of dread), and this also affects cognition: anxious students are more likely to think the presentation is going to be a disaster. And this cognitive response may also be influenced by previous negative experiences of public speaking and may lead to avoidant behaviour. Hence, PSA has a physiological, a cognitive and a behavioural dimension.

In the discussion that followed on from this, Dr Göbel identified research by Bodie (2010) and Harris et al (2006) as particularly significant, and we went on to discuss how situational factors can be influential in reducing student anxiety around presenting. Measures that we came up with included the choice of whether to present in a group or individually; the option of pre-recording a video presentation and then answering questions on it live; offering different presentational formats; offering autonomy over the subject matter to be presented on; and allowing students to act as each other’s audience in smaller groups. Approaches that Dr Göbel had tried and had found to work included asking students to fill in a peer feedback form, and having students watch back their video-recorded presentations in order to identify their successes and areas for improvement. In the forum discussion that closed the session, we identified other measures and tactics that we had found to work well. Many of these seemed to be about taking away the ‘all-or-nothing’ aspect of presentations: giving students feedback on their presentation slides in advance, giving prompt questions before the presentation, creating a ‘pub quiz’ or ‘business fair’ set-up so that audiences can gather and mill around; or temporarily separating the presentation-skills aspect of the activity from the subject-knowledge part. Sharing these interventions felt empowering as we considered ways to encourage students to see developing presentation skills as something built into their degree programmes all the way through, something to keep working at and trying out, rather than a one-off, high-stakes event.

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