Emphasizing and Evaluating Student Speaking

Cortney Smith, Visiting Assistant Professor and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Rhetoric and Composition, Oberlin College, December 5, 2016

All images from: Albert M. Bacon, A Manual of Gesture, embracing a complete system of notation, together with the principles of interpretation and selections for practice (Chicagp: J. C. Buckbee, 1875). Public Domain

All images from: Albert M. Bacon, A Manual of Gesture, embracing a complete system of notation, together with the principles of interpretation and selections for practice (Chicago: J. C. Buckbee, 1875). Public Domain

An Oberlin education should provide students with the ability to communicate articulately, persuasively, dispassionately, and, when required, passionately, in written as well as oral modes, by listening as well as talking, with both specialized and lay audiences. – Oberlin Student Learning Goals

As indicated by the learning goals of Oberlin College, we wish for our students to be capable speakers who can voice their ideas, opinions, and thoughts in productive manners, and instill in them the importance of being able to convey these thoughts to different audiences. In this week’s article, I will focus on three particular elements as they relate to communication and public speaking in the classroom. First, how to effectively incorporate presentations and student speaking into the classroom. Second, the cultivation of a language that is the underpinning of the rhetorical tradition. And lastly, an approach to assessing student speaking.


Incorporating Speaking Opportunities

Many of us already incorporate some form of public speaking into our classrooms. Whether through everyday classroom discussion or graded presentations, speaking opportunities exist at every turn of the higher education experience. The question arises as to how much value we place on classroom speaking and communicating. We all have very limited time to teach our subject matter during the semester and taking time to discuss speaking may not be a high priority. However, setting aside even a few minutes to convey to students the rewards of being an effective communicator will have a positive impact.

The following is a list of possible ways to incorporate speaking opportunities into the classroom in addition to daily classroom discussions and end of semester presentations:

  • Papers as Presentations. In addition to assigning papers to students, have them give short presentations on their papers. This not only allows students to become more comfortable with speaking, it also allows for their peers to hear one another’s interesting insights about the topic at hand. Think about spreading these speaking opportunities throughout the semester by having a few students present each class period.
  • Impromptu Speeches. Have students present short speeches on a topic you give them without expecting vast amounts of preparation time. As with the papers as presentations, you could have a few students speak each class period.
  • Small Group Workshops. Place students in small groups and have them orally synthesize their own work or someone else’s to the group.
  • Provide Speaking Examples. If you know of a particularly important scholar in your discipline who is known for being a lively speaker, show the students a video, maybe a TED-talk, of the speaker in action and discuss her strengths.
  • Encourage students to attend lectures on campus. Throughout the semester, there are brilliant speakers who come to Oberlin. Encourage your students to attend these lectures and instead of having them write a report on the speaker have your students present on the lecture, paying particular attention to the qualities of the oral presentation.


Between Speaker and Audience

In our efforts to emphasize the importance of effective communication, it is helpful to have an accessible language that can be taught to students. In the Rhetoric and Composition Department, there are six key terms we use throughout our courses and curriculum that speak to the relationship between the “rhetor” (i.e., speaker or writer) and her audience.

Each speaking engagement provides a rhetorical situation composed of three elements: audience, purpose, and occasion.  In preparing your students to engage in productive communication, you will need to impress upon them the importance of these three elements.

  • Audience. Speakers communicate differently to different audiences. Questions related to audience include: Who are you asking your students to speak to? Is it an audience of peers who know the subject matter? Is it for a lay audience? Experts? What commonalities do members of the audience share?
  • Purpose. Speakers hope to accomplish general and specific goals when communicating. Questions related to purpose include: Why are your students speaking to this specific audience? Why should that audience care about this topic? Why should this audience care about the student’s perspective on the topic? Is the purpose of the speaking event to inform? To persuade?
  • Occasion: The context of the situation is the external environment that dictates the presentation or speech, the occasion for which the audience has gathered. Each occasion has different modes of speaking (i.e. there is a different approach to speaking at a wedding versus presenting a lecture), and can be impacted by various issues related to specific occasion, such as the layout of the space, the time restraints, and the formality of the setting.

In addition to the rhetorical situation, rhetorical theorists focus on the three modes of persuasion as defined by Aristotle. Known as Aristotle’s proofs, these three elements, ethos, pathos, and logos, create what we call the rhetorical triangle.

  • Ethos: The personal character or creditability of the speaker. A speaker conveys ethos by demonstrating her knowledge of the subject matter and appearing confident. By demonstrating ethos, a speaker gains the attention and trust of the audience.
  • Pathos: The emotional investment of the audience. Speakers garner pathos by using meaningful language, an emotional tone, and examples. The term also applies to the engagement between the speaker and the audience and the appropriateness of the message being conveyed.
  • Logos: The appeal towards logical reason. The speaker wants to present an argument that appears to be sound to the audience. To insure logos, speakers cite facts/data, describe historical analogies, and construct a logical argument with clearly laid out evidence that is developed and well supported by her own ideas.

It is important to remember that all of these terms are applicable to both written and oral communication.


Assessing Student Speaking

Assessing student speaking can be a daunting task, especially if you are not familiar with it; however, if you put in place mechanisms to guide assessment (and allow for students to reflect as well on their experience) you will be better equipped to meet the challenge. To begin, when assessing student speaking, you need to make your expectations clear. The best way to do this is by creating a rubric and sharing it with your students. Here’s one example:


Let’s look at some examples: Will students be allowed read directly from their notes? If  they are, encourage them to use note cards with keywords instead of writing out their complete talk. Do you expect your students to use visuals with their presentations? If so, explain how you want the students to interact with the visuals? Are you going to assess how the student engages the audience (i.e. eye contact, hand gestures, effective volume)? These points need to be addressed with your students before the presentation that will be assessed.

jestures-5In addition to transparency as it relates to assessment and the sharing of rubrics with students, self-reflection and peer feedback are important parts of the development of speaking skills. In a self-refection assignment, students would record their presentations, watch the videos, and provide observations by answering a series of prompts. By watching the video, students can assess their own performance via prompts that ask students to reflect on their growth and progress as speakers. When assigning peer evaluations, I expect constructive feedback that comments on the following: 1) the speaker’s effectiveness to convey main ideas, 2) areas of strength, and 3) suggestions for improvement.

In a 2013 interview with Levo League, a career website for young women, Warren Buffett stated: “You’ve got to be able to communicate in life. It’s enormously important. If you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential.” As educators, we need to impress upon our students the importance of being able to express their ideas and views in the most productive manners. And one way to do this is by emphasizing and evaluating student speaking in the classroom.

Public Speaking Sources:

Oberlin’s Speaking Center (Mudd 052. Open Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday 7-10pm)

University of North Carolina-Greensboro Speaking Center

American Rhetoric

University of Mary Washington Speaking Center

Stanford University Hume Center for Writing and Speaking

Jackson Chung, “The Ultimate Cheat Sheet to Becoming a Great Public Speaker”

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