Low Stakes Presentations Build Student Confidence

Elizabeth Dunham, MLS, is a retired marketing executive and current adjunct lecturer at York College of Pennsylvania. She teaches courses in business communication as well as the first-year experience. Here is her first person account of how she incorporated low-stakes oral presentations into her courses to build her students’s confidence. 

Most students dread presentations. Every time I start a new semester, and I announce that presentations are a requirement, the fear and tension in the room rises and becomes palpable. Granted, not every student hates presenting, but a majority of college students have a fear of public speaking. Knowing all of this, I have wrestled with how to build my students’ oral communication skills. I teach a second year communications course that is required for business majors, and one of the outcomes for the course is to produce and present effective oral, visual, and written content. In order to meet this outcome, I used to assign three graded presentations in a given semester. Following the completion of a written assignment, students would present their findings to the class. Along with the written work, these presentations were a sizable portion of the students’ grades.

Over the past few years, I started noticing a trend on my student evaluations. While most students stated they appreciated the opportunity to hone their public speaking skills, they felt the presentations were weighted too heavily. Additionally, some felt overwhelming pressure to deliver a “perfect” presentation without much past experience in doing so. Given this, I needed to find a way to improve oral communication skills over the course of 16 weeks. I decided to experiment with non-graded presentations, at least in the beginning of the semester.

Delivering a solid presentation is more a matter of confidence than of brilliance. I recognized my students lacked confidence to orally present. This was even more pronounced post-Covid, given the months spent in remote learning and out of the physical classroom. Therefore, my goal was to help students feel more comfortable standing up and presenting to their peers. So, I did the following:

1. On the first day, I introduced the presentations as “low stakes.” I explained the first three presentations weren’t graded, which reduced a lot of anxiety. I added that the final presentation was the only one worth a significant amount, which helped eliminate stress.

2. First presentation (second or third day of the semester): Introduce yourself to the class—NOT GRADED.
The first presentation was not graded, although I did award completion points for it. It was a good old-fashioned ice breaker. During the second or third class meeting, I had students stand up at their seat and introduce themselves with three unique attributes about themselves. I started off the exercise and then the students took turns introducing themselves. As expected, some students were more open than others, but it encouraged students to speak in front of the class. As an added benefit, it allowed me a glimpse into their respective personalities within the first week.

3. Second presentation (three weeks into the semester): Research update—NOT GRADED. This presentation, three weeks into the semester, was also not graded. This time, I instructed the students to stand up in front of class and give a 3-5-minute update on their research for the first assignment, a case study. I stressed there was no “right or wrong” way to do this. Some students created PowerPoints, for example, while others just relied on notecards. This also lessened the anxiety but accomplished the goal of orally speaking in front of the class. After this presentation, I awarded completion points, and I provided feedback. I suggested one or two areas (no more) for improvement. I made suggestions such as, “Speak slowly” or “Make better eye contact.”

4. Third presentation (six weeks into the semester): Research paper presentation—NOT GRADED. I scheduled the next presentation six weeks into the semester. This presentation followed the completion of their first major paper, the case study. I instructed them to create a PowerPoint and stick to a 5-7-minute timeframe. Prior to this, we spent a class period discussing strategies for what should be in the presentation (e.g., what their case study was about, history/background of the company, potential solutions, and one final solution). Also, as a class activity, we discussed what a good presentation entails, such as speaking with clarity and engaging your audience. After each student presented, I again provided feedback and awarded completion points but not actual grades. This time, I also had them reflect on their respective presentations. Most student assessments aligned with the feedback I provided.

5. Fourth presentation (eight weeks into the semester): Presentation on findings—GRADED. Their fourth presentation came halfway through the semester. This time, I graded these, but they were only worth 25 points (the entire class is out of 1,000 points). I had them create a 5-7-minute presentation to present their findings on their next assignment, and I provided feedback along with a grade. Once again, I also had them reflect on how they saw themselves improving in terms of public speaking. Thankfully, I saw increased confidence across the board.

6. Fifth presentation (12 weeks into the semester): White paper research—GRADED. Their fifth presentations were similar to their second presentations and the purpose was to provide another research update. At this point, the students were working on their final assignment, a white paper on a business controversy. I had them give research updates to the class, and these were only worth 10 points.

7. Sixth presentation (15 weeks into the semester): Final presentation—GRADED. Their final presentation came at the end of the semester and was worth 50 points. I asked them to create a PowerPoint and deliver an 8-10-minute presentation on their white papers. They also wrote one more short reflection on how they felt about their final presentation versus their earlier presentations. I provided the following prompts: How did their confidence increase? What worked for them in order to improve their performance and decrease their anxiety? Did they like the ungraded presentations early on? When do they see themselves presenting in their future careers?

Almost all of the final reflections from the students yielded what I had hoped: an increased level of confidence in presenting. And not surprisingly, while several students commented they still didn’t like speaking publicly, they appreciated the opportunity to hone their skills in a safe environment.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

One Response to Low Stakes Presentations Build Student Confidence

  1. Kerri Johanning says:

    Wow, I wish I would’ve had this professor for my class. She sounds so encouraging and helpful for learning this very valuable skill.

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