Assignments in the Public Speaking Course

Creating Meaningful Assignments in the Public Speaking Course: Are your students ready for the workplace? 

Tasha Davis, Associate Professor, Austin Community College

Public Speaking can be a challenging course – for students and instructors. Students aren’t just learning new skills. They are expected to perform them in what is perhaps the most stressful of all classroom environments. For most undergraduate students, this is a daunting task;

it is the course they dread the most, with many reporting they often wait until their final year of coursework to enroll.

The public speaking course, however, presents an opportunity to engage students with meaningful assignments that leave them feeling better prepared for the workplace. Rather than assignments that can feel like busy work, such as speeches on random topics in which students have little interest, the work involved in choosing, preparing, and delivering a speech can be tailored to students’ interests, goals, and career preparation. The end result will hopefully be a course that is rewarding for both students and instructors.

Here are four relatively simple ideas for creating meaningful assignments in the public speaking course that are geared towards empowering students with the skills needed for today’s work environment.

  • elevator pitchAssign an Elevator Speech. In many communications courses, one of the first speech assignments students are asked to complete is a self-introduction; yet students may have little concern with listening to mundane facts about their classmates, and often contribute very little time and effort to preparing for this assignment. Instead of simply asking them for a generic introduction, assign a 30 to 60-second elevator speech. An Elevator Speech is a short, “pitch” (about the average time of an elevator ride) that can provide students with the opportunity to get acquainted while also introducing them to a common method of “selling” one’s self in professional settings like employment interviews, career fairs, and other networking events. Students will be challenged by the time limit (less than 60 seconds), and will be forced to consider their strengths and the most relevant personal facts they want to share with the audience.
  • Encourage career exploration. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2013), approximately 80% of college students will change their major at least once; with many changing their major at least three times over the course of their college career. Why? Studies suggest students often choose a major based on influence from peers and family members rather than through research and an understanding of their own personal goals, interests, and values. An informative speaking assignment is a great opportunity for students to explore their chosen profession or major and conduct the research and inquiry necessary to feel confident in their career decision. Consider assigning interviews with community professionals or career advisors as a part of the research process, or ask students to explore career resources both on and off campus and report their findings to the class.
  • Move assignments online. Professionals report fewer face-to-face meetings and traditional audience/speaker presentations in today’s workplace. More often, meetings and presentations are held online via some type of interactive Web conferencing software like WebEx or Adobe Connect. Web conferencing programs are accessible, easy to use, and allow students to engage with each other in what is typically a less threatening environment. Students can demonstrate the same delivery skills evaluated in the classroom and can even incorporate visual aids. Even better – web conferencing makes facilitating student work groups much easier. Students can deliver presentations in small groups and time can then be spent engaging in a question/answer session which more closely mimics the types of presentations they might expect in a professional environment.
  • Use peer led feedback. Everyone struggles with it. Giving and receiving criticism is a challenge, but it is a necessary skill for the workplace. The public speaking course offers an excellent opportunity for students to learn the art of giving effective feedback. Students can practice verbal and nonverbal techniques (e.g., “I” language, concrete language, and immediacy behaviors) that teach them how to offer feedback while reducing stress and anxiety. Just as important, they gain experience responding to peer feedback and using it to improve their own work.

In many college courses, students have trouble connecting what they are learning to the problems and issues they will face in the work environment, and employers are increasingly calling upon colleges and universities to better prepare students for the workplace. This includes the ability to transfer what they learn in the classroom to real-world settings.

While there is no easy, sure-fire way to lessen the stress and apprehension often accompanying oral speech assignments there are ways to develop speech assignments that are meaningful for students and invite active participation and involvement in the learning process.

Tasha Davis
Tasha Davis is currently an Associate Professor in the Speech department at Austin Community College teaching classroom based and distance learning courses in public speaking, interpersonal communication, and business and professional communication. Prior to becoming a professor, she worked in various roles in higher education including student services and enrollment management. She is also pursuing a doctorate in Organizational Communication and Technology from the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on flexibility and flexible work arrangements and the facilitation of such arrangements by technology. She is the author of Social Exchanges: Interpersonal Skills for College & Beyond (Kendall Hunt, 2015).

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