- Identify strategies for adapting presentations in the following disciplines: arts and humanities, social sciences, education/training and development, science and math, and technical courses.
- Identify strategies for effective speaking at academic conferences.
Oral communication has always been a part of higher education, and communication skills in general became more of a focus for colleges and universities in the late part of the twentieth century, as the first “communication across the curriculum” programs began to develop. These programs focus on the importance of writing and speaking skills for further academic, professional, and civic development. Your school may very well have a communication across the curriculum program that includes requirements for foundational speaking and writing skills that are then built on in later classes. Whether your school has a communication across the curriculum program or not, it is important to know that the skills you develop in this class serve as a scaffold from which you can continue to build and develop speaking skills that are tailored to the needs of your particular field of study. As you participate in oral communication within and about your field of study, you become socialized into the discipline-specific ways of communicating necessary to be successful in that field. This communicative process starts in the classroom (Dannels, 2001).
Speaking to Professors and Classmates
What does a good communicator in a science class look and sound like? What does a good communicator in a history class look and sound like? While there will be some overlap in the answers to those questions, there are also specific differences based on the expectations for oral communication within those fields of study. Knowing that speaking is context specific can help you learn which presentation style will earn you a better grade based on the discipline and the course (Dannels, 2001).
Students are often asked to think of a classroom presentation as a simulation of a speaking situation they may encounter in their desired career.
Tulane Public Relations – School Social Work-8 – CC BY 2.0.
Although instructors try to bring professional contexts into the classroom, students have difficulty or avoid engaging with a “made-up” customer or company. Making a more conscious effort to view the classroom as a training ground that simulates, but doesn’t replicate, the environment of your chosen career field can make your transition from student to practitioner more successful (Dannels, 2000). While students know they are being graded and their primary audience is their professor, you and your classmates are also audience members in the class who can use the opportunity to practice communicating in ways relevant to your career path in addition to completing the assignment and getting a good grade.
Social sciences include psychology, sociology, criminology, and political science, among others. Speaking in the social sciences is driven by quantitative or qualitative data reviewed in existing literature or from original research projects that focus on historical or current social issues. Social scientists often rely on quantitative and/or qualitative research and evidence in their presentations. Qualitative research focuses on describing and interpreting social phenomena using data collected through methods such as participant observation and interviewing—in short, watching and/or talking to people. Qualitative researchers value the subjectivity that comes from individual perspectives and seek to capture the thoughts and feelings of research participants and convey them using descriptive writing that allows readers to think, see, and feel along with the participant. Quantitative social scientists use statistics to provide evidence for a conclusion and collect data about social phenomena using methods such as surveys and experiments. Since these methods are more controlled, the information gathered is turned into numerical data that can be statistically analyzed. Rather than valuing subjectivity and trying to see the world through the perspective of their research subjects, as qualitative researchers do, quantitative researchers seek to use data to describe and explain social phenomena in objective and precise ways so their findings can be generalized to larger populations. Knowing what counts as credible data for each type of research is an important part of speaking in the social sciences. Some social scientists use qualitative and quantitative research, but many people have a preferred method, and individual instructors may expect students to use one or the other.
Presentations in the social sciences usually connect to historical or current social issues. Students may be expected to conduct a literature review on a particular societal issue related to race or poverty, for example. When presenting a literature review, students are expected to review a substantial number of primary sources and then synthesize them together to provide insight into an issue. Many students make a mistake of simply summarizing articles in a literature review. Students should put various authors in conversation with one another by comparing and contrasting the various perspectives and identifying themes within the research.
Students in social work and political science courses may be asked to evaluate or propose policies relevant to a societal issue. Reviewing information about persuasive speeches, discussed earlier, that include propositions of policy may be helpful. This type of presentation involves researching current and proposed legislation and may involve comparing and contrasting policies in one area with policies in another. A student in a social work class may be asked to investigate policies in urban areas related to homeless youth. A political science student may be asked to investigate the political arguments used in states that have passed “right to work” legislation. In any case, presentations in the social sciences may be informative or persuasive but should be socially relevant and research based.
Arts and Humanities
Speaking in the arts and humanities usually involves critiquing, reviewing, or comparing and contrasting existing literature, art, philosophies, or historical texts in ways that connect the historical and contemporary. It may also involve creating and explaining original works of art. Students in the arts may give presentations on fine arts like painting and sculpting or performing arts like theater and dance. Students in the humanities may present in courses related to philosophy, English, and history, among other things.
Students in the arts present original works to their professors and classmates.
Jon Ross – Art work – newspaper project on wall collected – CC BY-ND 2.0.
Research in these fields is based more on existing texts and sources rather than data created through original research as in the sciences and social sciences. In the arts, students may be expected to create an original final product to present, which may entail explaining the inspiration and process involved in creating a sculpture or actually performing an original dance or song. In either case, there is an important visual component that accompanies presentations. In the humanities, visual support is not as central as it is in many other fields (Dannels, 2001). Given that the humanities rely primarily on existing texts for information, students may be asked to synthesize and paraphrase information in a literature review, just as a student in the social sciences would. Frequently, students in the arts and humanities are asked to connect a work of art, a literary work, a philosophy, or a historical event to their own lives and/or to present day society. Students may also be asked to compare and contrast works of art, literature, or philosophies, which requires synthesis and critical thinking skills.
The arts and humanities also engage in criticism more than other fields. Being able to give and receive constructive criticism is very important, especially since many people take their art or their writing personally. Some projects are even juried, meaning that an artist needs to be prepared to engage with several instructors or selected judges and explain their work and process through feedback and constructive criticism.
Education/Training and Development
Speaking in education/training and development involves students delivering a lecture, facilitating a discussion, or running an activity as if they were actually teaching or training. In each of these cases, students will be evaluated on their ability to present content in a progressive way that builds new knowledge from existing knowledge, interact with their audience (students or trainees), and connect their content to the bigger picture or the overarching objectives for the lesson and course. Teachers and trainers also need to be able to translate content into relevant examples and present for long periods of time, adapting as they go to fit the changing class dynamics. All levels of the education and training and development fields include a focus on the importance of communication and public speaking. Listening is also a central part of teaching and training. Aside from being judged on how technical information is broken down as a speaker in a technical class may be, speakers in education and training are evaluated more on their nonverbal communication.
Immediacy behaviors are important parts of teaching and training. Immediacy behaviors are verbal and nonverbal communication patterns that indicate a teacher’s approachability. Effective use of immediacy behaviors helps reduce perceived distance between the teacher and student or trainer and trainee. Some immediacy behaviors include changes in vocal pitch, smiling, leaning in toward a person, nodding, providing other positive nonverbal feedback while listening, and using humor effectively. Teachers who are more skilled at expressing immediacy receive higher evaluations, and their students learn more (Richmond, Lane, & McCroskey, 2006). Immediacy behaviors are important for lecturing, facilitating, and interacting with students or trainees one-on-one.
Tips for Effective Lectures (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2011)
- Put content that you are excited about in lectures.
- Move around to engage the audience; don’t get stuck behind a lectern or computer.
- Actually write out examples; don’t expect them to “come to you” as you lecture.
- Include notes to yourself to stop and ask for questions or pose a direct question to the audience.
- Start the lecture by connecting to something the audience has already learned, and then say what this lecture will add to their knowledge and how it fits into what will be learned later in the class.
- Do not lecture for more than twenty minutes without breaking it up with something more interactive.
Tips for Effective Discussion Facilitation (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2011)
- Start the discussion off with an example that connects to something the audience is familiar with.
- Do not be afraid of silence. Pose the question. Repeat it or rephrase it once if needed and then wait for a response. Too often facilitators pose a question, wait a second, repeat and rephrase the question to the point that everyone is confused, and then end up answering their own question.
- Listen supportively and do not move from one person to the next without responding to his or her comment verbally and nonverbally. Use this as an opportunity to pivot from a response back to the topic of discussion, to another example, or to another person.
- Spend time making good discussion questions. Good discussion questions usually contain a sentence or two that sets up the context for the question. The question should be open ended, not “yes or no.” Have follow-up questions prepared to move the discussion along.
- If students/trainees are not actively participating, you can have them write a brief response first, then share it with a neighbor, then come back to group discussion. This is the “think, pair, share” method.
“Getting Plugged In”
Online Teaching and Learning
Online courses are becoming more common. You may have even taken an online course or may be taking this class online. Although we have an understanding of how the typical classroom functions, since we have been socialized into it, the online classroom presents a whole new set of variables and challenges. Some of our past classroom experiences will be relevant and some will not. Many online instructors and students are expected to “figure it out” as they go, which leads to frustrated teachers and students (Ragan, 2011). We’ll learn some tips for making online teaching and learning more effective for instructors and students next. The amount of research and information available about online teaching and learning has increased dramatically in recent years, so there is much more information that isn’t included here. More resources for online teaching and learning can be found at the following link: http://www.eiu.edu/adulted/online_tips.php.
Tips for Instructors
- Set a schedule and keep to it. A major difference between a brick-and-mortar classroom and an online classroom is the asynchronous nature. In most cases, the instructor and individual students can do their class work at different times rather than all together at scheduled times. This is a major reason for popularity of online courses, since a busy professional, single parent, or member of the military can get a college education on his or her own time frame. You can preserve this flexibility while still providing structure by grading assignments promptly, setting regular days and times for course updates, and charting a progressive path with start and end dates for lessons/units so that students aren’t completing all the work during the last week of class.
- Reveal online materials as they are relevant. Don’t have everything for the whole semester visible, as it can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate.
- Monitor and manage student progress by communicating with students about missed and upcoming assignments. Online students are expected to be more independent, but the instructor should still serve as a guide.
- Create a “frequently asked questions” document that addresses common areas of concern for students, and allow students to pose new questions so you can add them to the document.
- Do informal assessments to check in with students to get feedback on the course. Don’t wait for end-of-semester evaluations. Ask them what they like about the course and for suggestions for improvement.
- Find ways to make the course interactive: create a “questions forum” where students can ask questions like they would by raising their hand in class; use peer learning to have students engage with each other about the content; use images, audio, and video; and use real-time chats or video conferencing.
Tips for Students
- Schedule a time to do your online class work that works for your schedule and stick to it. Make sure that the time spent engaged directly with the course at least equals the amount a regular class would meet, typically about three hours a week for a sixteen-week semester. This doesn’t include homework and study time, which will also need to be scheduled in.
- Since technology is the primary channel for your learning, plan ahead for how you will deal with technological failures. Identify an additional place where you can access the Internet if necessary. Keep all your course documents backed up on a thumb drive so you can do course work “on the go” on computers other than your own.
- Ask questions when you have them so you don’t get lost and behind.
- Practice good “netiquette” when communicating with your instructor and classmates.
- What are some positives and negatives of online learning—from a teacher’s perspective and from a student’s perspective?
- What courses do you think would translate well to an online environment? What courses would be difficult to teach online?
Science and Math
Speaking in science and math usually focuses on using established methods and logic to find and report objective results. Science includes subjects such as biology, physics, and chemistry, and math includes subjects such as statistics, calculus, and math theory. You may not think that communication and public speaking are as central to these courses as they are in the humanities and social sciences—and you are right, at least in terms of public perception. The straightforwardness and objectivity of these fields make some people believe that skilled communication is unnecessary, since the process and results speak for themselves. This is not the case, however, as scientists are increasingly being expected to interact with various stakeholders, including funding sources, oversight agencies, and the public.
Scientists present results of original research.
Craig Anderson – Scientists – CC BY-SA 2.0.
The ability to edit and discern what information is relevant for a presentation is very important in these fields. Scientists and mathematicians are often considered competent communicators when they are concise but cover the material in enough detail to be understood (Dannels, 2001). Poster presentations are common methods of public communication in science and math and are an excellent example of when editing skills are valuable. Posters should be professional looking and visually appealing and concisely present how the information being presented conforms to expected scientific or logical methods. It is difficult, for example, to decide what details from each step of the scientific method should be included on the poster. The same difficulties emerge in oral scientific research reports, which also require a speaker to distill complex information into a limited time frame. Research shows that common critiques by biology instructors of student presentations include going over the time limit and rambling (Bayer, Curto, & Kriley, 2005). Some presentations may focus more on results while others focus more on a method or procedure, so it’s important to know what the expectations for the presentation are. Scientists also engage in persuasive speaking. Scientists’ work is funded through a variety of sources, so knowing how to propose a research project using primary-source scientific data in a persuasive way is important.
Speaking in technical courses focuses on learning through testing, replication, and design and then translating the technical information involved in those processes into lay terms. Technical courses appear in most disciplines but are more common in fields like computer science, engineering, and fire sciences. Technical vocational courses like welding, electronics, and woodworking would also fall into this category. Some nursing courses and many courses for medical technicians are considered technical courses. There is a perception of technical courses as training grounds where you give people a manual, they memorize it, regurgitate it, and then try to put the skills into practice. If that were the case, then a range of communication skills wouldn’t be as necessary. However, the goal of such courses has changed in recent years to focus more on educating professionals rather than training technicians (Dannels, 2000).
Technical courses may include research, but testing, replication, and design are usually more important. A main focus in these courses is to translate technical information into lay terms (Dannels, 2001). A key communication path in technical fields is between professional and customer/client, but you can’t just think of the client as the only person for whom the information must be translated. Technical professionals also have to communicate with a range of people along the way, including managers, colleagues, funding sources, machinists, and so on. Team projects are common in technical courses, especially in courses related to design, so being able to work effectively in groups and present information as a group is important. Much of the presentation in technical courses will be data driven, which is informative. While data may be compelling and the merits of a design self-evident for internal audiences, external audiences will require more information, and selling ideas requires persuasive speaking skills. To help prepare students in technical courses to adapt to these various audiences, instructors often use assignments that ask students to view their classmates and instructor as customers, colleagues, or funding sources that they might encounter once in their career. As was noted earlier, students may not take these simulations seriously, which is a missed opportunity for applied, practical learning.