After teaching the basic public speaking course at colleges for over 30 years, and being frustrated with the level of speeches, level of writing, no-shows and drops, I realized I had to radically change the way I was teaching. Because, you know, if they aren’t learning, I’m not teaching.
My old way of teaching was standard: 3 main speeches, each with a detailed evaluation sheet that had points assigned for every element I could think of. Fifty points for 10 different delivery aspects, 50 for the outline and so on. I also had mini-speeches, mini-assignments, all intended to keep the students moving toward completing the semester by accumulating points every week, each assignment building on the previous ones.
But here was one of the main problems. If a student stumbled on an assignment early on, or missed mini-assignments, it was very difficult for them to get their footing again, and the failures accumulated, instead of the points. So I often had a fairly bifurcated class–those who kept up and moved smoothly toward a B or an A, and those who couldn’t make up for early problems and dropped or earned a D or worse.
Plus I was getting incredibly frustrated. It didn’t matter how much I emphasized to them that they had to just plug along every day, every week and they’d do fine. Many didn’t or couldn’t and I ended up feeling like I was punishing instead of teaching. I also came to see my detailed point system as arbitrary and tyrannical. One student gets three points for eye contact and another gets four. Really? The activity of circling those numbers was becoming more ludicrous every semester.
I spent the summer ruminating then figuring out how to actually TEACH public speaking so the students would stay and learn. The result is a new, liberating grading system.
Yes. Liberating. For me and my students. Here are two of the most important elements of my new system: how they earn their semester grade and how they earn credit for a speech.
First, they earn their semester grade by deciding how many assignments they will complete at the basic level. Completing five assignments at a basic level earns them an A, four a B, three a C and so forth. There are two required traditional face-to-face in-class speeches that are standard across the department’s 180 sections. Nothing new or different here–one is informative and the second is persuasive. But every assignment is credit/no credit.
Then I offer them six assignments from which they can choose one, two or three (depending on the grade they want), some of which can be completed in the public realm of the web, some in other face-to-face situations or in our classroom. One important option (at least I think–we’ll see what happens with it) is an assignment that they make up (with my approval of course) that is directly helpful to them and includes some kind of important communication activity. I had in mind helping them practice for a toast or a job interview but I don’t know what they’ll come up with. I’ll talk more about these optional assignments in upcoming blogs and you can see more explanation in the syllabus.
Here is the other liberating element–the “grade” sheet. No more points attached to every single thing they are supposed to do. While I thought that was giving them specific instructions on how to get a good grade, it was also giving them a whole lot of ways they could fail. Instead, I am giving them for the first speech eight things they must do in order to get credit for that speech. I’m not giving them points according to how well they do each element, but I WILL GIVE THEM FEEDBACK. So if they give me a typed outline but the grammar is poor, I will mark their outline to teach them, but not penalize them for poor writing.
The eight elements are:
- Written in full sentences
- Written in outline format
- Have three sources, cited in the body and the bibliography
- Handed in prior to presenting the speech
- Must be 3-5 minutes
- Presented extemporaneously
- Must speak so we can hear and understand the presentation
That’s it. It seems they believe they can do this and I will be thrilled if they do all of the above. So each assignment is basically credit/no credit and they have to perform to a basic standard to get the credit. No extensive and detailed grading sheets that intimidate them and oppress me.
We’ll see how this goes in a couple weeks.
This blog post first appeared in Hollis’s blog, Community College Public Speaking.