Recently the Atlantic reported that a tweet posted by a 15-year old high-school student “Stop forcing students to present in front of the class and give them a choice not too”, had gone viral, as had as similar tweet posted earlier this year.
Some students are concerned that forcing them to present in front of their peers, can fuel their anxiety and have long-term harmful effects. Some of the tweets suggested it was a mental health issue, and that people suffering from anxiety should be given alternatives. They also say that students are being unfairly penalised by receiving poor grades for presenting badly when their content is good.
The tweets have garnered support from some teachers saying that they need to show compassion towards students and acknowledge students’ feelings. But many people have defended the need for students to give presentations. Some have gone as far as saying that students should ‘toughen up’ and suggested that giving students the choice to give presentations is like giving them the choice to eat vegetables! Other have arguments in favour of presenting include:
I agree with most of these points but there is something else that appears to have been lost. Why do students feel this way in the first place and is there anything we could do to reduce their anxiety? Five-year-olds seem more than happy to share their ‘news’ with the class so why is it such a problem for teens? (and adults!)
My own view is that we don’t place enough emphasis on oral communication skills or provide enough opportunities. Unlike five-year olds, teens are highly self-conscious and many only want to do things they think they are good at – especially when others are watching. Too often, giving a presentation to the class is a one or twice a year event and with this sort of build-up it’s not surprising that students get nervous! We need to make it enjoyable, make it an everyday event, and spend as much time teaching oral communication as written communication. There may be some cases of extreme anxiety where it is counterproductive to put a child in front of their peers and make them present, but I suspect the majority of students would feel way less anxious if they had plenty of opportunities to develop their skills before they are tested.
In this interview with Jim Mora, Toastmaster David O’Brien says the same thing – that we need to do more in schools to teach presentation skills.
I strongly agree with those who are concerned about students missing out on an important life skill. The high-school art teacher cited in the Atlantic article who gives teenagers the choice about whether to speak about their work in ‘crit’ sessions, may not be doing the students any favours. What happens when these students go on to study art at university and do not have the confidence of other students? Or when they get their first job and find that pitching their idea to a client comes with the job?
In conclusion, if students are suffering from anxiety about presentations, the right question is not “should we force them?” but “how can we help?”
Article written by Catherine Syme
November 2019 update - Fear-less has teamed up with Speak Confidently to offer an intensive public speaking programme in February 2020 for young adults about to start univerity or their first job.
I strongly believe that anyone can manage their nerves and become a better public speaker with the right support.