Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Managing student presentation anxiety

Peter Radloff
Behavioural Health Science
Curtin University

Employers and professional groups rate oral communication skills very high. Graduates who are good communicators have a better chance of getting a job and are more likely to receive recognition and promotion within their profession. Students also need good oral communication skills in order to learn with and from one another, especially in a cooperative learning setting. Nevertheless, many instructors do not support or promote the development of oral communication skills as part of their subject teaching. The reasons for this neglect include the presence of quiet, shy or "reticent students" in a class, students who feel very anxious when asked to present, and the instructor's own dislike of giving presentations. This paper describes a range of procedures which the instructor can use to promote oral communication skills, including suggestions for setting and assessing oral assignments and helping students to overcome their fear of giving presentations.

A number of surveys have pointed to the high ranking given by employers to communication in rating employability: they form a major component of required competencies, are vital for interpersonal competence, and to develop collaborative and lifelong learning. Candy Crebitt & O'Leary (1994), Harvey (1993), Both these sources also rate oral communication higher than written communication as a prerequisite skill.

Students learn best when they are active. Talking and listening is an important activity but many classes are dominated by the tutor, and may not promote student learning. This general climate is made worse by being periodically punctuated by required student oral presentations without supporting exposure or training in presentation skills. Many students find this traumatic, and some may even drop out because of their distress.

Some of the reasons for students' reticence in class is that they see their novice role as not involving having anything to say. This would follow from their being in Perry's (1988) stage of dualism Position 1 which is represented as: "Authorities know, and if we work hard, read every word, and learn Right Answers, all will be well." This view goes with a concern for the "facts", thinking that the tutor has the role of transmitting facts, and that to know something is to be able to recite the facts, a view which may be shared by the tutor as Kember and Gow (1994) have shown so clearly. A further reason is shyness, poor social skills, the novel situation, the unknown audience, fear of assessment, the prevalence of forms of assessment placing a premium on 'reproductive learning' (Candy Crebert O'Leary 1994), and prevalent social anxiety. Then again there is the belief that asking questions in class demonstrates a failure of understanding Paul (1993, p. 486). Once again such views may or may not be shared by the instructor. In either case important consequences can follow. There are also physical factors such as the size of the group, seating arrangements, and the opportunity to contribute related to the physical setting, the general climate and the instructors style. A consequence of such factors is that students avoid communicating, do not become discipline literate, and that mild anxiety not dealt with may become more serious and result in presentation phobia. Further, the lecturer may obtain only a poor idea of student understanding, be unable to address the real needs of the group, and driven to take even more direct control to become the only communicator in the group. This in turn can lead to heightened tutor anxiety, subsequent avoidance and dislike of tutorials, poor student evaluation results, and eventual debilitating phobia. Having now recognised that a problem exists, what measures can be taken to offset its influence. Possible remedies will be dealt with in three parts, the students and what they bring with them, the instructional activities, and the physical setting.

Encouraging student talk

The arrangement of the classroom is a key factor in encouraging effective interaction. Seating patterns which allow for eye contact between students, and not place the main focus on the instructor are best. Modular furniture is also useful since it allows moving from a single group to sub-groups to be easily done and as easily reversed. Less often commented on is the current popularity of echo chambers masquerading as teaching spaces. Acoustic tiles were once popular, but the spray on gunnite gun has given us hard reflective unforgiving surfaces. Failing directional microphones and zone of silence electronics not much can be done about rooms - fortunately students can help to make even poor acoustics tolerable.

You may think talking and reflection is important but until you convince students of its vital role not only for their current unit, for senior and postgraduate progress, and for work-place success where presentations are often pervasive. Once they know why certain activities are included, students will be active in finding ways to improve what you have devised, and telling you how to do it: you will be running quality learning circles before you even realise it. Remember control leads to much better performance, more enthusiasm and better health.

It is also important to model appropriate behaviour by establishing a routine from the first class session. This first session may be most important since patterns are so easily started in small ways. Also better is to start proper classes in the first week so that talking becomes the norm rather than silence. Use an icebreaker which requires everyone to contribute in a non-threatening way. Say how important it is to learn everyone's name, and use name tags to make this easier. Model name use. Provide information about yourself, and your interests and background. You may also wish to establish ground rules which emphasise what the expected behaviour for the tutorial should be, ideally with the group making suggestions as to what they would appreciate. It may also be useful to comment on the ethics of group behaviour. Suggestions that the group consider itself a confidential self-reliant unit, and that no gossip will be traded with outsiders as to what happens can help to make everyone feel secure and confident about each other, can also help mould the group climate.

Try to include some two person tasks at this first meeting. Perhaps a question asking what they hope to gain from the unit to think-write-pair-share, and then pyramid into a four person group which pools their ideas, draws conclusions, and reports outcomes to the class. After this activity it may be time to discuss the need to treat all contributions to a discussion with respect so that any group member is allowed to finish a statement before another comment or contribution is allowed. Discuss the need for a "wait time" of about 3 to 4 seconds between points to allow processing of information, to promote thoughtfulness, and mutual reflective activity. Discuss allowing even more time whenever particularly valuable contributions are made, since this will both provide for reinforcement and for its accompanying-post-reinforcement pause (supporting learning through non-interference, and more time for reflection of course). So the ideas is to include regular oracy, but also thinking time, and writing tasks as well as opportunities for cooperative interpersonal activities. Such early regular activities force all students to have multiple, comfortable, and reasonably lengthy exposure to moderate to low challenge situations. This ensures that general anxiety levels are kept low, but also that the general positive climate will benefit learning throughout the group.

We have now dealt with the space requirements, the physical setting; the timing requirements, when to start activities, and how and when to sequence them; as well as the opportunity to interact easily in the circumstances provided. We need now to consider instructional processes.

Instructional activities and processes

Whatever may be said about the importance of different instructional methods, remember that it is assessment that drives the curriculum. If you do not assess higher level skills, including those supported by all the active learning techniques introduced, telling of facts will prevail, and group activities will be slimmed down to basic information. So let students have more control.. Get them to generate short form quiz questions (Radloff 1993). Arrange for them also to devise and develop answers to essay questions, and debate between groups how best to answer such questions. The principle involved is that one wants to have students very familiar with a particular format before it is used in assessment. Only use essay examinations where there have been multiple opportunities to write essay type pieces, with feedback. And note that feedback does not mean marks, and does not mean that the instructor has to provide it. Having peers provide feedback leads to a doubling of the gain since giving feedback requires close attention to the issues, may require another look at the source material to check for ones own understanding, and it also can lead to discussion as to why this or that, and I didn't mean what you seem to think I meant etc. All of this is healthy learning fodder.

There are additional simple things that can be done. Have students use the assessment protocols provided to them early on, on their own assignments before handing them in. Use peer assessment of first drafts of assignments. These sorts of things will enable students to reflect upon the processes of learning which they are using. It will also introduce those few students who may be contemplating a career in academia to some of the issues which should concern them. They will need high level presentation skills, and a beginning understanding of how to organise and run a unit including activities, assignment topics etc.

Providing graduated exposure to increasingly demanding activities can be managed by classifying the range of instructional activities in terms of their difficulty. Angelo and Cross (1993) and many others have provided descriptions of a range of classroom research approaches. It is fairly easy to arrange these appropriately so that the easiest go at the beginning of the semester, and the hardest are left until later on.

Applicable behaviour management strategies

Anxiety and panic have to be faced if one is an instructor. One needs to overcome them in lecturing and tutoring as Murphy (1992) has illustrated for us. They must also be faced by students - so whether one likes it or not, it is important to understand enough of clinical anxiety management as is necessary to provide a setting for students to conquer their fears. Clark (1989) is a useful single source for a range of good ideas about managing anxiety. Until Wolpe reintroduced in the 1950's desensitisation as a systematic practice to manage fear and phobia, no modern treatment had worked. Subsequent developments have shown that graduated exposure to feared situations, starting small, and moving up as tolerance increased, was highly effective. Perhaps existentialist angst also involves this choice to act despite the intolerable nature of the alternatives: but Sartre does not seem to have provided any situational item hierarchy. A useful look at modern clinical psychology, which will provide you with some unusual insights, is Seligman (1994).

For behaviour management however it is not recognised that one needs to appreciate that individuals operate according to the three modes, actions, feelings, and thoughts. Each of these needs to be addressed in order to achieve lasting behavioural change. What works for clinical intervention, and for dysfunctional behaviour in that sphere, is surely not inapplicable where one wishes to achieve lasting change in the academic sphere of knowledge and understanding.

The emphasis upon feeling is probably vital - but this is seldom addressed directly in the tertiary instructional literature. Perhaps we can hint at how this can be managed by examining fear, and anger, and the assertive option. Imagine a continuum where anger leads to attack upon the threatening object, and fear leads to running away. Aggression and its consequences in narrowing the person is the outcome of the first response, and phobia follows from repeated avoidance. So what happens if one stands one ground. Assertion happens. How to stand one's ground is the subject of the numerous assertiveness training courses that are available. But staying put is also desensitisation! And facing provocation without getting steamed up is anger management, but it is also an assertive stance. Face the aggro and problem solve, repeat statements of your own feelings, position, need to etc etc. Anything to delay action. And with sufficient delay one is no longer so angry, and next time will be even less disturbed. And staying put also reduced fear, so that next time one can also enjoy the success even more, and so on.

This is why it is important to start small. To do little things often at first. To examine one's feelings, and perhaps to rate the discomfort on the 100 point scale, and to do this often. Face one's feelings. Feel the feelings and still do what you need to do to achieve what you want to achieve.

All of this has one major goal. To enable participants to enjoy more and more the activities which are so rewarding and that lead to effective and life long learning. If one persists with this, and obtains feedback systematically, and keeps a journal, and involves others, including students in the process, then perhaps Bloom (1984) has his answer. He was searching for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. We may find the answer in the mutuality of teaching learning to be found in each of our cooperative groups.


Angelo, T. A. and Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Australian Association of Graduate Employers. (1993). National survey of graduate employers. Sydney, NSW: Author.

Bloom, B. S. (1984). The 2 sigma problem: The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational Researcher, 13, 4-16.

Candy, P. C., Crebert, G. and O'Leary, J. (1994). Developing lifelong learners through undergraduate education. Canberra, ACT: Australian Government Printing Service.

Clark, D. M. (1989). Anxiety states: Panic and generalised anxiety. In Hawton, K., P. M. Salkovskis, J. Kirk, and D. M. Clark. Cognitive behaviour therapy for psychiatric problems: A practical guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, L. (1993). Employer satisfaction: Interim report. Quality in Higher Education, University of Warwick.

Kember, D. and Gow, L. (1994). Orientations to teaching and their effect on the quality of student learning. Journal of Higher Education, 65(1).

Murphy, E. (1992). Coping with lecturing fear: The lecture as a public performance. In C.Latchem and A. Herrmann, (Eds). Higher education teaching and learning: The challenge. Proceedings of the Teaching Learning Forum. Perth, WA: Curtin University of Technology.

Paul, W. (1990). Critical and reflective thinking: A philosophical perspective. In B. F. Jones and L. Idol (Eds.). Dimensions of thinking and cognitive instruction. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Perry, W. G. (1988). Different worlds in the same classroom. P. Ramsden (Ed ). Improving learning. London: Kogan Page.

Radloff, P. (1993). Student question generation promotes learning and assessment. In A. Herrmann and C. Latchem (Eds.). Sharing quality practice: Higher education teaching and learning. Proceedings of the Teaching Learning Forum. Perth, WA: Curtin University of Technology.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1994). What you can change and what you can't: The complete guide to successful self-improvement. Sydney, NSW: Random House.

Please cite as: Radloff, P. (1995). Managing student presentation anxiety. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p212-216. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/radloff.html

[ TL Forum 1995 Proceedings Contents ] [ TL Forums Index ]
HTML: Roger Atkinson, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University [rjatkinson@bigpond.com]
This URL: http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/radloff.html
Last revision: 18 Apr 2002. Edith Cowan University
Previous URL 2 Mar 1997 to 15 Apr 2002 http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf95/radlo212.html