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Oral Activities in the Classroom

Possibilities and opportunities for oral expression in the classroom include much more than just individual podium speeches and group presentations. Low-stakes assignments (that are informal and assessed a small percentage of the final course grade) and high stakes assignments (that are formal and assessed a large percentage of the final course grade) engage students on a different pedagogical stage than writing and passive learning.

An element of performativity pervades all oral expression in the classroom, and turns learning into an active and full-body experience, rather than merely a passive and cognitive affair. Oral activities like role-playing, panel discussions, debates, deliberations, employ drama as pedagogy and performance as a means and motivation to learn.

Here are a few examples of oral activities that can be tailored for the purposes of your class (or any class in any discipline). Most of these oral activities can be adapted for individual or group completion.

Case studies News casts
Chapter/Article reviews and summaries Oral exams/quizzes
Debates Panel discussions
Deliberations Plays
Demonstration lessons Poster presentations
Discussion questions and subsequent PowerPoint presentations
deliberations Press conferences
Formal addresses Recitations
Individual/group presentations Reporting of research findings
Interviews Role playing activities
Mock trials Roundtable discussions
Mock conferences Sharing and pairing exercises

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(1) Class Discussions

Class discussions offer students opportunities to test their ideas and opinions against the ideas and opinions of their peers.

It is important to set the right tone for discussion in the classroom early on in the semester, and to establish a rapport with your students. Studies have shown that students who contribute to class conversations early on in the semester are much more likely to continue contributing to class discussions throughout the semester than those students who remain quiet during the initial few weeks of the term. Therefore, it is imperative to find ways to involve all students in the formative discussions of the course.

What Makes for a Good Discussion?
Good discussion is like art. It may be hard to define it, but you know it when you see it. Think back to a good discussion you once had, either as a student or an instructor. What made is enjoyable? What made it educational? What made it lively?

Often cited characteristics of a good discussion:

Accessibility: Students feel comfortable engaging in the discussion.

Non-combative: There is a cordial and pleasant tone to the conversation and no hostility.

Diversity: A variety of opinions and points of view get articulated.

Cohesion and focus: Discussions should be about "something," with a pedagogical goal.

Trust: Environment should allow students to take intellectual risks.

What Makes for a Bad Discussion?
Conversely, think about your experience in a bad discussion. What troubled you about the discussion? Were there too many participants? Too few? Was it educational? Was it too combative? Too passive?

Limited discussants: Only few students participate.

Limited perspectives: Students echo instructor's thoughts and limit diversity of opinions.

Lack of focus: Discussions go off-topic and miss the pedagogical aim.

Tips for Classroom Discussions
As an alternative or supplement to lecture, classroom discussions offer students the opportunity to actively participate in the education process. Studies and experience suggest that when students are more involved in class, they retain more information and hone their critical thinking skills. Although many instructors wish to increase classroom discussion, integrating and evaluating student discussions can be difficult, but need not be as time consuming as some may suggest.

Suggestions for increased classroom discussion:

  1. Learn students' names: Students are more willing to speak openly when they feel comfortable in the classroom, and when they feel a personal connection to their instructor.
  2. Have students respond to your questions, not comments: A question allows for a number of different possible responses, whereas a comment possesses a definitive quality, especially coming from the professor, which discourages creative student responses.
  3. Keep discussion focused: There is always the risk for the conversation to move off-topic. It is important to have educational "goals" for any discussion (i.e. what you wish to accomplish by the end of the conversation). When you feel the discussion moves beyond your stated goals, steer the conversation back by introducing new questions and restating previous questions and topics.
  4. Include as many students as possible in the discussion: Most classes have a few students that dominate class discussions and conversations. It is important to discourage talkative students from monopolizing the discussion. Use low-ball questions (questions anyone—whether they have done the assigned reading or not—can answer) to engage less vocal students in discussions. Once you involve the student in the discussion with a low-ball question, you can work from their up to higher-order/level questions.
  5. Maintain an environment of positive reinforcement: There are numerous occasions when students are incorrect in their answers or their contributions. However, to keep those students active in discussion, you must always demonstrate the importance of their contributions and correct them in a tactful manner. Explain how their answer would be right in a different context, or how you can see how they arrived at that conclusion, but how it's not optimum for the case at hand.
  6. Add incentives for classroom participation: Adding incentives to student contributions encourages them to participate in classroom discussions. Evaluating students' contributions, however, may present possible difficulties. There are many remedies to evaluating contributions, which include a tally sheet that records when students contribute or assigning students to lead classroom discussions. Many instructors simply build a participation component into their syllabi.
  7. Use written discussion questions to spur thinking: Students feel more comfortable expressing ideas and answering questions if they have some time to think about them first. So, give students five minutes or so to write answers to discussion questions, and maybe another five minutes to share and reflect on them with one or more of their classmates, before coming together as a class to discuss. This will alleviate most of the intimidation factor that contributes to low participation in class discussions. Discussion questions can also be posted online the night before, or distributed at the end of class in preparation for your next meeting.
  8. Place responsibility on students themselves: Toward the beginning of the semester, ask students to write about and discuss what qualities mark good and bad discussions. Use their papers and discussion to draft a set of goals for classroom discussion. Write these goals up and distribute them to the class.
  9. Solicit Student Evaluations: Have students evaluate the quality of the overall class discussion mid-semester. Share with students the results of this informal survey, as well as how you plan to augment discussion in the latter half of the course by taking into consideration their comments.
  10. Develop Sense of Community: Put chairs in a semi-circle; leave room for announcements at the beginning of class; interact with students outside of class; send class links to articles you find on the web that relate to the material you are currently covering; encourage online discussions and group meetings outside of class. And, always remember that laughter aids learning. Asking students about their other courses, their summer/holiday plans, and their mental state during midterms and finals is an effective method for showing students that you care about them as human beings, and that you are concerned with their development as students.
  11. Ask different kinds or levels of questions: Solicit input from students with different abilities and learning styles (e.g. requests for description, analysis, comparison, prediction, justification, generalization, application, and simple information).
  12. Stick with it: The first attempt to promote classroom discussion may be a bit rocky. If so, that is not a reason to abandon the pedagogical effort. It will take time for a rapport to develop and for students to feel comfortable in the classroom environment.

Some additional methods for improving discussion:


  • Designate discussion leaders every class
  • Assign pairs of students to summarize/analyze readings
  • Delegate roles to all students in class (summarizers, questioners, minute-takes, etc.)
  • Facilitate informal debates
  • Explore relationships and analogies among concepts and theories
  • Start class by reviewing previous week's discussions
  • Leave time to summarize and synthesize discussion every class

Effective Questioning Techniques Improve Discussion:


  • Keep your questions brief and focused
  • Ask only one question at a time
  • Ask open-ended questions that allow for diverse answers/ Avoid YES/NO questions
  • Avoid leading questions
  • Wait 10 seconds for answers-be patient!
  • Probe students for specifics, examples, clarifications…
  • Don't interrupt students in the middle of their answers
  • Search for consensus or objections from other students
  • Praise correct answers
  • Explain how answers fit into larger discussion and topic

Effective Nonverbal Questioning Habits:


  • Vary your reactions to student's responses
  • Move around the room, and lean in to listen to students
  • Walk toward student who is talking
  • Use non-verbal gestures to indicate interest
  • Look relaxed and comfortable—sit on desk or in chair near students
  • Smile and react enthusiastically to comments
  • Maintain eye contact and don't write on board while students are talking

Effective Classroom Discussion Links

"Encouraging Student Participation in Discussions" from Barbara Gross Davis' Book, Tools For Teaching

Teaching Topics: Class Discussion

How to Lead an Effective Class Discussion

Guidance for Instructors Concerning Class Discussion about the War in Iraq

Organizing and Conducting a Class Discussion or Review

Fostering Effective Class Discussions

Encouraging Student Participation in Discussion

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(2) Tips for Assigning Oral Presentations

Oral presentations can be among the best part of a class, or they can be the absolute worst. While there are few guarantees in the world of teaching and learning, here are some tips to make success a more likely outcome for you and your students.

  1. Plan Ahead. Oral presentations take time—time for you to communicate your expectations and offer at least basic instruction on techniques; time for the students to prepare and rehearse outside of class; and time for them to actually give the presentations in class. Insufficient time devoted to any of these three things is likely to mean disappointing results.
  2. Be Clear with Yourself About Your Goals. Why are you assigning presentations? Do you want to help your students become better speakers? Have them share the results of their research with classmates? Make them responsible for doing some of the teaching? Encourage active learning? Stimulate discussion? Transform your class from a monologue to a multi-voiced dialogue? Give yourself a break during a period you know will be busy? Break the monotony of exams and papers? All of these are legitimate goals, and while they are not mutually exclusive, some require different planning and modes of evaluation than others. If you want to stimulate discussion and turn the class into a multi-voiced dialogue, for instance, you need to allow plenty of time for conversation afterwards and might want to have just one or two presentations a day. If your goal is instead for them to share research findings, it might be appropriate to schedule a number of presentations in the same class period.
  3. Write a Clear and Complete Assignment. Writing the assignment out helps both you and your students. It forces you to articulate what you want and gives you something to return to when evaluating the presentations or pointing students to what might have been lacking in their performance. And having the written assignment gives students an authoritative document to return to for guidelines when they are preparing their presentations.

  4. 'Clear' and 'complete' means not assuming students know what you're looking for but rather specifying all of the following in non-ambiguous ways:
    1. Identify goals or aims of the presentation: spell out the purposes of the assignment and how it fits in with other course objectives. I like to put this right at the top of my assignment sheet under the heading 'Purposes of this assignment,' and followed with a short list of 2-5 aims such as:
      • to allow students to share their research with their classmates.
      • to display skills of summarizing and condensing lengthy material.
      • to gain practice translating technical journal articles into oral communication suitable for a lay audience
      • to build upon concepts from the first unit of the course
      • to give students an opportunity to set the agenda for group discussion.
    2. Establish a reasonable time length: a specific range (e.g. 3-5, 8-10, or 15-20 minutes) is usually better than 'about 5 minutes' both because it reduces ambiguity and it encourages students to rehearse their presentation ahead of time.
    3. Clarify all parts of the assignment: include both the steps leading into the presentation as well as the required components of the speech itself. One can require students to have their topic approved by you and hand in a working outline of the presentation, as well as a bibliography, several periods before they speak. On the day of the presentation, have the students turn in a formal, full-sentence outline along with the notes they use to speak from. You can ask them to bring a cassette tape to record their presentation and then hand in a self-evaluation during the next class period. They receive points for all of these parts. For the presentation itself, be clear about what you expect: clear organization (introduction, body, and conclusion)? Supporting evidence or quotations from the text? a certain number of outside sources? A visual aid or handouts?
    4. Highlight relevant due dates: specify due dates for both the different parts of the assignment and for the presentation itself. For the latter, decide who will give their presentations on what day (or let them choose).
    5. Detail criteria for evaluation: exactly what will they be graded on? You might hand out the evaluation form you will use, or just make a list of criteria at the bottom of your assignment.
  5. Prepare Students for Success. Once you have determined the goals, component parts, and criteria for the assignment, you can move students toward success in three ways. First, discuss the relevant techniques they will need to use—from how to select a good topic to research, adapting to your audience, using appropriate language for oral communication, and raising productive discussion questions. Second, show good and/or bad models of these techniques. You can do this through your own speaking, by the use of videos, or by drawing attention to good examples in your students (teaching from bad student examples is a trickier business). Third, give them opportunities to practice. The best kinds of practice involve students getting to do more than one evaluated presentation. If this is not possible, give them in-class or at-home practice opportunities. You can use peer groups here—one-on-one or small group exercises—or you could require them to tape record a rehearsal of their presentation at home and evaluate it before they give it in class.
  6. Evaluate the Presentations to Help Them Improve. While giving an oral presentation in itself can be good practice, evaluating student efforts and giving them a grade can help even more. This means that you need to develop a plan for grading them. You can use a formal evaluation sheet that includes a list of the criteria and room for written comments at the bottom. For the list, You can give students a check, plus, or minus (fine, excellent, or needed work) for each criterion with brief comments on the reasons for such a mark. Try to put the criteria in roughly the same chronological order as the speech itself will be given (e.g. introduction at the top, Q/A toward the bottom) and fill most of this part of the evaluation sheet out as the student speaks. Take copious notes during the speech, but make certain to grade the speech soon after the presentation, otherwise the memory of the speech will slip. Also, use the formal outline the students turn in, it makes following the speech and developing pointed comments much easier. Students respond best when you include positive comments along with constructive ones.
  7. Rubrics often provide comfort to students concerned about how their oral performances will be evaluated. They also assist instructors in grading speeches consistently.

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(3) Arguments and Debates

Deliberation is the collaborative process of discussing contested issues by considering various perspectives in order to form opinions and guide judgment. Effective deliberation incorporates sustained and appropriate modes of argumentation. Deliberative practices can take many forms—from discussions, to role-playing exercises, to formal debates. All of these activities lead to exploring differing perspectives and informing various decisions.

What are the basic components of argument and deliberation?

Contest issues. Deliberation involves a controversy or unsolved problem in need of resolution.

Exchange opinions. Deliberation is not individual monologues, but a substantial consideration of ideas by multiple group members who advance different perspectives.

Reflect. Deliberation encourages members to acknowledge others' viewpoints and consider them in relation to their own viewpoint. The inability or unwillingness to consider opposing viewpoints leads to uninformed, and often indefensible, resolutions.

Synthesize. Deliberation combines and builds upon individual contributions to create intellectual activity greater than the sum of its parts.

Reform opinions. Deliberation between individuals sparks deliberation within themselves, challenging and expanding their opinions on issues.

Judge. Deliberation fosters conclusions on critical issues.

What can one argue about?

Facts. Rarely are interesting and non-trivial facts so obvious that they invite universal agreement. We do not argue over the location of the Pacific Ocean or the temperature that water boils, for a resolution to such issues is easily reached. However, not all scientific or "factual" issues are beyond dispute, such as the effects of global warming and the cause of AIDS. However, deliberation provides ways to expose the areas of contest and to compare and provide alternate views on competing facts.

Values. The clash of values is a defining marker of contemporary society. Deliberation can raise questions about the tensions between and within value systems that guide decision-making. Most Americans support free speech and the freedom of religion, but when these values come into conflict (such as posting the Ten Commandments outside a courthouse), it is the deliberative process that attempts to resolve these conflicts.

Policies. The range of possibilities for action is almost limitless. Deliberation about policies encourages in-depth analysis of possibilities for change. These debates inevitably incorporates issues of facts and values, but policy deliberations center on legal or legislative changes.

Definitions. Much conflict is ultimately definitional. Deliberation forces advocates to defend their definition against the scrutiny of others. For example, what constitutes "freedom" or what determines "life?"

Interpretations. Competing interpretations of texts or data are prevalent in a complex society. Deliberation can compare interpretations for correspondence to truth, authorial intent, or social productivity; essentially, what someone or something "means" and why that is important.

Research. Studies, data, and articles offer many issues for deliberation. Deliberation can involve issues about methodology, findings, conclusions, or the implications of research. They say statistics do not lie; but the way one uses statistics in an argument or how the statistics were developed are clearly open for debate.

Criteria. The process of decision-making always involves criteria for judgment. Deliberation about criteria assists in making judgments that are satisfactory and legitimated. There are criteria for determining the admissibility of evidence in a courtroom or the viability of a scientific finding; however, the standards themselves are often the subject of intense deliberation.

Theories. Theories are hotly contested in science, social science, and the humanities. Deliberation tests the strengths and weaknesses of theoretical paradigms.

Benefits of Teaching Argument and Deliberation
Deliberation as a teaching strategy has increased due to the variety of its pedagogical benefits. Deliberation improves critical thinking by providing a constant consideration and synthesis of other viewpoints. The emphasis on conversation in deliberation improves students' critical listening skills, reflective capacity, and ability to incorporate other viewpoints into their own opinions. Synthesizing multiple opinions often offers a heuristic spark for students' innovation energies.

Promotes active learning. Deliberation depends upon the consistent participation of students in classroom discussions. As such, it is an alternative to, or supplement to, lecture-style teaching. The incorporation of student voices through deliberation provides an exciting opportunity for students to involve themselves in their own education.

Enhances communication and listening skills. Deliberation is an inherently communicative exercise, as opinions based on knowledge are shared with group members. Students must develop the ability to express their own opinions to other group members while remaining sensitive to others' experiences to form collective judgment.

Facilitates social interaction. Deliberation relies on teamwork instead of individual effort. Students must learn how to respect each others' opinions while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of each others' experiences. This small group work provides students with cooperative skills. Students learn to respond to diversity in opinion and resolve conflicts, both of which are important in a society marked by difference.

Invents new modes of thinking. Deliberation encourages innovation and invention of new ideas and solutions. Conversation and reflection challenge students' opinions and encourage a synthesis of analysis, criteria, and judgment that often reveals new and unique approaches. Diversity of experience is a strength that encourages a wide variety of alternatives to be proposed and evaluated. Students often create new self-understandings as they listen to other experiences. This process can be crucial to generating individual and collective knowledge and forming nuanced opinions on critical issues.

Strengthens democratic decision-making procedures. By opening arguments, ideas, and opinions to discussion, students can participate in a democratic method of judgment. Judgment is naturally more legitimate when the process of arriving at that decision is open to discussion, rather than passed by decree. Instructors who move the deliberative practice beyond the classroom, by engaging actors outside of the academy, can also have the potential to influence decision-making agents.

Possible Ways to Conclude Deliberative Practices
Like the diverse types of deliberative exercises—from discussion to dramatization to debate—there are equally diverse means to conclude these activities. Any of the following activities can serve as a way to wrap-up deliberation exercises. While there are both advantages and disadvantages listed for each activity, the exercises proposed can prepare students for future participation in deliberative forums.

Voting. Students can vote at the end of a deliberative exercise, endorsing or refutting particular viewpoints.. Disadvantage: Some students might be alienated if they are in the minority. Voting may also give students the impression that "the issue is decided" and they need not continue their deliberation. Advantage: Students get a clear picture of who supports what ideas.

Consensus-building. Students could be asked to come to a consensus on the problem diagnosis, the judgment criteria, and/or a final decision. Consensus could mean "complete" consensus with every person assenting, or could mean a "super-majority" of group members assenting. Disadvantage: Consensus is oftentimes impossible to develop. Teachers facilitating consensus often have to be very skilled at finding points of agreement. The more aggressive or gregarious students can suade classmates into consensus. Advantage: Encouraging students to find a common ground that they can all agree upon, and teaching them about alternative ways in which they can make decisions can provide useful models for future action.

Minority/Majority reports. Much like the Supreme Court, this process of concluding a deliberative exercise would split the class into two parts: a majority and a minority where each group assembles a report to summarize their conclusions. Students can then agree with part of the majority report, part of the minority report, or reports in their entirety. Disadvantage: Necessitates a fair amount of class time to implement. Emphasis on individual response sacrifices collective decision-making. Advantage: Provides students with a complicated model of decision-making that is not necessarily either/or, but explores the shades of grey inherent in all decisions. Encourages small group work and facilitates self-expression of individual viewpoints.

Question and answer. Critical issues can be turned over and further scrutinized by an in-depth question and answer session, either between instructor and students or among the students themselves. This provides an opportunity for some people to involve themselves in the conversation in a way that does not require them to take a defined position on the issue. Disadvantage: Students might not have quality questions to contribute. Students' answers might display evasiveness or ignorance. Advantage: Encourages further class participation. Increases public scrutiny of specific issues through direct interrogation.

Deliberative writing. The task of reflecting on critical issues and translating student thoughts to the written page could be a valuable exercise for students. Students could write about the ways their opinion changed or remained the same, what they found most persuasive, and what decision should be made. This promotes individual, instead of a group, decision-making. Disadvantage: Writing is generally more time-intensive than oral processes. Writing does not usually facilitate oral delivery competencies, though could be used as a starting point for future oral exercises. Advantage: Rewards students who might not have excellent oral competencies but excel at the written word.

Meta-reflection. The reflective turn can be an appropriate conclusion to deliberative activities. Questions can be asked about process (standards of argument, clash of competing perspectives, style, raising of hostilities, whose voice in the classroom was not heard, whose perspective on the issue outside the classroom was not heard) and content (what information is needed to make a decision, what are the critical points of contention. Disadvantage: Fails to provide "practical judgment." Advantage: Encourages consideration of the process of deliberation and assists in improving future deliberation practices.

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(4) Oral Examinations

Oral examinations are a relatively unknown entity for most college instructors and students. Most testing remains of the multiple choice, short answer, or written essay varieties. While volumes abound on why and how to design and implement the above test types, very little material is available on oral examinations. However, for those educators willing to explore less heralded territory, oral examinations can offer a variety of benefits.

Benefits to Oral Examinations
Allows direct, dialogic feedback. Oral exams provide instructors with an excellent opportunity to immediately diagnose and correct any major misconceptions. The face to face dialogue, through which this occurs, as well as the high-level, holistic nature of well written oral questions, creates an intense experience conducive to breakthroughs in student understanding of material. For this reason, oral exams are well suited for final exams, giving instructors one last chance to greatly affect student knowledge.

Encourages in-depth preparation. The unique anxiety associated with both public speaking and testing can provide a powerful impetus for student preparation, especially because good oral examination questions will center on synthesis and overall evaluation of material.

Demands different skills. Students are tested frequently, yet those tests are almost exclusively either written essay exams or standardized tests. Rarely do those students more skilled at making an oral argument than a written one get a chance to display their mastery of course content in the format where they display the most acumen.

Valuable practice for future professional activity. Whether they apply to graduate schools or try the job market, most students will find their futures heavily influenced by brief, stress-filled oral interviews for which they have received little preparation. Oral exams can help students to develop the necessary ability to remain collected while cogently answering difficult questions.

Reduced grading stress. Oral examinations can require severe schedule juggling and the sacrifice of some additional time by the instructor so that each student has an available time to take the test. However, as long as time is taken beforehand to carefully choose grading criteria and design a rubric, these exams offer many of the advantages associated with essay exams, such as developing skill in organization, synthesis, evaluation, and critical thinking, with much less grading hassle.

Oral Communication Assessment Links

Bibliography of Assessment Alternatives

Large Scale Assessment in Oral Communication

The Basic Communication Course in U.S. Colleges and Universities

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Speech Databases

American Rhetoric

Say it plain: A Century of Great African American Speeches

Speeches of Abraham Lincoln

History Channel's Great Speeches Archive

The History Place Great Speeches Collection

Fidel Castro Speech Database

American Leaders Speak: Recordings from WWI and the 1920 Collection

Earliest Voices: A Gallery from the Vincent Voice Library

Speeches of Federal Reserve Board Members

Fireside Chats of Franklin D. Roosevelt

Televised Debate History

History and Politics Out Loud

Inaugural Addresses of Presidents of the United States

Speeches of Lyndon B. Johnson

Speeches of John F. Kennedy

Abraham Lincoln Speeches

Malcolm X: His Words Written and Spoken

The Media Institute's Luncheon Speakers

National Press Club Speeches

Nixon Speeches

OYEZ (Supreme Court Arguments)

Pope John Paul II Speeches

Pope Benedict XVI Speeches

Presidential Addresses

Sermon Central


The Pacifica Radio/UC Berkeley Social Activism Sound Recording Project

Speeches and Speechmakers from University of Iowa

Speeches on Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (US)

Debate Central

Preparing and Delivering Scientific Presentations

Tips for Preparing and Delivering Scientific Talks (The Oceanography Society)

Book from

The Craft of Scientific Presentations (a book with illustrations)

Ten Secrets to Giving a Good Scientific Talk

Communication Center and Speaking Labs

The University of Pittsburgh Oral Communication Lab

National Association of Communication Centers

University of Richmond Speech Center

Hampden-Sydney College Speaking Center

The University of North Carolina Greensboro Speaking Center

Academy of Art University Speaking Lab

Dial Center for Written and Oral Communication

University of Colorado at Colorado Spring Oral Communication Center

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