Helping Students Overcome Presentation Anxiety

Traci Levy describes how recasting the format into a more manageable setup may ease student stress and nervousness as well as foster their education and skills.

March 23, 2022
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We’ve all watched the scene in teen movies: a terrified student has to present in front of the class. The student freezes or panics. The class erupts into jeers and laughter.

Fortunately, students in my introductory politics class at Adelphi University don’t go that far. But they still don’t like presentation days, often turning into uncomfortable, flustered bundles of nerves before their classmates. Many times, they talk too fast or blunder through their hard work, losing their classmates’ attention along the way.

Sound familiar? Recasting the presentation format into a more manageable setup may ease student stress and foster more effective presentations. That’s what I found from classroom experimentation over several semesters.

As my students have said, their presentation anxiety arises largely from fear. So I imagined how I might reorganize to mitigate that worry, weighing different ways people give presentations: standing, sitting, arranging themselves behind a table, walking and talking, and so forth.

The antidote I’ve developed—the Presentation Cafe—positions student presenters around tables, one in each corner of the room. At every table, a group of three makes a presentation while three to six other students listen and ask questions. That lets students gather and engage in smaller clusters.

I chose the experience precisely because it evokes a cafe, where friends sit around tables and talk with ease. In my rendering, the research shared by presenters takes the place of croissants and coffee as the food for thought.

Upsides and Downsides

How does it work? On Presentation Cafe days, I divide the class into presentation slots, scheduling three or four groups, depending on class size, to present simultaneously. Each presenting group makes its presentation a few times. Students who are listening circulate among the tables, eventually hearing all of that day’s presentations.

The advantages I’ve discovered have a few dimensions. First, students enthusiastically and almost unanimously seem to prefer sitting around a table and presenting to smaller groups rather than 15 to 22 other students. Out of 40 students between the two sections of this class that I have taught, 38 preferred this approach, one wasn’t sure and one sheepishly admitted he liked standing in front of a class. He’s perhaps a natural politician in the making—but truly the exception to the rule.

Second, by giving their presentation three times in one day, students can practice and improve their oral presentation skills. I’ve circulated to catch at least part of every group’s presentation each time. Most students have made improvements in pacing, length and even content in subsequent presentations. They’ve also seemed more relaxed and confident with each presentation.

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Third, students have scored higher on our class assessment question that was related to the presentation material. I’ve tested students on part of the information several weeks later in an essay on an exam. My department collects data on this question for assessment purposes. Correlation isn’t necessarily causation, and multiple factors could be at play with the higher scores. Still, I’ve been happy to see that a smaller percentage of students have scored “unsatisfactory,” while more have scored in the “satisfactory” and “superior” assessment ranges. That’s compared to previous semesters, when I used a traditional presentation method.

This presentation setup has worked well even with students presenting and listening wearing masks due to COVID safety rules. In fact, it’s probably worked better since presenters haven’t had to project their voice across the room.

Does this approach work in online synchronous classes? It’s easy to group students in breakout rooms on virtual platforms like Zoom. In fact, now that some Zoom settings even allow students to choose and switch between breakout rooms, this strategy is more practical than ever in online classes. From my experience, however, it’s harder to circulate as efficiently between online breakout groups. I can’t visually scan the room to see when students are starting or ending their presentations.

Admittedly, this approach has some potential downsides, even for in-person classes. Although every group can see most other presentations, they can’t see them all. I could remedy this issue by assigning more presentation days. However, time is precious, and the number of days I’ve assigned has worked well for my students.

It may also be harder for a professor to notice points that might need to be clarified or corrected. Even though I circulate throughout the room, hearing parts of all presentations, students can sometimes make mistakes. In the future, I plan to grade the papers and return feedback before students deliver their presentations to minimize the likelihood that they present any incorrect or confusing information.

All in all, however, with students less anxious, presentations improved and attendance and assessment scores up, the Presentation Cafe will be a regular feature of some of my classes. Maybe next time, I’ll even bring croissants.

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Traci Levy is associate professor of political science and director of the gender and sexuality studies program at Adelphi University. Before gaining tenure, she was the 2005–06 recipient of Adelphi’s Teaching Excellence Award for nontenured faculty. She is also the designer of The Challenge and Inequality of Care, an extended role-playing game about informal caregiving in the United States.

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