University of Wisconsin–Madison

Incorporating the Oral Communication Component

Rebecca Schoenike Nowacek (Writing Across the Curriculum)

In order to meet the oral communication requirements of Comm-B courses, many instructors encourage students to participate in class discussions and sometimes require students to lead class discussions. Such active participation in class discussion encourages students to think critically about course material and to synthesize this new material with their previously-held beliefs and knowledge.

Instructors frequently overlook, however, the benefits of more formal types of oral communication assignments. Formal oral communication assignments do not replace, but instead supplement, the more informal, daily types of oral participation that most instructors already seek to facilitate in their classes. The value of these more formal assignments is not simply that students will leave Comm-B and writing-intensive courses better equipped to articulate their ideas in formal and professional contexts. Although that ability can be extremely valuable for students in the long run, formal speaking assignments can also be immediately valuable for students and course instructors. How? In order to speak formally, students generally need to prepare their thoughts in advance, and in doing so they increase the time they spend reading and mastering course material outside the classroom.

In short, different types of speaking assignments—like different writing assignments—encourage different levels of formality and out-of-class preparation. The list below is intended to suggest the range of purposes oral communication assignments might serve in your course.


1.) High Degree of Formality and Out-of-Class Preparation

  • Debate
  • Trial
  • Presentation of research results

These assignments, particularly the in-class debates and trials, encourage students to think carefully about choosing convincing evidence, presenting it persuasively, and anticipating counter-arguments—concerns that can also assist them when writing papers. If you choose to give these types of assignments, you might build in a way to reflect on these issues. Formal presentations, often made during the final weeks of classes, can also lead students to reflect on what types of evidence are most convincing. But beware, if your students don’t have much experience with formal in-class presentations and have received little coaching about how to compose and deliver an effective presentation, you may be disappointed with the quality of the presentations. In order to avoid such disappointments, be sure to build in time and guidelines for preparation and be prepared to establish for students the structure of a debate, trial, or formal presentation.


2.) Significant Degree of Formality and Out-of-Class Preparation

  • Student- or group-led discussions on readings, writings, or other course material
  • Role-play
  • Performance

Many instructors require students to lead discussion for a class period, finding that it increases their mastery of the material and their commitment to participating actively in discussions. Most students, however, are not experienced in leading discussions and will benefit from meeting with you beforehand to discuss their plans. Another oral communication assignment that encourages significant out-of-class preparation is a role-playing assignment: each student takes on the perspective of a particular philosophy, historical figure, character, theorist, or author. The entire class, then, works together to put those perspectives in dialogue—an exercise particularly valuable at the end of a unit or semester. Some instructors choose more academic settings for these role-plays (like a town hall meeting or professional think-tank) and others choose less academic but perhaps more familiar settings (like a daytime talk show). Whatever the setting, many instructors find it useful to guide students’ preparation with a worksheet that guides students to consider various dimensions of their author/character/philosophy and find that they need to serve as a moderator to make sure all students are participating. Finally, some instructors choose to assign a short passage of a book or play, requiring students to make—and clearly represent—choices about how to interpret that particular passage. These performance assignments are generally most successful when the instructor has already guided students in a comparative analysis of different actors or directors interpreting passages.


3.) Relatively Small Degree of Formality and Little Out-of-Class Preparation

  • Peer review groups in which students share drafts and give each other oral feedback
  • Small-group discussion
  • “Work in progress” presentations (one to two minutes) to present paper topics, new ideas, or interesting research to the entire class
  • Open mic readings of finished work to share and to celebrate work accomplished

These assignments, because they are less formal, are often considerably less stressful for students and may be incorporated into classroom activities on a more regular basis. Although most students need to learn to work successfully in peer review groups, almost all students are easily able to participate in small-group discussions or give two-minute presentations to inform their fellow students about some aspect of their research. Through such work, students learn from one another and build relationships. Students who are feeling blocked or stuck in their writing often find that hearing about other students’ papers helps them to generate their own ideas. Similarly, student presenters can often clarify their own ideas significantly when they attempt to communicate them orally to their peers. Regular participation in oral activities like these may also help students feel more prepared to undertake more formal speaking assignments.


4.) Almost No Formality or Out-of-Class Preparation

  • Participation in class discussion
  • Sharing journals or informal writing in class

These most common activities are the foundation of all other oral communication assignments and serve not only to develop oral communication skills, but critical thinking skills as well. Although some students are reluctant to participate in discussions, by talking with students about their preferences (Do they prefer to be called on even when they don’t have a hand up? Will they commit to volunteering a comment at least once a week in order to avoid being called on? Do they prefer to read from a journal rather than speak impromptu?) and facilitating a respectful classroom environment, instructors can encourage even the most reluctant students to join the classroom conversations—a benefit for them and for the class as a whole.