UNBC class uses terrible talks to teach presentation skills

For the shy pupil and even experts, presentations can be the bane of an otherwise engaging academic experience.

Public speaking isn't a natural skill and can often be an assignment students suffer through rather than learn from. But rather than accepting that reality as one of the perils of post-secondary education, a University of Northern B.C. class used it as a teaching opportunity.

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"Recognizing that public speaking often induces fear, a more positive, out-of-the-box approach could ease students into developing presentation skills," wrote Heather Smith, Amy Blanding and Kealin McCabe in a piece for Faculty Focus, an online publication about effective teaching strategies for the college classroom.

So, this January the three tried to come up with something truly awful to ultimately impart a lesson about better ways to transfer knowledge.

They called it the Worst Lecture Competition.

It was inspired by a long-gone campus-wide event launched by then math professor, Lee Keener, and they unleashed their very worst on a first-year class in Integrated Analytical Skills and Knowledge.

Smith, the director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning Technology, said the inspiration was two-fold.

"First, we wanted to work on students' presentation skills but presentations can be intimidating for anyone. So, our starting point was to do something that showed them that they have the ability to assess what was an effective presentation," she said, and second,tying into UNBC's history with worst lectures too as a learning tool.

"I figured we could adapt that to the classroom," Smith said by email.

"Effective oral skills, well-designed presentations, and quality feedback are attributes that employers typically want from graduates," the three wrote. "However, these skills are often expected to exist without appropriate support and training."

To prepare, they identified characteristics of the worst presentations and embodied those characters as best they could - to not-so-subtly- teach their soon-to-be-horrified listeners what not to do.

Blanding, a UNBC masters student, might have had a bit of a leg up. She's quite comfortable on the stage as one of the singers in Black Spruce Bog, and more importantly excelled in for her recent performance in the musical Evil Dead in October.

In the classroom, she posed as a "pretentious, arrogant, and unsupportive astrophysics professor," and pored over dense slides that she read directly from rather than engaging with the content or people in the room.

"She didn't make eye contact with audience members, displayed closed-off body language, spoke in a monotone voice, and exhibited zero passion for teaching.

The content proved to be her expertise, but that was it," the group said in a summary written for Faculty Focus.

Afterwards, Smith said she thought the experiment was fun for everybody.

"What's most important is that the students clearly showed that they were able to give effective feedback on our lectures. It showed them that if they can assess our horrible lectures, then they also have the ability to design effective ones for themselves," Smith said.

Smith sees an opportunity for the technique to be used again in the classroom, at the Annual UNBC-CNC Teaching and Learning Conference in the fall, and maybe - just maybe - as a campus-wide event again.

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