Aside from, say, "Indominus rex," "oral report" might be the two most daunting words in the English—and, uh, made-up Latin?— language.

There’s something about public speaking that strikes fear in the heart of every human ever. More than spiders. More than snakes. More. Than. Death.

And yet…

We know that good oral communication skills are essential tools for success in basically every aspect of our lives, from interpersonal relationships to landing (and keeping) a job. While these skills may come naturally to some, others will need to work hard to develop them, which means that oral presentations should be on the table when it comes to assessment time. We came up with a little saying for the occasion: "practice makes not vomiting beforehand every time."

Catchy, huh?

It doesn't have to be all oral presentations all the time, of course. Try to work opportunities for students to develop their oral presentation skills in class on a regular basis: working in pairs, participating in small and large group discussions, and offering ideas, proposals, or feedback in a dialogue circle can get peeps on the right track.

When it is time to use an oral presentation as an assessment tool, though, you might as well be prepared.

Build in lots of practice time for students.

When students tackle a new math concept, they complete practice problems before demonstrating their mastery on a test, right? (Unless you're an evil teacher.) And when students write a paper for class, there’s usually a first draft that gets edited—by a teacher, a peer, or the student herself—before the final copy is handed in, yeah?

So when you want students to give an oral presentation, you need to build in a few practice problems or first drafts to put them in a position to succeed when the test—a.k.a, the presentation itself—comes around.

Having students share their introductions or some portion of their presentation with the class in advance is one way to help them get their feet wet. They can also practice their presentations in small groups, with each member of the group offering feedback to the others, or with partners who can help them figure out what’s going well and what's…not.

Yeah, kids are honest.

Not enough? Students can also be encouraged to record themselves using a computer, camera, or phone so that they can critique themselves. Everyone hates seeing and hearing themselves on camera, so it helps them prepare for the nausea to come…or something.

1. Have your students time themselves when they’re practicing.

Whether it’s a mini-presentation in front of the class to prep for the real thing, a quick run through in a small group, a practice run with a partner, or a mock presentation for Dad, encourage students to time themselves. They’ll likely discover one of two things:

  • that they have more material than they thought ("That was three minutes? already?"); or
  • that they need to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n.

Most students, particularly those new to or nervous about oral presentations, talk so quickly that it’s impossible for audience members to take in everything they say. Sure, it may feel to them like the presentation is taking forever and that their rate of speech is perfectly normal, but that’s rarely the case. Pretty much every new public speaker needs to talk more slowly, and then even more slowly, and then more slowly again.

2. Have a rubric ready in advance.

There’s more to giving a good oral presentation than just getting all the words out. Eye contact, visual aids, organization, preparedness, enunciation, knowledge of the material—these are all areas in which a student could be assessed.

If you figure out in advance—possibly with your students—what constitutes a great oral presentation, and make sure everyone understands the definition, that’ll make your students all the more likely to put together something that passes muster.

A good rubric that spells out what it means to do well in each assessment area can help in terms of setting expectations and helping students meet them. Head on over to any of our oral presentation activities in our Online Courses and you'll get a fancy example.

3. Involve your student audience in the assessment process.

Might seem like a cop out, but it's actually a win-win-win situation.

First, it helps you on the assessment end, particularly if they’re filling out rubrics, too. You can average the student totals and, if they seem spot on, use their numbers for grades. Assessment done. If they’re a little off, you can always throw out the outliers or give each student two scores—one from you and one from their peers.

Second, it will get your students thinking about what makes a good presentation good (and what makes a not-so-good one…not so good). And that can help them become better presenters themselves. Critical thinking skills—they’re what’s for dinner.

And third, it will help the audience stay engaged, which will, in turn, help presenters give better presentations. No one wants to present to a group of people who are yawning or sneaking looks at their phones. Of course, your students would never behave this way (ahem), but giving them something to focus on during the presentation that will actually keep them focused on the presentation? Never a bad idea.

4. Have "no ums, uhs, ahs, or likes" contests in class.

Challenge students to talk about a subject—any subject—for 30 seconds without saying "um," "uh," or "ah,"—or worst of all, the dreaded "like." Use a timer and a buzzer or squeaker like the ones used in the game Taboo. When someone utters one of the off-limit syllables, buzz them and give the next student a turn. When they get good at these, add other overused ("whatever," for example) words to the mix.

These little practice sessions can be used as class warm-ups, wrap-ups, or to inject a change of pace into the middle of the period. Played like a game, and played over and over, it will be a fun and non-threatening way for students to practice their public-speaking skills.

Getting students comfortable with public speaking won't just land 'em an A on the assessment; it'll also help them later in life.

Plus, then they can get back to fearing death.