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Course redesign aims to build better public speakers

April 24, 2008

It’s a class that strikes fear in the hearts of countless college students: public speaking. It’s also a class that hundreds of students from several majors at Arizona State University’s West campus are required to take each year, and it’s being redesigned with help from a grant from the Arizona Board of Regents and coaching from the National Center for Academic Transformation.

“We’re separating the lecture and practice components of the public speaking course to help students get more out of each component,” says Meg McConnaughy, faculty director of public speaking in the Communication Studies Department, part of ASU’s College of Human Services.

The previous model for the CMN 225: Public Speaking course involved a single instructor conducting lectures while also assigning and critiquing speech assignments. Under the new model, now being piloted, some 80 students meet once a week in a lecture section taught by McConnaughy. They are then split into four smaller “lab” sections in which students meet weekly to prepare, practice and deliver speeches and receive audience feedback.

“In these small lab sections, students are engaged in practicing different types of public speaking on a more consistent basis throughout the semester,” says McConnaughy, whose expertise has been noted in recent articles about public speaking by The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. “We can quickly identify students who may be struggling with issues such as public speaking anxiety, and as a team help struggling students manage anxiety issues. Also, we can be more flexible in working with a variety of student learning styles and motivations.”

The redesigned version of CMN 225 includes an innovative feature: the use of highly trained junior- and senior-level students as teaching assistants in the lab sections. Students chosen to be teaching assistants must meet several criteria, including having spent at least two semesters mentoring students in the West campus’s public speaking lab, the Communication Assessment and Learning Lab (CALL).

Teaching assistants undergo extensive training to ensure consistency in speech evaluation, stages of mentoring, and classroom management techniques for their lab sections. Each lab section is staffed by two teaching assistants.

“The teaching assistants working with me this semester are doing an outstanding job,” McConnaughy says. “Their work is accurate and effective, and they have established a rapport with students in their lab sections. This helps them to provide positive feedback while also highlighting areas in which students need to improve their speaking skills.”

“Serving as a teaching assistant has been an amazing opportunity and a positive learning experience for me,” says Matthew Starr, a senior majoring in Life Sciences with a minor in Communication Studies. “I’ve had the chance to help students improve their public speaking skills while I grow as a professional.”

Through the course redesign, McConnaughy’s lecture section has become more focused. Because she doesn’t have to spend time evaluating every student’s speeches, she can test the students more frequently with short quizzes, encouraging them to be more regularly engaged with the course material.

Students in the lecture section use electronic “clickers” to complete class activities and quizzes, so they receive immediate feedback about their progress. “If several students are struggling with a particular concept, I find out about it right away, and I’m able to move quickly to address the problem,” McConnaughy says.

The process of redesigning CMN 225 is being funded through a $41,000 grant from the Arizona Board of Regents’ Learner-Centered Education program. The grant connects faculty projects like McConnaughy’s with the expertise of the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT), an independent, not-for-profit organization that provides leadership in using information technology to redesign learning environments to produce better learning outcomes for students at a reduced cost to the institution.

“Approximately 500 people from all three state universities attended the initial orientation we held to introduce NCAT’s model for course redesign,” says Maryn Boess, grants program manager for the Arizona Board of Regents, which contracted with NCAT to improve learning outcomes in large-enrollment undergraduate courses. “We ultimately selected 13 projects for funding, and this is the only one focusing on a public speaking course.”

The 13 projects are operating within a time-tested course redesign model that NCAT has employed across the country, Boess says. Results of the current process will serve as a model for future course redesign projects at ASU, the University of Arizona, and Northern Arizona University.

Delivering the redesigned public speaking class will cost the Communication Studies Department less money per student than the previous version of the course. “This cost saving will help us on multiple levels,” says Department Chairman Jeff Kassing. “Not only will CMN 225 do a better job of teaching public speaking skills and concepts, but we can use the monetary savings to increase course offerings elsewhere in the department. This is especially helpful in this time of limited budgets.”

Faculty members in ASU’s Department of Communication Studies are committed to exploring the multiple factors that contribute to and detract from human communication. Students who pursue the major engage issues related to communication in organizations, in interpersonal relationships, in public, political, and social situations, and across cultures. They also explore the various communication technologies that continue to evolve and to shape the way we communicate as humans. More information is available at