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In one of the courses I'm teaching this semester, each student has to give a 20-minute in-class presentation of a paper relevant to the topic of each class. One of the students has approached me asking to be excused for this requirement, on the grounds that she is terrified of having to speak in front of others. She is willing to do an alternative assignment that doesn't involve a presentation; more significantly, I think, is the fact when I pressed her a bit about this, she seemed willing to straight up forgo this assignment and get a zero grade for this particular part of the course. Conversations I've had with other faculty who have had her in previous courses confirm that she is, in fact, a good enough student that she should be able to properly understand the kinds of papers we are reading in this course. So, this seems to be a genuine anxiety problem.

Given that I had my own mental issues way back when I was an undergrad, I know that a just-suck-it-up type of attitude on my part is likely to cause more problems than it solves. I'm willing to accommodate her request for an alternative assignment. On the other hand, there are two reasons why I'm in principle against this decision. First, it is unfair to the rest of the students (and also, it might get me a reputation as a lecturer that students can sway). Second, giving her an extra assignment effectively amounts to kicking the can down the road: the more she delays dealing with her problem, the harder it will become to solve, and chances are that the kind of environments she will encounter after graduation will not be as speaker-friendly as my class is.

How would you proceed here?

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    I am looking forward to the answers to this. Even more fundamentally, I would be interested where other teachers draw the line between "I am uncomfortable doing presentations" (to which most people would answer "great, now you can practice in a lower-risk environment") and "I have a real public speaking anxiety" (where it, as you say, seems unreasonable and counter-productive to ask the student to just suck it up). – xLeitix Feb 2 '15 at 10:22
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    A friend of mine with this problem struggled in university. On entering the (much less tolerant) workplace, she visited a doctor and found that beta blockers helped diminish the physical symptoms of the panic/anxiety for her. Now she takes one before she has to give a presentation and she is able to function. (I'm not suggesting that you give your student medical advice, just sharing this story to show that there's hope.) – ff524 Feb 2 '15 at 10:29
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    To go along with @ff524's comment, you may want to check with your university's student support services to see what support they can provide for this. There are many classes that require presentations, so they should have at least something in place. – Kimball Feb 2 '15 at 11:38
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    Clearly not a good situation. There is a difference between an assignment being difficult and it being mentally scarring. – Koldito Feb 2 '15 at 13:08
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    In Austria students with long term disease have the legal right to request a different mode for their exams and lab works. (UG 2002 §59(1)11). One of the examples given by our university, the Vienna UT, is to allow students with a social phobia to write a state of the art report instead of giving a talk in front of class. Depending on where you are located, there might also be a legal basis for working with such students. – BDL Feb 2 '15 at 15:06

11 Answers 11

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Fear of speaking in public is common. It is one of the major symptoms of social phobia. I'll work on the assumption that your student has diagnosed or undiagnosed SP (I used to work on SP data.)

SP is very amenable to classical cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). You are a teacher, not a therapist. I would counsel against "rolling your own" therapy program. Instead, refer the student to on-campus counseling and strongly encourage her to seek professional help. As others write, the need to present will not go away; neither at college nor at the workplace. And college is probably the best place to start therapy. To repeat: this is a good point in time to start working on this; encourage your student to do so with a therapist.


So, that's the long-term answer I'd give. However, even if CBT frequently shows effects rather quickly in SP, your student will likely not have progressed far enough in her therapy to actually present her paper by the time she should. So you will likely need to make some kind of accommodation. I'd recommend that you contact your university's student service. There likely are some sort of guidelines on how to deal with such an issue - you probably are not the first professor to be confronted with this.

If you are afraid of getting a reputation as a professor who can be swayed, there are different ways around this:

  1. You could require an official diagnosis of SP, or whatever doctor's communication your local privacy laws permit. In this, you could let yourself be guided by what kind of paperwork is required for a student to skip and retake an exam for medical reasons. (Student services could again be helpful here.)
  2. You could make sure that the "alternative assignment" is not a bonus, but does add significant work to the student's workload. I personally would be careful here, since you don't want to penalize her for her disability.

That said, if the student does take your recommendation and starts therapy, it is quite possible that her therapist would assign making at least some kind of presentation as a piece of "homework" for her. Apart from possible confidentiality issues (your student may opt for waiving these, so you could talk directly to her therapist), this could allow you to help her much more than just doing a short-term fix. It may be worthwhile pointing this out to her. After all, you are willing to go to an effort to help her - her next professor or her employer may be less accommodating.

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    Oops. Um... thanks for accepting so quickly, but seeing an accepted answer might discourage others from answering. Perhaps you want to un-accept and see which answer is best in a day or so? – Stephan Kolassa Feb 2 '15 at 14:31
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    Eh, well, if an answer is good, it's good, but I'll do as you suggest. – Koldito Feb 2 '15 at 16:27
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    Requiring a diagnosis is a great idea - it both makes sure that any students saying this do have a genuine problem (which sounds true in her case, but for consistency helps guard against "oh yeah me too" students), and puts them on the right track to getting help (because it's not like the doctor's going to say, "Yep, you have social anxiety (or whatever). Now you know. Bye!"). – starsplusplus Feb 2 '15 at 16:57
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    Allowing her to replace it with something else if she has a doctor's (or psychologist's) note seems like an excellent solution to me, because it moves the burden of diagnosing whether this is a genuine mental health issue onto a medical / mental health professional. And as @starsplusplus says, it puts her on the right path for getting treatment, while also giving you a straightforward and fair way to 'draw the line' with other students. – A E Feb 3 '15 at 14:04
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Could you get her to do the assignment, where she still has to present her work, but to a much smaller group; perhaps even to just yourself and another lecturer? That way she is still tackling the problem, but in a manner that will hopefully not seem so daunting to her.

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    +1. This could be a good alternative assignment, while keeping the pedagogics of actually doing a presentation. – Davidmh Feb 2 '15 at 14:44
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    A prerecorded video presentation would be another option along these lines. – Noah Snyder Feb 3 '15 at 5:21
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It sounds from your question that the students give a single in-class presentation in the entire semester.

I like the idea of in-class presentations a lot, mostly because presenting is a very important skill going forward, particularly in academia and (I imagine) also in industry. Unfortunately in many fields (such as mine - mathematics) students don't really do much presenting in the course of their majors necessarily. This is of course an excellent reason to require in-class presentations! But since students don't get practice or training in this, your single in-class presentation might be the first one they ever give and that's understandably scary for many people.

My solution to this in a class this semester was to include 2-3 short (5-10 min) in-class presentations through the semester leading to a final 20-min presentation at the end of the semester. The short presentations are meant to be low stakes and formative - the students will get lots of feedback from me and their peers (anonymously) and the topics will be easier (relatively accessible material from their textbook). The short presentations are also progressively stricter, e.g. In the first presentation I just want them to see what it's like at the blackboard, in the second I'm going to harp on timing more, in the third focus more on generating interest in the audience, and so on. They're low stakes in the sense that while they are worth a total of 10% of their final grade, they get those 10% as long as they present and give feedback (this allows me to be more nitpicky in my grading of their homeworks too...)

The goal is that when it's time for the final presentations, which are worth a not-insignificant amount of their final grade, they'll have had a lot of practice and will be able to do themselves justice.

(I should admit this is my first semester trying this and I've never seen this strategy used before, but I think it makes sense and I have high hopes, but also crossed fingers).

In any case it's easier to convince someone to give a 5 min presentation than a 30 min one, and I believe that for a lot of people the anxiety in presenting comes from lack of experience. Many of us are also aware that presenting is an important skill and might appreciate getting feedback and the chance to improve. It is possibly too late for you to do this this semester, but perhaps something to consider in the future.

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    One thing important with "progressively stricter" grading, is to make it clear to students that they need to take your suggestions for improvement seriously, as although it didn't penalize them significantly early on, it will later. – AaronLS Feb 3 '15 at 3:17
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You question says the class requires a presentation. In my mind a class on public speaking might require a presentation as there is likely no way for students to meet a reasonable set of learning objectives without the presentation. From you description it sounds like the requirement is because of how you structured the class or decided on the grading. Most universities require reasonable accommodations to be made for students with known issues. In the first case, there may not be a reasonable accommodation. In the second case there are likely a number of reasonable accommodations.

Making reasonable accommodations does not mean students will think you are a push over. In fact, when an alternative assignment is used as an accommodation it can be, and often is, much more difficult than the standard assignment. This is not because the student is being penalised, but rather because the primary assignment is the most efficient way to meet the learning objective and therefore the alternative assignment takes more work.

When I receive a referral from my university's academic services asking me to make reasonable accommodations regarding presentations, I provide the student with an alternative assignment. For that assignment they must create the presentations slides, write a script of what they would say, create 5 potential questions and short answers, and write an extended structured abstract regarding the presentation. Then after I look at the presentation and script, they must write short answers on up to 5 additional questions that I give them.

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I've dealt with substantive (not crippling) social anxiety as a student from middle school through the public presentation of my masters' thesis in front of a couple hundred people, as an artist, and as a student teacher. This is less of an answer than testimony. I will meander a bit, covering my experiences, what worked for me, how I applied to my own course design, and some ideas for dealing with your situation.

My Experiences

I had my first panic attack in middle school when I was called up to the front of the room to do push-ups after smarting off. I was a mess (bright red, heart racing, couldn't breathe normally, couldn't stop crying, sweating, shaking.) I've luckily never had it so bad again, but even up through undergrad I have big holes in my memory of presentations, speeches, or anything that left me in the spotlight. We are stuck in a paradox. We desperately need more experience giving presentations we're probably never going to feel like giving. The biggest point I can make is that, in my experience, the situation could go roughly 3 ways:

  1. Despite my discomfort, I perform to the best of my ability, avoid completely losing my place or getting so nervous I can't speak/read/etc. I have no strong sense of how well I've done, because every little mistake, tremor and quiver in my voice are magnified in my body. Observers may or may not notice; I have no clue. Ironically, I desperately need people to engage (read: not confront!) me about the presentation's topic and what I've said afterwards. I don't need things like, "you did well!" because I can't trust you not to protect me; I need engagement I can use as a proxy to assess how well I communicated. As I absorb the event, I learn that future presentations of this complexity or easier are something I can survive.

  2. In my perception, I am overcome by the anxiety. I may have had to stop to compose myself, re-state something multiple times because my voice is quivering, transfer my speaking materials to an object more stable than my own hand. But, in reality I still managed to cover most of what I was there to say. I am alive, but the disaster I perceive to have happened is going to obliterate my ability to self-evaluate. When I calm down, meaningful engagement about the presentation, if it was indeed understandable, can help give me some less-biased data to stack against the first-hand experience. This doesn't really increase my long-run confidence in my ability to speak effectively, but it can help provide some small assurance that the world doesn't really care if I give a mediocre presentation.

  3. I hit the point where I am too overcome by anxiety for any emotional/mental/physical coping mechanisms or crutches to get me back on track before I spiral out into panic. I'm going to need to leave; my body is too far outside of my own control for me to regain my composure over any reasonable timeframe with other people around.


What helped and how I applied it as an instructor

I suspect preparation varies per person, but what has helped me the most is resisting the temptation to prepare and memorize a speech. While this is how I was taught to present, attempting to relay anything verbatim (aside from quotes or anything else I will literally be reading) is perilous, because no amount of prep will help me find the words once the anxiety starts taking over. All of my time will have been spent preparing to say something a single fragile way, which is the wrong task. I will never feel confident in this task, because I know how easily it can get derailed.

Instead, my goal is to know what I need to say so thoroughly that I don't need to know exactly how I'll say it. I talk all the time with one or a few people about things I find interesting. Sometimes at great length. I'm trying to make presenting or giving a talk as similar as I can to this other thing I can do just fine.

I usually write a short paper which covers everything I want to say, and then decompose it and other source materials into a single stream of documentation to lead me through my points. Sometimes this means taking a source text I'll be talking about and filling it with Post-it notes and notecards; sometimes this is just a single printed document with block-quotes, marginalia, and directions to myself. From here, I spend a few hours trying to ad-lib the discussion from my notes without reading from the original paper. It doesn't always come together, but my goal is usually being able to ad-lib the discussion at least three times without getting stuck or missing anything. In this phase I may end up phrasing the same points dozens of ways.

When I got the chance to teach (freshmen!) I tried to apply what has helped me to my policy on presentations. I built three short/low-risk presentations into the course. The grading was quite generous. I permitted powerpoint, but discouraged it. I encouraged my students to come prepared to talk at slowly-increasing length about three different phases of their semester project without preparing a speech. The presentation counted as part of the grade for the assignment each was paired with, and the total number of points it contributed meant that the only way it penalized your assignment grade was if you didn't try; from there, presentations earned bonus on the assignment. In class, I let them know I sympathized strongly with not wanting to present, explained how the grading rubric was structured to give them a reason to present without the stakes being high, and assured them I was far more interested in rewarding them for talking to us about what they were working on than in penalizing them for how it went.


Addressing your problem

Others have well-covered encouraging the student to get help; I'll go in other directions. I try to shoot for policies that are flexible and anyone can take advantage of without questions. I would avoid letting the student off without doing anything unpalatable, but try to give them some agency in the tradeoff.

  1. Offer to hear and give feedback on presentations for all students during office hours, or at some other time before each presentation. You might even make them to talk to you about what all they plan to cover before they give it a go. Consider requiring all students who want any alternative accommodation you make available to take you up on this.
  2. Offer full credit for presenting to the class, X% (85?) credit for presenting to you and a smaller group of students, and Y% (70?) for presenting to you one-on-one. The group option can either be a pre-registered group of the like-minded, or can be folded into a group activity day that requires everyone to practice their presentations, while some students opt to let you grade them then.
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First of all, any human being that I know, including myself, have public speak anxiety issue to some extend; at any level of their professional life. However please speak to the university students service in this matter; to make sure they offer the student to get the help he/she is needed, by referring him/her to a professional; and tackle any background mental issue he/she is having for public speaking.

In general to tackle this public speaking anxiety issue for all the students, I would recommend the following; to equalize the preparation stage, from your end, as much as possible:

Before Presentation

Make a Template: Because they are undergraduate student, I would put a presentation template on the course websites with some guidelines. This will save you loads of time, both for you (how to judge and mark each student) and students (make them to focus on the content and not the cosmetics). So for a 20 minute talk about a paper, I would put up the following guideline:

     Title: Name of the paper/author/speaker; with the university logo. 
     Outline: The overview of the paper. 
     Problem statement: What is the problem. 
     Aim: Aim of the approach. 
     Contribution: Contains the paper's contribution. 
     Conclusion: What is the conclusion here, for the paper and the problem it tried to solve.
     Future work (Optional): What will be their future work; and if you do agree with the authors of the paper. 
     Questions: Answer any question in the audience. 

Time Allocation: One fun thing I do before the students presentation, is to ask each student to write their name in a piece of paper and fold it. Then I draw the names, and start allocating the time to them. So they know there is no intention behind my decision on who goes first or last.

Organizing the slides: Tell students to send you their presentations 48 hours before the actual presentation. This way you can put all their slides on one laptop, so they don't need to waste time switching laptops during their presentations and destroying the flow; and creates unnecessary stress for students, because their USB can not be read by their machines.

Presentation Day

Little More Formal Than Usual: Before the presentation starts, tell the students to respect others and their effort to present a paper. This way, other students know better not to hackle or crack jokes while their fellow classmates try to explain something (I learned this the hard way).

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    Here you have to trust your judgment and see if the student does have a mental state that make it impossible for him/her to give a presentation — Bad idea. I'm not trained to diagnose anxiety disorders, and neither are most faculty. On the other hand, most campuses employ professionals that evaluate students' need for other kinds of accommodation. This seems like a job for them. – JeffE Feb 2 '15 at 11:33
  • The template is an excellent idea. But @JeffE is right that professors are not qualified to diagnose disorders. – Alexandros Feb 2 '15 at 11:47
  • @Alexandros Ok updating the answer right now. – o-0 Feb 2 '15 at 12:02
  • @JeffE Thanks for the comment, updated the answer. – o-0 Feb 2 '15 at 12:18
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    "tell the students to respect others and their effort to present a paper." I go so far as to grade the students on their audience behavior and performance. That also let's me insure some questions because everyone is required to ask at least one relevant and interesting question of one of the speakers. – dmckee Feb 3 '15 at 1:22
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As JeffE's comment alludes, In situations where a student has a disability that may interfere with their ability to do an assignment, you should tell the student to go to the disabilities office. The experts there can come up with a plan. That will also get the student in contact with people who can suggest help, and will help out down the road if this comes up for the student again.

  • Note that not all universities have that office, or it is not functional. – Davidmh Feb 3 '15 at 9:52
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For what it's worth, gradually approaching such "obstacles" can be a great way. You can split students into pairs, small groups, etc., until students are presenting to greater and greater numbers of their peers.

Really, all presentations are one-on-one, even if there are 300 people in the audience, it's still one-on-one (just 300 times).

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    your last comment is just not right. I can present to hundreds, even thousands of people without fear or anxiety. However presenting to a group of 5 or less I find very scary indeed. There is clearly a significant difference between the two no matter which side makes you anxious. – Kate Gregory Feb 3 '15 at 22:00
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Most universities in the US have an office for students with medical issues (/disabilities), and they can go there to get academic accommodations. For instance, some students get extra time on tests, or are allowed to use a computer to write essay exams.

Generally the policy is the student doesn't tell the professor what disability they have. Instead they go to the disabilities office, and get a note telling the professor which accommodations they need.

If you teach at such a university, you should tell your student to go through the official channels, and provide the accommodations required by the school.

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The fear of public speaking to this extent is a medical disorder. You should treat it just like any other medical disorder that requires accommodations.

We have an office that clears and manages all such requests. If it were my student, I'd ask the student to work through that office to document the situation, and then work with the student and that office to come up with a suitable accommodation. My preference might be to ask the student if a one-on-one presentation would be acceptable and not elicit a fear response, but I'd certainly take input from the pros.

It isn't your place to encourage or discourage the student from seeking help. I would hope that through the documentation process that any counselor called upon to evaluate the situation would make it known what the options are for help.

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If they are willing to forgo any marks from the assignment, give them zero and move on.

You are a lecturer, not a babysitter. If the student hasn't taken it upon themselves to speak to anyone to get a diagnosis, and is unwilling to attempt the project, then they deserve nothing more and nothing less. Note, I'm not suggesting that you don't offer an alternate assignment, just do not do so lightly and without proof. It seems like the student has done this previously to other lecturers, yet has no evidence of a condition that would prevent them from speaking publicly.

Public speaking is unavoidable in almost all avenues of life, academic, professional or personal.

If you give them an alternate assignment, other student can, quite rightly, complain about unfairness.

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    I'm not going to downvote this answer, but I disagree with it. I see myself as an educator rather than a lecturer, and that implies being open to bend the rules (to a certain extent) to help students with problems. If this students was saying "I can't be bothered to do this", then yes, she'd get a zero. This is a different situation. – Koldito Feb 3 '15 at 8:18
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    The student in question is asking to avoid learning one of the skills the course is aiming to teach (giving a presentation) would you even consider bending the rules if they were asking to avoid one of your other teaching objectives? – Jack Aidley Feb 3 '15 at 9:38
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    The student seems to have a serious problem that blocks her from learning an important skill. I think the right thing for a lecturer is to try to fix it. If the student is willing to get a 0 on that part, she is obviously terrified of public speaking. – Davidmh Feb 3 '15 at 9:49
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    @LegoStormtroopr so then it would be best if the teacher supports the student in getting the problem diagnosed and recognized. – StrongBad Feb 3 '15 at 13:30
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    If public speaking isn't being addressed why should any student have tp do it? – user20640 Feb 3 '15 at 20:02

protected by ff524 Feb 3 '15 at 10:22

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