Speaking Across the University: Some Practical Suggestions for the Classroom

by Jeremy McInerney

Undergraduates, so it is sometimes said, would rather die than face speaking to a public audience. Yet, as more and more teachers moves away from simple chalk and talk, more and more students find themselves having to speak publicly. Whether making a PowerPoint presentation to a Wharton class or presenting a seminar paper in the General Honours program, students are now regularly required to speak effectively and persuasively.

Ben Franklin understood the importance of oral communication when he quoted from John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education: "To speak and write correctly gives a grace, and gains a favourable attention to what one has to say." That dictum was first adopted by the Penn Writing Center. Now it can also serve as the banner for Penn's newest educational initiative, Speaking Across the University (SATU).

The SATU program is designed to help students overcome their fear of public speaking and to encourage the kind of correct and graceful speech that Franklin valued. Is this really necessary? Well, if you have ever required your students to present a report in class you've probably experienced the student who is unclear about how to organize material in a logical manner, unable to generate any enthusiasm in the audience, or unsure about what the significance of the exercise may be. We train our students as writers to prepare, organize and polish their work, but we abandon them as speakers, leaving them to flounder. We get the results we deserve, but that's about to change.

The heart of the SATU program is a cadre of Penn's brightest and most articulate students. For two semesters now I have had the opportunity to work with about thirty of the best undergraduate speakers at Penn as they train to become SATU advisors. Originally I expected nothing more than the pleasure of teaching a group of bright undergraduates. What I didn't expect was that I would stumble across what turns out to be one of Penn's hidden treasures, a group of motivated, fiercely intelligent students who are ready to help improve the standard of undergraduate education at Penn.

How? Well, in large measure that depends on the faculty. The SATU program is not meant to stand alone, but will work best if it is integrated into every class. Just as you factor written assignments into your classes, I'd like to suggest that you start making speech a formal, assessed component as well. Here are some suggestions on how you can use SATU:

  • Assessment. Replace at least one written exercise with an oral report. Allocate a percentage of the final course grade to the assignment, and set aside a portion of class time, or perhaps a series of sessions for the presentation and grading of oral reports.
  • Expect more. Emphasize the same criteria for good speaking that SATU teaches: preparation, organization and delivery. If your students know that you take communication seriously, both oral and written, they'll start looking for ways to improve.
  • A gentle nudge. Require each of your students to book in for a consultation with a SATU advisor at the SATU offices in Bennett Hall for help with their oral reports. SATU advisors will help your students organize their material, give them tips on more effective speaking and prepare them for their formal presentations.
  • Call SATU. Arrange with SATU for a specific advisor to be appointed for your class. This is especially effective if you are teaching a class of twenty or fewer. Students can work with the same advisor over the course of the whole semester. Even if your class has many sections and more than one TA, SATU has the resources to work with each section.
  • Live dangerously. Use SATU as the jumping board for trying new approaches to teaching and learning. Interviews, video reports, and PowerPoint may be effective ways of gathering information or presenting it, but students need help mastering these. SATU advisors can work with your students to practice the skills they need to work in front of the camera or to coordinate a team presentation. (The SATU offices have video equipment and SATU advisors are video-taped as part of their training. If you think hearing your own voice on tape is horrifying, try seeing yourself in glorious Technicolor!)
  • Open up. Invite SATU advisors to watch your class. These students are exceptionally perceptive and may be able to offer tips on how to improve the informal discussions that are so integral to good learning.

One of the most attractive features of SATU is that it is largely staffed and implemented by undergraduate students.

Bringing SATU advisors to your class to advertise the program demonstrates our support for the principle of cooperative learning. Our students can teach each other and we can learn from them as well. If our students learn to be better speakers along the way we all win.


Dr. McInerney is Associate Professor of Classical Studies and chair of the Graduate Group in the Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World. His essay continues the Talk About Series into its sixth year as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching. It is a companion to a series contribution of Professor Joseph Farrell that introduced SATU in Almanac January 19, 1999.

Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 8, October 19, 1999