Presentations – like crits and groupwork – will be unfamiliar to many international students, culturally alien to some and disturbing because of the pressures on language that they raise. Presentations will also create high anxiety in many SpLD students, those with mental health issues and those who have difficulties with planning, memory or word finding.

Home students may have had some lessons in presentation skills; most international students probably won’t. The experience may be particularly intimidating for the latter since presentations may not be a common requirement in their educational system; they may be further inhibited by language difficulties. All students are likely to be anxious at some point, as Barnett points out in his seminal book A Will to Learn (2007), and the neurodiverse particularly so (Jones, 2019); many students will have mental health difficulties that may be exacerbated by presentations.

How can you help?

Explain that presentations play a significant part in the course, that oral literacy is an important complement to visual and written literacy; it is also a valuable skill to acquire for interviews and meetings in the workplace afterwards.

Give some basic how-to guidelines and advice, but make it clear that students need to develop their own style: ‘Everyone’s skills have to be moulded to their personality’ (Levin and Topping, 2006:3).

Encourage students who do not speak in class to say something very small in every group session so that they get used to hearing their own voice. (‘I agree’, would be sufficient for a start.) Do not call on them to speak, however; let them find their own opportunities.

The following programs may be helpful for dealing with anxiety:

For those with word finding difficulties – which may include international students and will certainly include many SpLD students – encourage rehearsing the key/specialist words and cluster them with related words so that, if they cannot find their key word, they have other choices available. If they practise using their target words in sentences, this will help to hold them.

Some students may be relieved to learn that somewhere between 60% and 90% of a communication is nonverbal (University of Texas, 2016).

It is not all language – far from it – and students will need to consider their physical presence, tone of voice and the pacing of their presentations too.

‘Rehearse! Rehearse! Rehearse!’

(Levin & Topping, 2006)

Make it clear to students that they probably won’t have the answers to every question – and that’s fine. You may like to offer them ways to handle the questions for which they have no answer. (Maybe along the lines of: ‘Thank you – I’ll follow that up.’)

Some students may find present.pal (2018) useful – a presentation software cue card system that can be synchronised with PowerPoint and used on phone or tablet.
Avoid interrupting a presentation and discourage other students from doing so – ask them to hold their questions until the end as interruptions are challenging for very nervous or anxious presenters. (For dyspraxics, in particular, an interruption may be fatal: their often-frail organisation and order may crumble.)

Suggest students check in with Gateway for any short sessions on presentations and panic.

You may need to offer some students the opportunity to record their presentations in advance or to present to tutors only. (There is a view that all students should be offered this option.)

The learning process in developing skilful presentations is experiential, i.e. you learn by doing. Remind students that this involves thinking objectively about their

erformances and deciding what could be better and how they will make those changes in the next presentation.

What else can you do?

As with groupwork, be clear what importance is assigned to presentation technique as well as its content, organisation and visual strength. Good presentation skills are a valuable asset in the workplace, and for that alone it would be good practice to include sessions and/or links to good online guidance for presentation skills.

Many students may be reassured to know that only 7% of a communication is understood through words – roughly 55% will be through body language and 38% tone of voice (Albert Mehrabian, 1971).

Offer, in the first year at least, the opportunity to create presentations in video form to reduce anxiety.

Avoid interrupting a presentation: for those with poor organisation skills (often the case with dyspraxics, in particular), this can irremediably damage their planning.

To take the sting out of questioning, suggest students welcome questions they cannot yet answer on grounds that they may offer useful lines of creative enquiry. It may help to demonstrate confident responses to such questions – remembering body language. (‘Thank you … that’s a useful/interesting question … I’ll follow that up … can I come back to you on that?’)

See when the presentation room is free so that students can practise their presentations there. And emphasise the value of practice.

If students want advice from friends when they practise, suggest the question: ‘What three things would you change?’ This puts the critic in the comfortable position of knowing exactly what is required; the word ‘change’ is also non-threatening.

As with crits, students may find it useful to join a drama group (there are also good RSC workshops online) and/or a choir. Both have been found to help with anxiety.

© Matthew Tizzard

Further reading

Barnett, R. (2007) A Will to Learn: being a student in an age of uncertainty Maidenhead: Open University Press

Brown, J. and Brown, L. (2013) ‘The international student sojourn, identity conflict and threats to well-being’ in: British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 41:4, pp.395-413

Cain, S (2012) The Power of Introverts

Carroll, J. and Iles, J. (2006) ‘An assessment of anxiety levels in dyslexic students in highereducation’ in: British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76:3, pp.651-662

Jones, A. (2019) ‘The voices of university students with dyslexia and their experiences of anxiety and coping’ in: Patoss Bulletin 32:2 pp.10-29

Levin, P. and Topping, G. (2006) Perfect Presentations Maidenhead: Open University Press

Slovic, S. (2008) ‘Coping with stress: the perspective of international students’ in Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education 6:3, pp.145-158

Stevens, M. (1997) How to be Better at Giving Presentations London: Kogan Page and The Industrial Society

University of Hull ‘The 4 Ps of Giving a Good Presentation’ at: [accessed on 20.12.19]

University of Texas (2016) ‘How much of communication is nonverbal?’ at: [accessed on 29.05.2020]

Van Emden, J. and Becker, L. (2016) Presentation Skills for Students (3rd edn) London: Palgrave

See also Supporting Students through Crits