Arran Stibbe
Humanities Department,
University of Gloucestershire


‘I feel so much more confident speaking in front of an audience, I never thought I would be able to do it’

This case study describes an approach to teaching practical oral rhetoric based on peer evaluation and small group work. Speaking in front of a group can be intimidating for students – as one student puts it, ‘I personally detest giving presentations, I find them extremely terrifying’. The ability to put oral rhetoric into practice is therefore as much an emotional skill as an intellectual one. The case study describes an approach based on person-centred counselling theory which proved successful in addressing both emotional and intellectual aspects of oral rhetoric, building students’ confidence and improving their ability to put the knowledge of rhetoric into practice for effective presentations. As the conclusion explains, the techniques used in the skills-based module described here can be adapted for use on content-based modules.

Background / context

There is a widespread, but probably untrue, piece of urban folklore which claims that people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death. Yet whatever the relative magnitude of the fears, students do indicate extreme discomfort about speaking to an audience, describing their recollections of past class presentations with expressions such as ‘detest’, ‘extremely terrifying’, ‘incredibly nervous’, ‘flustered’, ‘worried’, and ‘sickened’. Skills in public speaking are clearly important in a world battered by monotonous bullet-point presentations, but students graduating from university often lack the necessary rhetorical skills to express themselves orally. The problem is partly related to the overwhelming priority that university education places on reading and writing to the detriment of oral skills. The problem runs deeper still, however, since the primary barriers preventing students from engaging confidently in public speaking are emotional ones, and universities have traditionally defined themselves as places dedicated to intellectual development with little or no consideration given to emotional development.

This case study describes a module which was designed to contribute to both intellectual and emotional development, to both writing and speaking. The module in question, Rhetoric in Practice, is a third year module taught in the English Language programme of the University of Gloucestershire. This is one of the last modules that students take before graduating, hence the title of this article, ‘Emergence’.

After three years of study, students will have gained the ability to critically analyse the language which surrounds them and shapes the society they are part of; they will have had opportunities to reflect on ethical frameworks for living and working in the changing world of the 21st century; and they will have gained the writing skills necessary to participate effectively in the workplace and in the wider society. The final step before emergence from university is for students to develop the confidence to overcome nervousness or even terror, and be able to express themselves clearly in oral presentations. At another level, oral presentation itself is a form of emergence, an emergence of self, where students can allow deeply held beliefs, values, ideas and opinions – ones which they previously lacked confidence to express publicly – to emerge.

The design of the emotional development side of the module was based on the assumption that the nervousness that students describe in expressing themselves orally in front of a group is a fear of negative reaction from the audience. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the fear of negative reaction can decrease the quality of the presentation and make it more likely that the audience’s reaction will be negative, leading to more fear. Gaining confidence, then, requires breaking this vicious circle. There are a great variety of psychoanalytic theories and self-help materials which offer help in breaking vicious circles, particularly those related to self esteem and under-confidence in allowing the self to emerge. Some of these theories and techniques are more tried and tested than others, but there is one that stands out as being particularly well grounded and applicable to public speaking: person-centred counselling (1).

Person-centred counselling offers techniques for creating the kind of non-judgemental and encouraging atmosphere that is necessary for students to gain confidence in expressing themselves. According to the theory, there are three core conditions which need to be simultaneously applied by listeners in order to create the right kind of atmosphere: empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence (Rogers 2003). Empathy is something that fellow students are in the best position to provide since they are all ‘in the same boat’, as one student put it, hence the use of peer evaluation rather than evaluation by lecturing staff. Unconditional positive regard goes one step beyond non-judgementalism towards acceptance and appreciation of the place within the speaker that is the ultimate source of their words, rather than a narrow judgement of the outer forms of the words themselves. Expressions of positive regard are, on their own, insufficient unless the third condition, congruence, or genuineness, is met.

For any new module which is designed to facilitate emotional as well as intellectual development it is essential to monitor the impact on students very carefully (although it could be argued that it is just as important to consider the emotional impact of teaching in modules where the emotional factors are disregarded). The first run of Rhetoric in Practice was therefore accompanied by informal pedagogic research on the student experience, involving two questionnaires, a learning log, a focus group and an analysis of the actual performance of the students. This case study begins by giving enough information about practical arrangements for other practitioners to put the approach into practice. The conclusion weaves together the voices of the students themselves not only to demonstrate that the approach was highly successful, but also to help readers understand the factors which led to that success.

Activities / Practice

The main technique employed to help students develop their oral skills was the requirement that they give five carefully prepared speeches to a small group of their peers trained in active listening and appreciative criticism. The organisation of the groups adapted a technique used in business training, specifically in ‘Toastmasters’ speaking clubs (Toastmasters 2008), which has proven successful in developing oral ability. In these clubs, one person in a large audience acts as evaluator, and one as timer etc. However, the same style can be adapted to small groups with the following seven roles, which were explained to students as follows:

a) Facilitator – You are in charge of running the group smoothly. Start by asking everyone in the group if they have a speech to give, and write a list of names of people who will speak. Give a few words of welcome. Then introduce the first speaker. He/she will have 5 minutes to speak. You then ask for reports from the timer, the um-counter, the evaluator, the sub-evaluator, and then general feedback. You then introduce the next speaker.

b) Speaker – You will need to prepare your speech in advance on the speech presentation form and bring this form along to act as notes while you give your speech. When the facilitator introduces you, find someone to temporarily fill your role before starting to speak. Then stand at the front, pause for a little while, think about your first line and then launch into your speech. You have 5 minutes and will be told when to stop.

c) Evaluator – It’s your job to make some brief helpful comments. This must be done sensitively and politely because the aim is to encourage and build confidence. Praise the good things, and if necessary make one or two suggestions for improvement (e.g. ‘more eye contact would be useful’). Always make the comments positive and constructive, e.g, ‘could be a bit slower’ rather than ‘it was too fast.’

d) Sub-evaluator –The sub-evaluator spots all the rhetorical devices used by the speaker and reports them later to the group.

e) Timer – Start a stopwatch when speakers start talking. At 4½ minutes, clearly place a sign in front of the speaker which reads ‘30 seconds left, please wrap up now’. At 5 minutes place a sign saying ‘stop now please’ clearly in front of them. Write down exactly how long the speaker takes.

f) Um-counter – You will count the number of times that the speaker says ‘ah’, ‘um’, ‘er’ and write the total number down. If in doubt as to whether the speaker really did say ‘ah’, do not count it. Notice also obvious repetitions of verbal crutches like ‘ok’, ‘right’, ‘well’ and make a note of them.

g) Audience member – you will be an active, supportive listener. That means really listening to what the speaker is saying, with genuine interest. Imagine that what you are hearing is essential information that you must remember afterwards. Smile, give eye-contact and nod as appropriate for someone listening with interest. Nothing should be false – if you listen carefully to people who are expressing what they genuinely feel and believe, and keep an open mind, you’ll find it almost certainly a pleasant and positive experience.

Students were given strict instructions on how to prepare speeches, including a preparation form which listed presentation aspects to focus on (eye contact, pacing, voice projection, etc), and listed rhetorical devices to incorporate into the presentation (three part list, contrast, metaphor, etc). The following example is of this preparation form filled out in an exaggerated way to illustrate rhetorical devices:


When the students gave speeches, they did not use a script but instead used the brief notes on the preparation form as hints. The evaluators used a matched form to provide constructive feedback on exactly those aspects that the speaker had prepared:

The five presentations that students are required to give correspond to chapters of the excellent textbook Lend me your ears: all you need to know about making speeches and presentations (Atkinson 2003). Reading the required chapter of the textbook provides details about aspects of rhetoric which are particularly relevant to that speech, and the preparation and evaluations forms use the same terminology as the book. The students were given the following information about the content of each speech:

a) The opening speech: Think of this speech as a first step to speaking a language which is different from writing and different from conversation: the language of Rhetoric. For now, think of it as a language which is slow, with lots of pauses, is informal, requires eye contact with the audience, and only makes one main point. If you exaggerate these points you will find you end up sounding quite natural, so exaggerate away! Read chapters 1 to 3 of the textbook for tips.

b) The visual speech: This is a chance for you to give a speech which uses PowerPoint well, i.e., in a way which enhances your speech rather than distracting from it. That means minimal use of text in your slides. Limit your slides to: blank slides for when the focus needs to be on you not the screen, highly relevant pictures/photographs, short quotes, short headings which come up one at a time in large font, or graphs/charts. Read chapters 4 and 5 for tips

c) The persuasive speech: In this speech you will be putting Rhetoric into practice. Choose a topic which you feel strongly about – it could be capital punishment, the destruction of ecosystems, feminism, the treatment of animals in zoos, alienation, or any other contentious issue that you have an opinion about. Your goal is to persuade that audience of your side of the argument. Pack your speech with rhetorical devices and combinations of devices and see what kind of impact it has on the audience. Read chapter 6 first.

d) The metaphoric speech: In this speech you will base the whole speech on a particular overarching metaphor, such as a journey. Set up the metaphor in the introduction ‘The is no room for pessimism because what we see before us is a landscape of opportunity’. Continue the metaphor in the main body of the speech ‘There are many paths before us, but no maps’. And finish off with the metaphor in the conclusion ‘Once we have chosen our path we must follow it, and follow it, and follow it, realising every opportunity along the way’. Read chapter 7 for tips.

e) The social speech: This is practice for making a wedding speech, an after-dinner speech, an acceptance of award speech, a speech of gratitude for a leaving colleague or a speech at a funeral. You’ll have to think up a fictitious occasion and prepare an amusing or inspiring speech. See chapter 10 for advice.

The freedom these speeches give students allows them to choose topics that they believe in, that they think are important for the world. Several students chose consumerism, and other sustainability related issues, although inevitably there were also presentations about lighter subjects like beards, tattoos and snail racing. The following selection illustrates the range and type of topic chosen: Recycling, Fox hunting, Vegetarianism, Local produce, Traffic congestion, Tattoos, Capital punishment, Life, Fair-trade, Energy saving, Conserving water, Growing your own vegetables, Smoking, Gun violence, Aliens, Plastic bags, British pride, Snail racing, Global warming, Anti-consumerism, Organic produce, Fashion, Nature appreciation, Consumerism, Lost (TV program), Individuality, Environmentalism, Healthy living, Materialism, Fur, Healthy lifestyle, Yorkshire terriers, Animal cruelty, Internet, Social pressure, Bullying, Fairtrade, Ethical lifestyles, Countryside preservation.


This conclusion looks at evidence from questionnaires, learning logs and a focus group to evaluate the success of the course in terms of developing students’ confidence and building their rhetorical skills, as well as investigating in some detail the factors behind the success. (2) The case study concludes by looking at some ways in which the methodology used in Rhetoric in Practice might be adapted for use on other, content-based (rather than skills-based) modules.

a. Confidence

All fifteen students indicated in response to a questionnaire that their confidence had increased as a result of taking the module. This was also confirmed by comments in the learning logs and focus group, the following being typical:

  • ‘I have noticed a definite improvement in my public speaking and confidence’
  • ‘I feel so much more confident speaking in front of an audience, I never thought I would be able to do it’
  • ‘I feel more confident not just in lectures but in my working life too….[job interviewers] commented on how natural and confident I appeared’
  • ‘After speaking in groups only a couple of times I have noticed I no longer worry or feel sick having to speak publicly’
  • ‘The module builds your confidence quickly and opens up new possibilities in future life’
  • ‘Before I felt slightly sickened by the idea of giving a presentation to my peers…I feel like I have overcome my fear’
  • ‘other modules at the university have not given me the practical groundwork for life the way this module has’

This is a remarkable finding, and the sections which follow attempt to discover what exactly it was about the class which lead to such clear improvements in confidence.

b. Atmosphere

The atmosphere of the class certainly fostered the kind of non-judgemental atmosphere envisioned by person-centred counselling. In response to the question ‘How did you find the overall atmosphere of the class?’ students used the following adjectives: relaxed, accepting, comfortable, informal, positive, supportive, non-threatening, encouraging, friendly, casual, non-judgmental, and productive. Certainly, the audience seemed to be skilled in active listening. As one student commented ‘I knew the experience I was gaining was invaluable because it seemed like people were really engaging with what I was saying’. The informality of the situation did not prevent students from engaging academically, however, as two students point out:

  • ‘Informal but it was not like we didn’t work – I found I actually wanted to participate and contribute’
  • ‘Casual…but formal enough to discuss our presentations analytically’

One of the factors which made the atmosphere was so relaxed may be the physical space that the module was carried out in – the Centre for Active Learning – which provided flexible and comfortable seating arrangements including sofas. As one student says, ‘the Centre for Active Learning really helped create a more informal atmosphere’.

c. Empathy

Several students indicated that the involvement of peers to conduct evaluations created a more empathic atmosphere, and one student linked this directly to the improvement in confidence:

  • ‘having people my age and in the same circumstances give friendly criticism gave me more confidence each week’
  • ‘The atmosphere was really relaxed. Having people who are in exactly the same position as you contributes to this’
  • ‘The evaluations were really helpful because they were coming from people who were in exactly the same situation as me’
  • ‘other students know exactly what others are going through’
  • ‘I felt they understood what I was going through as they were doing it too’

d. Unconditional Positive Regard

At the beginning of the module, students were trained in active listening: for example, mirroring the mood of the speaker in their expression (e.g, not smiling when the speaker is conveying something sad), looking at the speaker, smiling and nodding naturally when appropriate, listening carefully to what was being said, and looking beyond the words to appreciate the person who is speaking. This presumably contributed to creating what students described as a non-judgemental, positive atmosphere while speakers were giving their speeches. Following the speeches, however, students playing the role of evaluator conducted evaluations, something which is necessarily judgemental and conditional rather than unconditional. Discourse analysis of the way that students evaluated their peers, however, showed that the overwhelming majority of comments were positive, and that when giving suggestions for improvement, evaluators used linguistic techniques to hedge their comments, keeping them as positive as possible. This meant that the evaluations could be considered to be a form of appreciative enquiry rather than criticism, which came close to unconditional positive regard.

e. Congruence

The presence of negative comments is a very important part of the exercise, not only because it is central to improving performance, but also because it confirms to everyone that the exercise is a genuine one, and that the evaluators are being congruent (expressing what they feel genuinely). Indeed, only one student expressed doubts about the genuineness of the evaluations, feeling that they may be overly biased towards the positive, while a number of students mentioned that they felt they were genuine:

  • ‘[because the audience is peers] you are most likely to get an honest reaction and active criticism’
  • ‘as the speaker you could receive honest and productive criticism’
  • ‘People were very supportive during classes. They told you how to improve but very constructively and were very encouraging too’
  • ‘they pinpointed things and offered improvement but without doubting you’
  • ‘they were sympathetic to your shortfalls but weren’t afraid to highlight them’

f. Peer assessment

There is a significant literature on peer assessment, including a number of studies which are particularly supportive of peer assessment in higher education (e.g., Falchikov 1995, Fry 1990, Hughes, 2001, Langan and Wheater 2003, Magin and Helmore 2001, Wheater et at 2005). The findings of Fry (1990) and Hughes (2001) suggest that student performance improves after taking part in peer assessments, particularly since evaluation gives a new familiarity and awareness of assessment criteria. Wheater et al (2001) claim that peer assessment is particularly suitable for presentations, finding that ‘there was high precision in the marks generated by peer-assessing presentations’ (15).
The current study can add further weight to the growing evidence that peer assessment can improve performance. All fifteen students explicitly indicated that their experience of being an evaluator had contributed to their learning. They identified several ways that this takes place:

  • ‘By being critical of others, I have also cross-analysed myself and adopted techniques and style from others’
  • ‘By evaluating other people’s work you become more aware of what you need to do when doing your speech. You also think of better and more effective ways of doing things’
  • ‘as you noticed shortfalls and things that didn’t work in other people’s speeches you would be alerted to them and make sure you didn’t use them in your speeches’
  • ‘evaluating others develops critical evaluation skills which can be applied to your own work enabling you to evaluate yourself better’

Overall, the module Rhetoric in Practice required significant time to design, but once the students were trained in speaking techniques, active listening, constructive criticism and facilitation it was largely run by the students themselves. This was clearly welcomed by students, with one student commenting that ‘I was the facilitator for my group and found this enjoyable as it gave me a sense of control, which boosted my confidence greatly.’ The results of the module were surprisingly positive: students visibly overcame their fears, gained confidence in speaking, and by the end of the module produced dynamic and engaging presentations. As one student puts it ‘I cannot stress enough how helpful I have found this module, how interesting and how directly positive it has been on me as a prospective employee and an efficient converser, debater and speaker’. In addition to improvements in speaking performance, students reported a number of side benefits:

  • ‘I learned how to listen actively and give positive feedback’
  • ‘My understanding of politics has grown immensely as a result of this course’
  • ‘I feel better knowing that I may be able to persuade people into getting involved with activities to help the planet become a better place’
  • ‘I have learned how to evaluate someone else’s work effectively’
  • ‘Not only have I gained useful skills for delivering speeches, but also from a social point of view, I can make conversations more interesting’

The only difficulty with the approach comes with the thorny problem of assessment. Recording or judging the presentations themselves could have potentially destroyed the supportive and non-judgemental atmosphere. It was therefore decided that students would be assessed on the completed preparation forms plus a reflective summary of their journey through the course. This approach to assessment, however, meant that some students did not engage deeply with secondary reading or provide detailed linguistic analysis–the main criteria for usually judging written assignments. Clearly students had gained something extremely valuable from the experience, but the question of how to translate this into a mark out of 100 is a difficult one which requires further research.

g. Using the technique for other courses

An important question is whether the techniques described above can work for presentations in other courses – ones where the focus is on content as much or more than on presentation style. As mentioned previously, several studies have shown that peer assessment of content work can be effective, so long as criteria are carefully spelled out for both evaluator and presenter. Adapting the peer-based assessment method described here for content courses could be as simple as having two evaluators, one looking at rhetorical features and presentation style, and the other looking at the clearly spelled out assessment content criteria. These extra criteria could be placed on (perhaps a simplified version of) both preparation and evaluations forms.

If rhetorical training is made the first thing that students do on coming to the university (rather than the last as in the current case study), then it might be structured as a sequence–starting with preparation forms focused mostly on rhetorical features and presentation style towards the beginning of the degree, and gradually shifting towards focus on content criteria, as effective presentation becomes second nature. The experience of the current case study is that students manage to stop saying ‘um’ and ‘ah’ during presentations after about four practice speeches (even if they started with a very large number of hesitations). The um-counter could therefore be dropped from the roles after five presentations, as could, eventually, the presentation skills evaluator. That will leave the facilitator, timer, content evaluator and supportive audience members, which should be sufficient as students become increasingly adept at presentation. The general framework, then, of matched preparation and evaluation forms containing the same criteria, and groups of students with specific roles to play, could be employed in a number of courses across the curriculum and across the years, giving students a supportive and constructive atmosphere for presentations throughout their degree.


Atkinson, M (2003) Lend me your ears : all you need to know about making speeches and presentations. London: Constable

Fry, S. (1990) Implementation and evaluation of peer marking in Higher Education. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 15: 177-189

Falchikov, N. (1995) Peer feedback marking: developing peer-assessment. Innovations in Education and Training International 32: 175-187.

Hughes, I. (2001) But isn’t this what you’re paid for? The pros and cons of peer and self-assessment. Planet 2, 20-23.

Langan, M. and P. Wheater (2003) Can students assess students effectively? Some insights into peer-assessment. Learning and Teaching in Action. 2:1

Magin, D. and P. Helmore (2001) Peer and teacher assessments of oral presentations: how reliable are they? Studies in Higher Education 26: 287-298

Mearns, D. and B. Thorne (2007) Person-centred Counselling in Action. London: Sage

Rogers, C. 1961. On Becoming a Person. A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Rogers, C. (2003) Client Centred Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory (New Ed) London: Constable

Thorne, B. (2007) Person Centred Therapy

Toastmasters (2008) Toastmasters International

Wheater, P., M. Langan and P. Dunleavy (2005) Students assessing student: case studies on peer assessment, Planet, 15, pp. 13-15


See Rogers 1961, 2003 for the original description of the theory and practice of person-centred counselling, Means and Thorne 2007 for a more up-to-date introduction which includes subsequent developments, or, for an excellent summary of the theory behind person-centred counselling, see Thorne 2007.

There were fifteen students on the module. All completed questionnaires and learning logs, and eight took part in a focus group. Students gave written permission for recordings to be made and anonymised extracts published.