Intersections: Students as Teachers: An Opportunity for Experiential Education, Critical Reflection, and Relationship-Building
By Prof. Vander Tavares
Presenting our research findings in front of an unfamiliar audience can be a daunting experience for many of us. Despite all preparation, it is not uncommon to experience those feelings of anxiety and nervousness that tend to accompany public speaking in an academic setting, especially for the first time. Although the experience gradually improves with more practice and constructive feedback, this initial feeling of apprehension seems to characterize the experience of the majority of the first-year students in my Essential Communications Skills course, COMM19999. After all, the transition from high school to college is in itself an adjustment, and introduces students to academic expectations which normally differ significantly from those they encountered in high school.
One of the expectations in the Essential Communications Skills course lies in the experience of conducting in-depth bibliographic research. This multifaceted task requires students to engage with and in research by first selecting an interesting and relevant topic, then finding and analyzing academic and non-academic literature in connection with it, and finally, developing an evidence-based argument that will be later presented through an in-class presentation and a final essay. Each stage in this process affords students an opportunity to challenge their academic skills, their beliefs about themselves and about the world around them. Similarly to the final essay, the in-class presentation can be seen both as a process and a product of this stimulating academic experience.
This year, I had the chance to enhance my teaching of presentation skills by integrating the voices of second-year students in the curriculum. Based on my pedagogical experience of last year, I anticipated that this year’s Essential Communications students could improve their presentation skills by learning about the experience of preparing and delivering presentations through the voices of their second-year peers, who were students in one section of this course I was teaching last year. The insight shared by second-year students could be valuable for students in this year’s class not only because the second-year students had improved their skills with the feedback they received from me and their peers after their presentations last year. In addition to that, they had gained more experience through the many intra- and extracurricular public speaking opportunities available to them as Sheridan students.
Indeed, by staying in touch with some of last year’s students, I learned about their active involvement in numerous campus events. Through diverse academic and professional opportunities, the second-year students had been continuously improving their presentation skills and confidence in public speaking. When I emailed a group of students explaining the opportunity for collaboration, the initial challenge was logistical in nature—the second-year students were busy not only with their courses, but also the many extra-curricular activities they participated in, such as student clubs, mentorship programs, volunteering, and of course, their personal lives. After some back-and-forth coordination, however, three second-year students were able to take part in the opportunity. They were scheduled to lead the first 15 minutes of my Tuesday class in the ninth week of the course.
Among many other possibilities, this opportunity was one of experiential education for the second-year students. Broadly speaking, experiential education is learning by doing—it’s hands-on learning that meaningfully connects theory to practice and positions students as agents, rather than “receivers” of education, in a manner that can potentially foster critical reflection and transformation (Breunig, 2017). The opportunity for second-year students to share their experience with the first-years afforded them the chance to become teachers for a few days. Prior to their visit to my class, the three second-year students worked together in person and virtually to brainstorm, prepare, revise, and rehearse their final presentation. Although I guided the students early in the process to ensure the final product would meet the expectations, the three students successfully planned and executed this segment of that day’s class almost completely on their own.
On the actual of day of class, the three students came in early and loaded their PowerPoint slides on the computer. They were going to teach about presentations through a presentation. Their PowerPoint presentation was organised into the dos and don’ts for an effective presentation, beginning with the slides themselves—e.g. how much and what kind of information should be on them—and going off-screen to address other important aspects of a good presentation, such as eye contact, dress code, hand gestures, tone of voice, and posture, among other topics. In the end, an activity which was scheduled for 15 minutes extended for almost an hour, resulting in a very authentic exchange between the first- and second-year students. The first-year students posed a number of questions to the student-presenters through which they could discuss their individual concerns and ask for presentation tips.
There was a special kind of synergy in the class during this activity. Questions and answers had been exchanged with genuineness, excitement, and sometimes even laughter. I believe all this authenticity may have stemmed from the fact the first-year students were able to learn about presentations also from “teachers” whom they could more personally and equally relate to. As an observer, I had the chance to reflect critically upon my own teaching practice, specifically in relation to teaching about presentations, and I hope both student groups engaged in personal reflection in the same manner. I also hope that, moving forward, this activity can be a recurring one in my Essential Communications Skills class. The three second-year students emailed me later that week to express how much they enjoyed the experience, and offered to return as “teachers” again in the winter, to which I gladly said yes.
Breunig, M. (2017). Experientially learning and teaching in a student-directed classroom. Journal of Experiential Education, 1-18.
Vander Tavares is an instructor of Essential Communications Skills in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Sheridan. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Linguistics & Applied Linguistics program at York University, where he researches international students’ experiences with multilingualism and academics. He joined Sheridan in 2018.