Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #1: Teaching Students to Face Their Fears Eases Public Speaking Anxiety

June 1, 2014
Instructional Communication

Public speaking anxiety (PSA) can hinder career aspirations, personal relationships, and self-image, but communication educators can provide students opportunities to learn and practice new skills and face their fears. A well-designed public speaking course serves apprehensive students through instructional strategies that target and treat the fears associated with public speaking while enhancing student development and future employability. Thus, reducing students’ public speaking anxiety can become a central component of the public speaking course design.

Assessment of anxiety, apprehension, and competence has been well documented. Within the basic communication course, assessment measures have been vital to the sustainability of the course and the significance of the student learning outcomes. Moreover, assessment has provided concrete evidence of student learning and measurable validation of the course design. Based on the increased need for program assessment, and to test the effectiveness of our course design, our study was designed to measure the changes in students’ public speaking anxiety from the beginning to the end of the course. Students self-reported their public speaking anxiety through a widely used and validated measure of speaking anxiety—McCroskey’s PRPSA (Personal Report of Public Speaking Anxiety). The results of the study suggest that public speaking course design, infused with anxiety treatment, can help students ease their speaking anxiety.

Public speaking anxiety is a type of social anxiety that comes about with anticipated or actual public presentations. PSA extends from the research on communication apprehension (CA) and is the most notable form of CA, having an impact on nearly everyone to some extent, and a severe effect on about 30 to 40 percent of Americans. The bearing of PSA on individual quality of life and professional development has led public speaking instructors to design curricula that can assist in the reduction of this anxiety and improve public speaking success.

We manage PSA treatment through our course design, which infuses skills training, exposure therapy, and cognitive modification. These methods are so intricately woven into the course that they often work interactively with one another as opposed to being presented separately on certain class days. However, these elements are discussed separately below in their contributions to the content of the course as they relate directly to the results of our study.

Skills training is the very foundation of the public speaking course, and provides learning objectives with both academic focus and real-world applicability. In building their public speaking skills, our students are assigned readings from a textbook that offers a concise and information-rich review of the concepts and skills of optimal speaking. The skills are layered, from basic concepts such as topic selection and writing the thesis statement to more intricate proficiencies such as supporting the feasibility and workability of a public policy proposition. Each of these skills incorporates “just-in-time learning,” in that the students’ academic focus on each group of concepts occurs just prior to the assignment that urges and rewards application of the best practices in applying those concepts. Skills training is developed and assessed through four public presentations during the semester.

In a similar way, students’ PSA is treated through the course design’s basis in their graduated exposure to assignments that become increasingly complex and challenging. For this reason, the initial assignment (a personal attitude speech) is very simple, asking each student to formulate a thesis statement that begins with the words “I believe….” Right from the beginning, however, students are practicing strength and simplicity of supporting their assertions. Eventually, through a series of speeches that afford students the opportunity to practice the skills they are taught, their anxiety begins to dissipate. By the end of the course, the students have given three speeches that required them to practice supporting their assertions with peer-reviewed evidence.

The key to this graduated exposure and its impact on reducing students’ anxiety, however, lies almost solely in the fact that every speech requires extemporaneous delivery in which the student is allowed a single, 35- to 45-word notecard for speech assignments ranging from two to eight minutes. One benefit of this policy is that it encourages student practice. While delivery becomes a larger portion of the grade with each speech, students who fail to practice are nearly always surprised when they realize how nervous and disjointed they feel. This generally happens only once for a given student—he or she then realizes the remaining speeches will produce more comfort when rehearsed.

The final major PSA treatment integrated into the course design we tested involves cognitive modification. We reframe the nature of speech anxiety and assure the students that their fears are perfectly normal and, in fact, beneficial when channeled into energy for their performances. We also provide generous positive feedback to accompany every critique. Our instructors are trained to share the strengths of each student’s speech, as well as to discuss some of the suggested areas for development.

The triangulated approach to PSA treatment infused into our course design had a substantial impact on our students. In our study, we were able to decrease students’ PSA scores significantly, approximately 10 percent, from the beginning of the course to the end. This decrease in PSA provided valuable assessment of our course design and quality of instruction. Moreover, the reduction of PSA illustrates measurable student growth and development. 

One of the most intriguing findings in our study was the implication for our female students, whose average PSA had been significantly higher than that of our male students at the beginning of the semester. After the conclusion of the course, male and female students no longer had significantly different levels of speech anxiety. Bearing in mind the importance of public speaking confidence and competence relative to career success and overall life satisfaction, this finding carries the potential to help our female students move forward into careers that continue to close gender gaps in women’s representation among professionals, including corporate executives and politicians.

As universities continue to assess the quality of their academic programs, educators have an opportunity to engage in assessment practices that can have a positive impact on course design and student growth. We found, through assessment of students’ PSA, that our public speaking course design allowed us to successfully decrease students’ anxiety about public speaking, thereby offering validation of our course and a transformational learning experience for our students.

About the author (s)

Karla M. Hunter

South Dakota State University

Assistant Professor

Joshua Westwick

South Dakota State University

Assistant Professor

Laurie Haleta

South Dakota State University