Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #2: Empowering Students by Paying It Forward

August 1, 2014
Instructional Communication

What if a speech could empower students to make a difference in the community? We believe the act of paying it forward empowers students to feel more confident in their communication skills and acts as catalyst to create positive changes in the community. The speech assignment, typically assigned in a public speaking or fundamentals of human communication course, was inspired by the major motion picture Pay It Forward (2000). The assignment affords students the opportunity to engage in Pay It Forward acts of kindness with three different people from the community and share those experiences with their classmates.  

Pay It Forward acts of kindness begin with an unconditional favor. Essentially, an act of kindness begins with doing a favor for another person without any expectation of it being paid back. One would request that the recipient of a favor do the same for at least one other person and, ideally, for three other people, so the kindness starts to create a revolution around the world.

Often students do not believe they are able to make a positive difference in their community because they feel they lack the skills or resources necessary to create positive changes. Students are also unaware of the positive impact small acts of kindness can have for a community. As such, we encouraged students to think of their Pay It Forward acts of kindness as the first step in creating a positive change in their community. We also wanted them to be creative, thinking beyond acts of kindness that involve money, because at the center of kindness is thoughtfulness.  

When we first present the assignment to our students, they are often worried they do not have anything to offer others in the community. In fact most students also believe they are not capable of creating a positive change; however, we have witnessed a transformation in our students as a result of the Pay It Forward acts of kindness they perform. We have had students give their lunch to a homeless person, attend a cancer marathon and cheer on the runners at the finish line, spend an hour picking up trash around the college campus, or even perform an act as simple as holding a door or an elevator open for a stranger.

What is amazing about these Pay It Forward experiences is that our students begin to thoughtfully contemplate what they can do to create positive change in their community. They begin to engage and interact with others they may have never talked to before, or become involved in an event they never would have considered attending. As a result, students start to believe in themselves and gain confidence in their ability to create positive changes in their community.

After completing the assignment, students share their experiences through a speech with the class and reflect on what they learned. In these moments you really learn what inspires your students. We recognize students might not be as passionate about this assignment as we are, but we believe in young people and their potential to change the world. Thus, we encourage our students to engage in a lively discussion about how their Pay It Forward acts potentially can encourage audience members to engage in similar acts of kindness to create positive changes in the world.

By combining a speech assignment with Pay It Forward acts of kindness, students are able to realize how a speech assignment can translate beyond the classroom. Not surprisingly, many students are less than enthusiastic about public speaking because it requires them to speak in front of the classroom. However, we have found our students not only enjoy performing their Pay It Forward acts of kindness, but also find the experience of presenting the acts of kindness rewarding. Students are more eager to participate in this assignment as they see these experiences can translate beyond the walls of the classroom and positively influence their communities.

In our experience of instructing students to complete Pay It Forward acts of kindness and a subsequent speech assignment, we have discovered students gain confidence in their ability as communicators and also learn the importance of creating positive changes in the community. By challenging students to become more engaged in their community, we, as educators, are encouraging our students to begin to be the change they wish to see in the world.

About the author (s)

Stevie Munz

Ohio University

Doctoral Candidate

Tim McKenna-Buchanan

Manchester University

Assistant Professor