question mark on a stage with lights shining on it

Presenting to others can turn many of us into a ball of stress, as Jerry Seinfeld observed:

“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death... Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” 

So what do we do if we encounter students who resist (or even outright refuse) making a presentation to a public audience in their projects? I have a cautionary tale, and a few tips about how to engage even the most reluctant presenters.

Never Play “Sink or Swim” (A Cautionary Tale)
During my first year as a PBL teacher, a student (let’s call her Sarah) told me she was not going to present her project to the rest of the class. With presentation day quickly approaching, I was irritated that she was just now bringing this to my attention. I was also a bit surprised, because Sarah was working well with her team and appeared to be engaged up until this point. I told her it would be impossible to pass the project without presenting, but she remained adamant. I can still remember my response. “Well, that’s too bad. You’ve had plenty of time to prepare, and I’m calling your name tomorrow.” She still wasn’t budging. We had a good old-fashioned standoff, and I couldn’t blink first.

To be completely truthful, I was scared to death. I was paralyzed by the fear that I’d lose credibility in front of my students if she refused. This could cause a dangerous domino effect if other students decided to follow her lead. When it came time for her team to present, I called their names to come up front, but Sarah remained glued to her seat with her head down. 

I called her name over and over. I told her that we were not going to start without her. No response. After about 30 seconds of silence, which felt like an eternity, she stood up. I was relieved that she was finally going to adhere to my expectations. However, instead of coming up front, she walked out of the room and sat in the hallway for the rest of the class period.

As she left the room, I knew I had made a huge mistake. I tried telling myself that I did this for her own good. After all, she couldn’t be insubordinate in the real world and get away with it. But, I knew I was lying to myself. This wasn’t about helping her understand the need for compliance in certain situations. This was about ego, and my need to win this battle resulted in me losing a student.

4 Ways to Support Reluctant Presenters 

We’ll get back to the “Sarah Situation,” but I’d first like to share a few ideas I’ve seen teachers use to engage reluctant and refusing presenters that have also worked for my classroom:

1.    Rethink Your PBL Presentation Formats
Consider alternatives to the traditional presentation format students typically encounter, where one or a small team of students presents to an entire class or other large audience. A more intimate environment for presentations could be a safer stretch for students. For example, in the Finance Project, students took on the role of financial advisors to help families achieve their financial goals. In this project, student teams presented their final work as a conversation with their client families. In addition, the teacher provided a practice round for feedback to ensure students felt prepared to share, especially since this was their first project. Not only was this approach safer for students, it was more authentic. Financial advisors conduct confidential conversations with families; they don’t make recommendations to them from a podium with a large crowd observing.  

2.    Think Assessment, Not Grading
Another factor that can cause students to resist and refuse presenting is the grade that accompanies it. I’ve never been able to “grade” a student into being a better presenter, and it certainly hasn’t resulted in them being enthusiastic about sharing their work. There are plenty of opportunities to grade student work in a project, so consider preserving presentation days as a non-graded formative assessment. In the March Through Nashville project, students made presentations to a small panel in order to receive feedback before turning in their final product (a virtual museum app) for a grade. A student’s disposition toward presentations can drastically change when the people they present to are not judges but thought partners who are there to help them move forward with their work.

3.    Foster Daily “Quick Wins” 
If students are only presenting and communicating their understanding to others on project presentation days, they are likely to view these days as an abnormal event that causes panic. Instead, give students plenty of opportunities, within and outside of a PBL unit, to grow their capacity and comfort with their presentation and communication skills. These could include:
•    Student discussion strategies like Pinwheel Discussions and Socratic Seminar
•    Fun Improv Games at strategic points in a lesson or project
•    Daily public speaking opportunities that are informal and low stakes

4.    Reduce Anxiety With Three Simple Words: “I am excited”
According to a study by Alison Woods Brooks from the Harvard Business School, reframing an anxiety-inducing situation like a presentation by telling yourself, “I am excited,” can produce impressive results. By using these words, students can move from a threat mindset to an opportunity mindset. If you don’t have time to read the study, this short video explains it quite well. Try this with your students next time, and repeat after me: “I am excited!”

Two Bonus Tips: Back to the “Sarah Situation”
When Sarah left my classroom to sit in the hallway, I decided to let her stay and not continue the confrontation. She wasn’t running away, but she needed some space to cope. As class ended, I went to speak with her. First and foremost, I apologized and told her I was ready to listen. 

As she spoke, I noticed a major thread in her reasoning for not wanting to present. She did not feel prepared. More specifically, she felt like I had not helped her prepare. She was spot on with her assessment. I had spent plenty of time making sure students had opportunities to engage in learning experiences and practice with the content of the project (World War II), but I did little in the way of supporting her with the communication skills she needed to be ready to present her work with her team. 

As I journaled later that evening, I landed on two major reflections: 

•    Be a Lifeguard and Throw a Line: Instead of my hardline “sink or swim” approach, Sarah needed a lifeguard to throw her a line. She wasn’t drowning, but she was in the deep end and needed help. I made a promise to myself that I would never again ask students to present without making time for them to build their capacity to present. I have Sarah to thank for that lesson, and I must pay that advice forward to others.

•    Row Your Boat: Engaging the resistant or refusing presenter is a tall task, but I am always reminded of the following advice my former principal gave me: “The one thing you can most control as a teacher are the relationships you build with students. This is the paddle in your boat that you can use when the waters get choppy. So, when all else fails, row your boat.” Had I “rowed the boat” with Sarah, maybe I would’ve been more informed about her needs for making a presentation.

What lessons have you learned from encountering reluctant or refusing presenters in PBL? Comment below or on Twitter #pblworks so we can learn from your experience as well.

Eric White, National Faculty – South
Eric White is a passionate educator who, above all else, is devoted to student and teacher empowerment. He currently provides professional development and coaching for school districts on a full-time basis. He previously served as a PBL Instructional Coach and Lead Teacher of Project Based Learning at the secondary level.