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The Massive Classroom

University of Washington senior lecturer Matt McGarrity is teaching an online course on public speaking to tens of thousands of people around the world this summer. How’s he doing?

August 20, 2013 at 8:49 AM

Grading your peers can be vexing in an online class

One of the things you learn in an online course on public speaking is how to evaluate a speech. If you want to become a better public speaker, it’s helpful to understand why some people are so good at it, and others are not.

But if your fellow students deliver an awful speech, how do you tell them?

It’s week nine of Matt McGarrity’s “Introduction to Public Speaking,” the free course offered by California startup Coursera and the University of Washington. This week, we have a deadline to grade our peers on the latest assignment, an informative speech.

McGarrity has talked for several weeks now about how to arrange a good informative speech, then evaluate how well others do at the job. With thousands of people talking the class, and posting their own examples of speeches on YouTube, the only way to evaluate and grade all the speeches is for students to grade one another. So-called peer review is a staple of many Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.

So I began clicking through the speeches assigned to me; they’ve been posted privately on YouTube and then linked to the course’s website. Four speeches awaited my review.

Student #1 offered a sales pitch, not an informative speech, for a particular product.  The speech was laden with jargon (“implement congruent procedures,” for example), and promised an “amazing return on investment…risk-free…100 percent free trial!”

An informative speech can certainly be about a product, but this one didn’t meet a number of the criteria. I gave her two thumbs up for her confidence and knowledge of the subject, but a much lower grade for most of the other elements of the speech.

Student #2 stood stiffly in front of the camera, mumbing his words in a monotone.  Although he was the only one of my four peer-review students who sounded like a native English speaker, he was perhaps the least comprehensible. And he was young, perhaps college age.

How could I tell him in a constructive fashion that I thought his delivery was flawed? I gave him high marks for knowledge of his subject, but suggested that he think about pacing, pausing, gestures and movement — all elements of a good speech, as we have learned in this class. I also suggested rehearsing in front of a video camera, since I believe that has helped me.

Student #3 was brimming with confidence, and while his speech was a little too jargony, he was pleasant, dynamic and organized. Perhaps because I’d struggled so mightily with the other two, I gave him high marks.

Student #4 was also confident, although her speech resembled an encyclopedia entry rather than an actual speech. She looked like she was in high school, and was filming while sitting on her bed; at the end of the speech, a door opened in her room and she slammed the computer shut, so she did not give a conclusion.

I gave her a good grade for being passionate and interesting, but suggested that she do a better job of writing and arranging her speech.

I’ve never given much thought to a challenge that educators must face all the time — how to fairly evaluate a student when they are struggling with an assignment. Sending the right message, without demoralizing the student in the process, must require a lot of finesse.

Comments | More in Education, Higher education | Topics: MOOC, online learning


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