Oral communication

Seven Coursework-related Questions for Students


Professors almost always know what they are looking for in assignments, but sometimes they’re not always as clear students need them to be. 

One secret to being successful in college is asking the right questions, especially with regard to coursework. Here are some to keep in mind.

1. ”How will this assignment be evaluated?”
The criteria for every assignment should be clearly spelled out, sometimes with a rubric that details the components of excellent work. Knowing exactly what the professor is looking for will help you stay focused on what is important.

2. "Are there examples?"
Professors sometimes offer examples from previous semesters for what an assignment should look like. If one is not provided, you can ask. Some professors have been known to do the assignment themselves, which can be very insightful. Among instructors, the practice is called “eating your own dog food.” Yum.

3. ”Are there limits on…”
Students have no difficulty asking questions about minimum expectations—related to pages/words, sources, etc. But the upper-limits are equally important, if not more so. Chances of getting full credit by doing the minimum are pretty slim. Doing well often requires going beyond the minimum expectations, but you always want to stay within acceptable parameters.

4. "Can we spend more time going over this?"
Some assignments, especially complex ones, might assume that you know how to do what is being asked of you. If there is any part of an assignment you do not feel prepared to do, you should ask to spend class time on it.

5. "Can I show you an outline or draft?”
Professors will always appreciate the opportunity to help you with an assignment. Sometimes a three-minute office visit might give you the one piece of advice that makes your work go from good to great. That said, you should avoid simply sending your work in an email or expecting quality feedback at the last minute. You should also not assume that professors have time before or after class to give you the amount of attention you might require. 

6. ”Can I submit a revision?”
Grades are important measures of where you are at the moment, but the feedback you receive is the key to performing well on the next paper or exam. If there’s anything about the feedback that you don’t understand, you also need to make an appointment for office hours. If a professor ever offers an opportunity for revision, you should take it, regardless of how well you did. Even if it doesn’t mean a change in this grade, it might very well mean an improvement on the next one.

7. ”Is it OK if I have an extra day?”
Professors have different takes on deadlines. Some are very flexible; some are not flexible at all. In any event, if it’s ever necessary that your work will be late, you need to let your professor know in advance and in person, if possible. 

Formal Presentations

Many courses require students to give a formal presentation of some kind. There are a lot of good resources on the web, but I thought I’d go to a more local source: Cory Robinson. He won the presentation contest held by the Honors Program this past spring. Here’s the interview I did with him.

Students often have a difficult time picking a topic. How did you decide on treatment of veterans? And what did you know about it beforehand?

I decided on my topic when we watched Cool Hand Luke in class. In the opening scene, we see Luke drunk in public and learn that he’s a veteran. He has family issues, but he’s also not completely assimilated from his time in war. The movie came out during the Vietnam War, and here we are 40 years later still not serving the men and women who serve us.

In general, I would suggest that you should pick something that you feel passionate about or something that has affected your life. I picked veterans because my dad is a veteran, so I had personal experience with it. I had also been exposed to some material in classes already. I also picked it because I wanted to learn more about it. But having an interest is key.

Did you consider that it is such an important and timely issue?

War and veterans issues are important, but there are a lot of issues like that. When I started, I also didn’t want to psych myself out with how important it was. I had to calm myself down. I wanted to do them justice, but I didn’t want to feel responsible for all veterans everywhere or feel that all the weight of the military was on my shoulders. You should just have to keep it in perspective and raise awareness and not try to take on too much. It might just give people a better understanding, not necessarily find an answer.

How much research did you do? And where did you start?

I started with Google to get a general overview, then I went to the library and used some of their databases. I also used the Veterans Affairs website. I found a lot on there, but because it’s run by the government, I wanted to make sure what I found was accurate and complete. I wanted to verify it with materials from elsewhere and hopefully get at the truth. I also wanted to include stories from individual men and women. I only included two, when I could have included thousands. That was something that goes hand in hand with the presentation and the need to prioritize.

And when did you know when to stop? There is so much out there.

I didn’t really know when to stop. I stopped when I realized I had to start working on how I was going to put it all together and actually give the presentation. I easily could have kept on going--for ten years.

Was there anything that you added while putting your presentation together that you had not included in the first version?

The personal stories. I didn’t include them in the first draft. I was focused on getting all of the data down on what the veterans were facing. I received some good feedback on an early run-through about needing to add some personal anecdotes. Reading the stories was really the hardest part of doing the research. They were heartbreaking.

Students sometimes do just enough to fill the time. If you could come up with a percentage of what you read versus what you included, what would it be?

I would say about 25 or 30%. I included only a fraction of what I found. That said, the additional research helped me a great deal in the Q and A. It’s not always about what you present, but also about what’s not there. Dr. Young asked me about women in the military, which I didn’t have time for in the formal presentation. But because I had done all of the research, I was able to include some data in my response to her question.

How do you think knowing as much as you did affected your comfort level?

I knew that I was going to be comfortable. I was nervous about the presentation, but I wasn’t nervous about the facts or what I knew or didn’t know.

How much actual practicing did you do?

The competition was the fourth or fifth time I gave it to a large group of people. I did it twice in class, but I also did it to my mom over Skype, I did it with my friends in the dorm, I gave it to myself in the mirror a few times. I didn’t want to stutter or mess up because it would have taken away from the affect of it all. I really wanted to know where to put the emphasis and inflection.

When it mattered most, I didn’t find myself getting lost of choking up because practice really helps. There comes a time when you have to stop practicing, but you can never be too prepared.

If you could do it over, what would you have done differently?

I would have liked to have figured out how to fit more stories in it. It was the most powerful part.

What one piece of advice do you have for professors who ask their students to give presentations?

I have two: encouragement and freedom. Obviously, the first is important. Expressing a real interest and giving regular support will make the presentation better, but it will also make the process more collaborative and enjoyable. Also, and this one might be more important: give your students the freedom to explore what interests them, so when it comes time to decide and present, it’s a subject that truly matters to them.

What one piece of advice for students do you have for students who have to give a presentation in class?

I would say have fun with it. If you’re not going to have fun with it, you’re not going to connect with your material.

This is award-winning advice!