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Surviving Those Special Circumstances

Here we identify some tough tutoring situations that OCTs may encounter and some suggestions on how you can handle it.  To develop this section, we asked our veteran OCTs Kaya McRuer (Class of 2017) and Emma Hutchinson (Class of 2017) to reflect on their experience and share their advice with you. We’ve indicated their initials when they are speaking.  Many thanks to Kaya and Emma for these nuggets!

Disinterested student

There are many challenges that we face as OCTs, but I think one of the most difficult is when students come in because they have to for a class and really have no interest in getting help. I typically start out my office hour sessions with the question, “So, what did you come in for help with today?” When I get the standard response of, “Oh my professor told me I had to…” I know the session is going to require a bit more effort on my part. I usually ask where a student is at in their preparation and what they feel like their biggest struggles are when it comes to public speaking. I do my best to make sure that even if they come in thinking they are just going to get our appointment over with, they leave feeling like they actually got a lot done or learned some useful tools.  –K.M.

Defensive Student

You’re working with a student who seems defensive about their content. Every suggestion for change that you make is met with a justification for why they did it that way. They have a reason for everything in their talk, especially the things that you think need some work. How do you go about giving them feedback, and more importantly, getting them to listen?

  • Use video of rehearsal to illustrate points
  • Use reflexive listening: “It sounds like…”
  • Stay calm: don’t respond with defensiveness or frustration
  • Offer exercises rather than saying, “I think you should change ___” (ie: Can you summarize your main point in one sentence? Let’s outline your main points and look at the transitions between them.)
  • Note the effect that the suggestions will have on the overall success of the speech
  • Acknowledge that there are different opinions on the best way to craft a speech, but give examples of situations that you’ve seen in which revisions worked well

The 11th Hour student

One other thing that happens frequently is students coming in very shortly before presentations. I have heard everything, from, “I have no thesis and it’s tomorrow” to “I have never rehearsed” to “I’m going straight to the class I’m presenting in from here!” The key with those types of appointments is as a tutor to recognize what is feasible for the student to accomplish in the time they have. If the presentation is an hour, do not ask them to overhaul everything, but focus on one or two small changes or some style tips. Also, often these students are feeling a bit panicky and simply running their presentation through and getting some positive affirmation can go a long way. Never forget that a fairly large part of the job is to reassure nervous speakers that they will do fine.  –K.M.

Student who Relies on You Too Much

A student approaches you during office hours with a presentation that they need to give the next day. You only have 45 minutes with the student, and you notice that they’re really relying on your feedback. Your questions to the student are met with “Well, I dunno…What do you think?” and “What do you think I should do here in this section?” “How should I start this passage?”, etc. You get the impression that the student wants you to craft much of their presentation for them. How do you go about the session in order to give the student as much valuable feedback as you can without doing their work?

  • Ask questions. Use “How…”
  • Cultivate the student’s confidence by referring to THEM as the EXPERT.
  • Let the student talk about their thoughts on the topic, and point out moments of brilliance, key ideas.
  • Generate an action plan with the student; write down to-dos and give it to the student so they have something to work from.

Student with Potentially Offensive Content

A student has a slide that suggests, for example, sexism. The student believes it's just their type of humor and doesn't see why they should change it. Personally, you find material clearly offensive. What should you do?

  • Focus on audience reaction. Talk about how speakers always have to be extremely thoughtful about how their audiences may perceive things differently.
  • Stay tactful and be sure not to accuse the speaker.
  • Ask what the speaker hoped to achieve with the slide. “It occurs to me that some members of your audience may perceive this material as sexism. Since that wasn’t your intended purpose, do you think there are other ways you might be able to express that point?”
  • Be honest. If you were offended, you might say, “I’m not sure what everyone else’s reaction is, but as one listener, I found the material offensive. In case that might be others’ reaction as well, is there a way you can change it to connect well with your whole audience?”

If you don't feel comfortable discussing certain material due to offensive content, that’s absolutely okay. Ultimately, it’s best to facilitate a discussion with everyone about potential audience reactions.

Troubled team presentation

Scene 1: Imbalance

You’re working with 3 students who have to give a team presentation. You notice that their group dynamic isn’t very good, and it is affecting the way their presentation is coming along. Two of the group members tend to dominate the other student when it comes to deciding on how they want the presentation to go. However, you see that the presentation won’t improve without more collaboration among all 3 presenters. What do you do?

  • Planning stage: structured discussion (ask each group member for ideas)
  • Presenting stage: Look for interactions and transitions
  • Give facts (Say, “I noticed you spoke for 3 minutes, you spoke for 3 minutes, and you spoke for 1 minute” not “It seems like the two of you are not allowing [the third group member] to participate as much”)
  • Encourage the 3rd student
  • Note real world consequences of smooth group dynamics (In this case, how will this project be graded?)

Scene 2: Negotiating Complexity and Clarity

I once interacted with a pair of students in a PWR 2 presentation that were working together to present a complex economic model to the class. One of the students was really excited about the math, and had created a slide that showed the entire complex equation with definitions of what every variable (of which there were about six or seven) meant. The other partner was trying to push back, saying that the audience didn’t need to know what every variable meant because they were not going to be using the equation for the rest of the presentation. The point of including it was just for reference and to show that others had figured out an equation to use. I gently intervened in the discussion and helped the pair figure out exactly what the purpose of showing the equation was, and given their short time limit, what would best help them achieve their goals and create a clear, compelling presentation. The mathematician and I later got into a discussion about how to communicate complex, technical ideas to a general audience. He was getting angry that science communicators want experts to simplify their information, saying that this made way for egregious inaccuracies. Instead of getting defensive, I asked him to try thinking about it in a different way: that simplifying something does not necessarily make it simplistic, but rather clearer and to the point. He was still in a huff when class ended, but I could tell that he was thinking hard about what I had said. – E.H.