Hey Supervisors, give your students a chance to try (even if they might fail)

There’s another student in my research group/network who isn’t great at public speaking. Which is fine, not everyone is great at it immediately  However, I believe that public speaking is largely a teachable skill. So if one practices, they can get better. 

But, in order for one to practice, others have to be willing to give them the opportunity to do so. I’ve mentioned before that my research group has weekly meetings where we discuss our current research and share problems and solutions. It’s a very positive environment, small, and an excellent place to practice explaining ideas.

Recently, in one of our meetings, I asked this student a question about their research. And I made sure that I asked the student not their supervisor. This student started giving an answer, but before they could make it very far, their supervisor jumped in and took over the explanation. I could tell the student was frustrated, because they hadn’t been stumbling or stuck or even very far into their answer. So it wasn’t at a point where the student needed help with their explanation (a point that may not have come at all). I wish I could’ve come up with a way to interrupt the supervisor and pass the answer back to the student. But I couldn’t think of a solution that wouldn’t make the whole situation really awkward.

I’ve mentioned this students presentation skills in a conversation with my supervisor before. I find it a little embarrassing to present with them, and so had brought it up hoping that my supervisor could do something. While my supervisor acknowledged that this student had pretty weak presentation skills, he didn’t immediately suggest any solutions or ways to improve them. However, he did mention that he (and other professors) often jump in and help out weaker students when they present (something I’d also noticed) and that they probably needs to give these students more chances to explain themselves.

I’m a big believer in failure. I’ve written about it before here, and here, and here before (and possibly other places too). I think one of the best ways to improve is to experience failure, and learn how to get over it. In terms of public speaking, this means being given those chances to try, even if you’re not successful. Because, through practice, you’re likely to become successful. 

These research meetings are the perfect place for students to fumble their way through a presentation or explanation. There’s no risk involved. They’re not getting graded. It’s not part of a final defence or candidacy. There are rarely any outside members at the meeting. Everyone is there to support, encourage, and help out each other. I just realize the professors would realize this, and let their students try. Should they ‘fail’, then help them learn what to do better next time. If they need to jump in, then jump in with short points or questions to help direct the conversation, but please, don’t just take over.

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