Impromptu Speaking Opportunities in the Archives: A Guide for Evaluating Students
Impromptu Speaking Opportunities in the Archives: A Guide for Evaluating Students

For the past two years, I have brought my public speaking students into the archives to examine original documents and to deliver impromptu speeches about their research. The archives provides my students with new topics for their speeches, and a new setting in which they can deliver them.

Many instructors outside of the field of communications are interested in incorporating speech exercises into their archives visits, and have asked me about how to do so. In response, I have created a set of criteria which any instructor can use to evaluate student speeches both in and out of the archives.

Speeches provide students the opportunity to effectively summarize their observations, and to share their findings with classmates. Such an assignment also allows the professor to “check in” with their students’ progress, learning, and engagement.

I have found that primary sources in an archives represent excellent supporting material for speeches. No matter what topic students research or what kinds of collections they consult, public speaking exercises are a great way for students to demonstrate what they’ve learned in the archives.

In my course, students give impromptu speeches about a variety of maps in the archives, including manuscript and transit maps. One group analyzed a map of downtown Brooklyn created by the Chamber of Commerce and they concluded that the purpose of the map was to bring additional shoppers to downtown Brooklyn.

Another group examined a fire insurance map that depicts the types of materials used make buildings in the area. That group concluded that there is historical value to the map beyond insurance purposes. Other students looked at maps depicting the area of our campus and observed a street that no longer exists. I found the impromptu speech activity to be a highly effective way to gauge how well students applied observation, critical thinking, and analysis skills in the archives.

It is also helpful to have students deliver speeches in a variety of places outside the college classroom. Students need to adjust their delivery to the new environment of the archives, a more formal and public space outside of the safety of the classroom. This experience shows students that the skills and knowledge they learn in a public speaking course are useful in a range of real-life academic and professional settings.

When I shared my successes with colleagues in other departments, they expressed interest in creating similar wrap up exercises. I think this is a great idea – as long as they are committed to assessing “communication completeness.” This approach requires an instructor to assess the student speech and provide clear feedback along three lines: content, organization, and delivery.

Most students have little to no experience with public speaking when they enter college. Those lucky students who do rarely receive feedback on delivery; most evaluation focuses on the content of their speech. But a teachable moment is lost when history, psychology, biology, or mathematics professors who assign in-class speaking opportunities fail to evaluate students’ delivery and organization.

Perhaps these instructors simply fail to take communication evaluation seriously. But it is much more likely that they have little experience in evaluating speakers and are therefore hesitant to do so.

Overlooking the delivery and organization of a speech can establish or reinforce bad habits for verbal and nonverbal delivery, something that will have a negative impact on a student throughout college and beyond.

A Guide for Evaluating Students

To help non communications instructors, I have created a comprehensive set of criteria that they can use to evaluate the content, organization, and delivery of a student’s speech:


The good news is that most faculty already provide students with feedback on the content of a speech assignment, so that should largely remain the same.


An instructor will want to make sure that students structure their speeches in a coherent way. I advise my students to have the following:

  • a clear introduction that previews the main points
  • a certain number of main points
  • effective transitions between main points
  • a clear conclusion that recaps the main points

The instructor should look for verbal delivery (volume, pitch, rate, pauses, and articulation) and non-verbal delivery (eye contact, body movement, and hand gestures).

The National Communication Association provides a variety of excellent resources for educators interested in exploring these criteria in more detail.

To cite this page:
M. Justin Davis, “Impromptu Speaking Opportunities in the Archives: A Guide for Evaluating Students,”, accessed [insert date here],