By Sritama Chatterjee, a third-year PhD student in Literature at the University of Pittsburgh
Due to the shift to online learning because of COVID-19, one of the things that I miss about teaching are the corridor conversations with students, before and after a class, and listening to their fears about an impending Chemistry exam, their excitement about an upcoming Taylor Swift album or the joys when their favorite team has won the Superbowl. It made space for knowing the students on a more personal level and who they are as human beings without overstepping boundaries. However, the shift to an online medium made it necessary for us as instructors to reimagine how we make these connections with students.
For me, one way was through a shift from written feedback to audio feedback and an exploration of what the medium of sound offered. In a pre-COVID world, I had tinkered with audio feedback, but still preferred written feedback because I was not too sure about the technical challenges: what if my microphone did not work? Did I need to install another piece of software? However, once I got over the initial difficulties, it was a smooth process. You can find technical advice for providing audio feedback on Blackboard, here, for Canvas, here, and how to record using the recording software Audacity, here.
One of the reasons I shifted to providing audio feedback was to convey the affect and tone of my feedback, as speaking can avoid a potential scope for misunderstanding. Students can hear the excitement in my voice when I come across an idea in an essay that I think is really interesting. I can also clearly communicate when an argument lacks evidence. It also allows me the space to create a more personal and meaningful connection with students. Often I ask a question to my students when I am particularly curious about why they have made a writing move in a specific way or what brings them to a topic or idea. Although there is no requirement on their end to respond to my comments/questions, I find that students write back to me in an email responding to my questions or set-up a time to talk to me and that these follow-up conversations often take us in directions that I did not anticipate.
Before providing audio feedback on a draft, I read the draft at least twice, making a mental note of two things: areas where the essay is already strong, so that I can provide examples of what the essay does well to take the argument one step further, and two instances of where the essay needs more work and in what ways. Once this is done, I record the feedback, addressing the students directly, as if I am in a conversation with the student, guiding the students through specific areas of revision and ending the feedback by inviting students to get in touch with me with questions or if they need to clarify something. I learned this conversational approach in audio feedback from Annette Vee’s piece on providing audio feedback, who takes written notes before recording.
Here are some things that I have found helpful for providing audio feedback:
I usually keep the feedback between three to four minutes for a 1200-word draft. Initially, it used to take me six to seven minutes and I found myself repeating the same things. However, with practice, I have grown out of this practice and find four minutes to be of optimum length. However this may vary depending on the pace of your feedback. Keeping a timer in front of you might be helpful. As a graduate worker, I am protective of my time and I ensure that I do not spend more than three hours providing feedback on a major assignment to twenty-two students (and this includes time for reading the assignment).
I use audio feedback only when I am providing feedback at a more conceptual level rather than structural or craft level, though I can imagine that audio feedback could incorporate both of these components. One could use audio feedback in a stand-alone manner or use it in combination with written feedback.
I quote specific page numbers, paragraphs and sentences while providing feedback so that it is always grounded in an idea and students are not lost about what I am referencing. Initially I was not referring to specific passages, but after listening to feedback from my students, I adapted accordingly and am now more direct about what I am talking about.
I try and keep things as spontaneous as possible. The pauses, “aaahs” and “ummm…” are very much part of the feedback.
From student feedback*, it seems that they appreciate audio feedback because of its clarity. For instance, one student wrote: “I really like the audio feedback! I think that a number of times when professors give comments on essays, the tone of what they are trying to say is lost, so the audio gets rid of the ambiguity.” Another student pointed out, “It was nice to hear from you in that way because it sounded like a conversation, which is a nice change from just seeing comments on my assignment.”
In the future, when I use audio feedback, I might make it optional for students to respond to the teacher’s comments, asking them to listen to the feedback first and then summarize their revision plan either in a written or audio form. Having pointed out some of the benefits of audio feedback and the ways in which students have responded to it, I will note that audio feedback might not work for students who are deaf or hard of hearing and as educators, it remains our work to make feedback more inclusive.
*Student permission has been taken to include comments in this piece.