Responding to Student Drafts Using Audio

Annette Vee, English Department, UW-Madison
Instead of writing comments on student papers, some instructors record spoken feedback in a digital audio file.  Here's a thoughtful explanation of the benefits of audio feedback, sample student reactions to the audio feedback, and guidelines for trying this yourself.

Like many writing instructors, I had a comfortable and effective written feedback routine for my students’ writing; however, when wrist pain from typing prompted me to seek alternative methods of giving feedback, I discovered how rewarding audio commenting could be for both me and my students.


Midway through teaching the brand-new Comm-B course in Library and Information Studies in Fall 2008, I encountered such severe and chronic pain in my wrist that I could no longer type comfortably. Because LIS 201 is a hybrid course, half face-to-face and half online, I typed a lot in response to students. Plus, I had a dissertation to write: how could I cut back on typing and still respond to my students' drafts in ways that honored their efforts and helped with their revisions? I remembered a conference presentation I'd seen by Zach Koppelman, a PhD student at Boise State University, about responding to students' papers via recorded audio; he was so enthusiastic that I wanted to take the plunge myself. With the support of the course director, Prof. Greg Downey, and a warning to my 31 students that I was experimenting with an alternative way to respond to their writing, my digital voice recorder and I were ready to go. Although my audio responses to students' papers in my Comm-B course began in response to my own health issues, my students and I both felt they were a rousing success. When recorded in 3-6 minute audio files, my responses to my students’ drafts took just a little more time in preparation than my traditional written ones, but they seemed more personal and the friendly tone of my voice softened my suggestions for revision; additionally, I was able to cover many more positive aspects of students' papers along with those that needed improvement.


My Method

To provide students with audio feedback on their papers, I began by reading their 3-5 page double-spaced drafts carefully, just I did for my written comments. Since I had electronic copies of their papers, I didn't make marginal notes; however, on printed essays, I might have make marks in the margins to indicate places I wanted to talk about. As I read each essay, I wrote down a list of issues I wanted to discuss, making sure to prioritize global concerns, such as inadequate use of sources or underdeveloped places in the argument. Alongside the places I felt needed improvement, I found sections of the argument that were particularly strong, phrasing I found marvelous, or evidence of a marked improvement on a students' past efforts. I spent a few minutes reviewing this list and selected sections of the essay, then I collected my thoughts and hit “record.”  Editing the audio file to take out my spoken stops and starts would have taken a lot of time and it would have detracted from my conversational tone, so I recorded most responses in just one take.


As I recorded, I pretended the student was there with me in a conference. The general structure of my audio response mirrored my written responses to students' drafts: a word of praise about what was working well in the draft, followed by specific ways the next draft could be improved, and ending with a positive note to encourage their revision process. I began by offering a friendly greeting and a general comment of praise about the paper, such as “Hi, Betsy! I'm going to respond to your paper about X. First of all, I'm glad you chose this website for your analysis! There are so many interesting things to write about there.”  In the middle section of the recording, I was able to talk through my reactions to various points in students’ papers, offering more nuance than I usually can in written responses through the tone of my voice and the natural efficiency of speech. When I wanted to refer to a specific section or sentence to address a local concern about writing, I read the student’s writing out loud to direct him to the right place: “In your third paragraph, where you write X…”  In closing I said something like: “Exploring the implications of X would be a really interesting place for you to take this, and I'd be happy to meet with you as your ideas develop for your next draft. I look forward to reading it, Betsy!” The audio format allowed me to explain my concerns in much more detail than in my handwritten comments, and at the end of each recording, I was also able to offer a short recap of the strengths of the paper and the best places for the student to invest time on improvements.


What Students Thought

Of the students who gave me feedback on the audio responses to their papers—what I dubbed their “personal podcast”-- all were very enthusiastic. They confirmed my impressions that I was able to be more personable and positive, yet also offer more detailed suggestions for improvement. In class discussion, some students explained how they had enjoyed listening to me talk about their papers, and that they had listened to my feedback a couple of times and taken notes to absorb everything I had said to them. Of course, not every student followed every revision suggestion I made, but the audio comments helped them prioritize their revisions better than written feedback, so they followed many of the more essential suggestions I made. In the course blog, a few of them wrote about my audio feedback at the end of the semester:


  • I preferred the audio response to the e-mail responses to my paper because I could actually hear the emotion behind the ideas presented. This way I knew that you felt more strongly about certain aspects than others.
  • The audio review really allowed the TA to be more specific and explain in more detail what it was that they thought we could do to better our papers. While email helped as well, it was up to us to try and decipher what it was the TA actually meant but with the audio reviews the TA could more fully explain themselves.
  • I liked the podcast polished draft feedback for the way it was more spontaneous, and the suggestions seemed more detailed and nuanced in this format. I didn't really mind having to take notes too much because it allowed me put the suggestions in my own words. I now prefer the podcast over the typed feedback.

Maybe my students’ reviews were so positive because they could hear in my voice how I enjoyed talking “with” them. I felt less directive than in my written comments because I could address their paper more thoroughly and be forthright when I had conflicting feelings about their argument or my own revision suggestions. The recordings took a bit longer for me to produce than written feedback, but I enjoyed the “conversation,” so the stack of papers didn't seem as daunting as usual.


Some Technical Notes

If audio responses and written responses were dives in the Olympics, the audio responses would have a slightly higher difficulty multiplier—they require a recording device, a bit of confidence about extemporaneous speaking, and a heftier method of delivery than written responses. The recording, file conversion, and sending process of audio comments takes about the same amount of time for each file, no matter how long it is. As a result, it may be a better use of your time to use audio responses for offering more extensive comments on drafts rather than on final essays.


I recommend sending your students audio files in mp3 format; since it is the current, de facto standard for most audio players, you're unlikely to encounter tech support questions from students playing mp3s. As long as you use a decent recorder in a quiet space and speak at a reasonable volume, your students should be able to hear you in an mp3 file. I have a good digital voice recorder (DVR) that records in a format other than mp3, but I upload files from my DVR to my computer and convert them to mp3s using the free program Audacity prior to sending them to students. If you don't already have a DVR, you could borrow one from one of the libraries or new media centers on campus or use the microphone that's probably built into your personal computer. All recent Macs have a microphone built in and the program GarageBand allows you to record directly into your Mac in mp3 format. Most recent PCs have microphones built in, too, although the PC doesn't come with recording software. On the PC, the free program Audacity works for recording as well as converting audio files from a DVR. Audacity is available via free download at One small thing to remember if you’re using Audacity on a PC: to convert your recorded files to mp3, you'll have to install the LAME plug-in[i], which the Audacity website will walk you through. After you have your mp3 files ready, you can email them to students individually. Because mp3 file sizes are relatively large, however, you may find it easier to upload your files to your “web” folder on MyWebSpace and send your students links to the files instead. If you have any technical questions about recording audio, the staff in the computer labs and in the new media centers on campus should be able to help you out.


Final Thoughts

Now that I've developed effective ways of responding to students in audio as well as written modes, I enjoy being able to offer my students various ways of learning about their writing process from my feedback. If you decide to record audio responses to your students, here are some things to consider:

  • Are you commenting on drafts or final essays? Audio responses work best for more extensive, nuanced commenting rather than short summary commenting. Assess your own commenting style to make the best use of your time spent recording and sending audio files to students.
  • Do you know the right tone to strike for your teaching style and your students? Speaking from notes immediately after reading the paper may not only be more efficient, but it may also allow you to speak in a friendlier, more conversational tone to your students.
  • Do you have the right equipment to record audio comments? You’ll need a recording device or computer that records in mp3 format (or a program that will convert files to mp3) and an easy way of saving and sending files to students.
  • Have you checked with your students about offering audio feedback?  If you're a TA, have you checked with your course director? Since audio comments are still out of the ordinary, it’s best to keep everyone in the loop to avoid confusion. Additionally, some students may need special accommodations to listen to your audio files and a heads-up gives them time to let you know what they need.


Good luck, and I hope you and your students find audio commenting as rewarding as I and my students did. 





[1]Although it's become a standard for audio players, the mp3 format has legal restrictions that do not allow Audacity to support it without a plug-in.