Responding to Student Drafts Using Audio

Annette Vee, English Department, UW-Madison
TA Annette Vee offers an alternative to written feedback on student drafts. She advocates recording audio feedback to achieve a conversational, engaged, and still-thoughtful exchange with students.

It's relatively easy to record an audio file and send that to your students as an attachment to an email, to post that file to your course management software or course website. DOIT can provide instruction on how to create and share audio files with students:

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 made 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 student’s past efforts. I spent a few minutes reviewing this list and selecting 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.


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