A habit I picked up while teaching freshman writing is the use of audio comments for student papers. It was first suggested to me by my writing advisor Doug Bradly who used it extensively in his courses. Over the years I’ve come across a few others who use it, but it is far from commonplace among my religious studies colleagues. Nevertheless, I feel audio commentary offers significant advantages over written comments on several fronts.
Time: Foremost is the savings on time and the consequent ability to give more feedback. I can certainly speak faster than I can write (or type). This means in the span of 5 or 10 minutes I can offer perhaps three times the amount of feedback than if I were simply writing comments. Students can pause and rewind what I say, and I advise them to take notes as they are going through their papers with “me.”
Tone: Secondly, I think audio commentary is less threatening and more conversational. I can convey a friendly and curious tone far more clearly through my voice than in writing. Sometimes I’m afraid my written comments may be taken as harsh criticisms without conveying the conversational tone I am hoping to find. It adds a personal touch.
Turnaround: Finally, if there is a tight turnaround (as there is often in writing classes), I can email audio comments to my students soon after class and require them to make changes to their papers the next time we meet. (Obviously this is only a benefit if you accept printed papers; digital papers can be read and returned more quickly via email. )
Be Quiet! Of course there are drawbacks. On my end, this means I almost always have to read and grade at home, in a quiet environment so I can record. Sometimes this is difficult, if not impossible, especially if I am traveling.
In terms of how I structure my audio comments, I typically begin with a simple hello and dive into my main take-away from the student’s writing. I’ll place the most important overall comments first, giving them a sense of whether or not they assessed the assignment correctly and accomplished the goals I had set out for them. (This is essentially the “final comments” at the end of a paper when writing feedback.) Then I will jump into the paper directly, talking about specific paragraphs and sentences. (These are equivalent to the “marginal comments”.) I’ll number the paragraphs as I read through the papers so the student can consult the same passages. While reading I’ll also make small marginal notes to myself so I can comment; rarely do I write extensive comments directly to students. I generally correct spelling and grammatical mistake in writing and only mention them in my recording if I see a clear pattern emerge.
In practice, I try to limit my audio comments to around 5-7 minutes total. I record them directly on my iPhone and transfer them to my computer and email them out to students. (It is possible to email them directly from the iPhone too, but I like to keep a backup on my computer.)
I’ve been doing this for several years and I always tell my students that if audio commentary is not working for them then they can ask me to shift back to written comments. So far, no one has asked me to make this change.
It is perhaps important to note that I only do detailed audio comments on rough drafts, that is where comments will be the most effective. Since I regularly assign rough drafts, or create smaller writing projects that conceptually lead to larger writing projects (as I’ve done for my summer class), I make sure students receive some initial feedback before diving into their final writing projects.