This is the second of three posts that explore alternative methods of providing students with feedback on University assignments – written and otherwise. Here, consideration will be given to audio only in the shape of feedback podcasts. Now, podcasts are just sections of recorded media, often involving the spoken word, that are normally part of some sort of series. One of the benefits of this is also that students can access MP3 files of their feedback on a range of mobile devices in any number of settings. What I would say from the outset, however, is that the thinking processes associated with verbally recorded feedback are different to those for written feedback and, as such, may take a few runs to get used to. Though all of the same standards and expectations of assessment and communication remain the same, your brain just seems to deal with them differently when you are verbalising.
Students are very positive indeed about this method of feedback. One of the most interesting things reported to me is that it gives the feedback a personal dimension. Though I had not considered this before, one student told me that ‘it is clear you really have taken time to read my work’. As a Lecturer who reads and assessed a great many student assignments, I could regard this as somewhat obvious. However, from the perspective of the student, the written feedback (of a certain register) that I used to provide may actually appear as a more abstract and less personal embodiment of my thoughts about their work. This is significant but, as you can imagine, requires awareness and forethought on behalf of the assessor.
Ok, let us accept for now that this will take a few shots to get used to and look at technical considerations. Here, you want to establish a system that is both efficient and that works for you. Ideally, you want this process to be of equal of greater quality than previous forms and save you time. You have the option of using hand-held or integrated recording devices. Handheld device include things such as digital Dictaphones or zoom recorders. Integrated microphones can be found in most laptops, tablets or as part of usb webcams. If you use a handheld device – and cannot set this up to record directly to eth computer – you may have to transfer the files across after recording which may add a step to the process. Furthermore, they may be susceptible to noise from being held or from the surface on which they are placed (especially if this is a hard surface). If at all possible, I would suggest that, to start out, you record feedback using a webcam. Modern webcams use very high quality electret condenser microphones and, if they are mounted on top of a monitor, are somewhat acoustically insulated from the top of your desk. In getting more advanced, you can mount an external microphone or recording device inside a plastic storage box on your desk that is lined with acoustic foam. This has the effect of deadening reflected sound (like a vocal booth in a recording studio). For your webcam start out, though colleagues may question its ultimate purpose, I would actually suggest that you place a cushion or pillow on the desk in front on the monitor on which the web cam sits. This will again help to absorb reflected sound and improves the overall quality of the recording.
Now that the recording device is dealt with, you must turn your attention to how recordings will be made. As with the device itself, there is any number of options available. If we stick with the web cam for now, this device will show up as a form of sound card or interface on your computer. You could source, download and install a freeware audio recording package such as audacity (available here) in which you will be able to select your webcam as an input device. After choosing this, you should be able to hit record and see your waveform appearing as you speak. On playing this back, you may have to adjust the recording volume for the device, but there are numerous web tutorials on how to do this.
If we imagine now that you have an assignment in front of you to feed back on. I would suggest that you have a pad of paper to the side of you with the assessment criteria and other relevant information clearly visible so you do not have to shuffle and locate things as you record. The most important thing to be aware of here is that you can pause your recording (this is critical).
You could begin be giving a brief overview: this is assessment feedback for (and state matriculation number) and perhaps provide a few more general strengths associated with the submission. Now, at this point you can pause the recording, refer to your first assessment criteria, review the work and – if you need to – make brief notes of any key points. These notes are simply prompts for you during recording and may even be single words. When you are happy with your feedback against this criterion, you can ‘un-pause’ the recording and clearly speak your feedback. This process of pausing and un-pausing can be repeated indefinitely. If you feel as though you run out of words at any point or lose your train of thought, go silent and hit pause. This gives you time to gather your thoughts and then continue. When the student listens back to the final audio file, there will be not pauses in it and it will appear continuous. But what about the content of what I am saying?
Well, the same types of considerations would apply as do to any other form of feedback you give students. Your register must remain professional, unbiased and so forth (but that would apply equally to anything that you write). This being said, there are some additional considerations. Because almost all assessment in Universities is criterion based and relates to grading scale, you must be consistent in how you talk about students’ work. For example, in my institution, something that is ‘good’ would be awarded a grade C; ‘very good’ would gain a grade B, and ‘excellent’ would land a grade A. If I am talking about something that I have assessed as being ‘good’ (i.e. grade C), I could not say something like: ‘Yeh, that bit was very good.’ Doing so is inconsistent with the grading band and would lead to confusion and questions from the student about the grading. Being aware of this is very important as the way we describe things in every day discussion does not command this type of significance. Additionally, and tied to this, I would advise that you never verbally state the grade within the recorded feedback to students. This is simply due to the fact that, for any number of reasons, you may alter this grade during the process and would have to re-record the feedback all over again. Here, the best approach is to provide a very basic summary sheet to students that report the quantitative elements of the assessment (i.e. grades or percentage against each criteria or whatever) and, at the bottom, three to four bullet points (max) stating the things that they need to develop, improve, maintain, augment and so forth for future submissions. The reason I say this is that if student wish to take act on these things (as you hope they will!), it can be quite hard for them to find the precise parts of the audio file where these statements are made. Finally, I would suggest that you record the feedback in such a manner that the student can listen to it with the paper submission in front of them. This means giving them both verbal cues: e.g. ‘Have a look at the paragraph at the top of page 4. This shows that you have understood the difference between X and Y, but perhaps does not convey Z as strongly as it could have. You do this again at the bottom of page 6….’ and a second or so of time to get there.
Having recorded your verbal feedback, you now have to get this to the students. The first thing to consider here is the format that you use to save the audio. I would suggest using the MP3 format as this is both good quality and relatively small in size. Your file does not need to be stereo, so you can convert it to mono before saving or exporting and you can also lower the bit rate. Packages that allow you to save you audio as an MP3 file will normally allow you to alter the file format settings. Where possible, for recorded speech only, you can lower the bit rate to 48kb/s. This will be high enough quality that it is very clear when played back but give a file format small enough to send to students easily. Sending this file and the grading summary sheet to students could be done my email as attachments, through your institutions VLE (i.e. Moodle) or via file transfer systems. Again, it pays to take some time and find the one that is most suitable for you.
Below are some summary points for consideration:
- It will take a few attempts to get used to delivering feedback using this media – that’s fine.
- All the same considerations that apply to written feedback apply equally to this form of feedback. Consider reviewing the work as much as you would consider things the student should look into or consider for ways they can take this learning forward.
- Make your set-up as simple as you can: a webcam, standard PC/Mac and a copy of audacity is more than is required.
- Try to find a quiet time to record your feedback when you know you can have a run at it.
- Speak clearly, but naturally and break the feedback into manageable blocks by pausing and re-starting the recording as required. This gives you time to gather your thoughts if necessary.
- Have a pad to hand to note down any key points you wish to include but not forget.
- Do not verbalise any grades within the recorded feedback – issue these on a separate accompanying document (e.g. pdf file).
- Summarise the main areas for development in no more than four bullet points at the bottom of the grading sheet to remove the need for students to keep searching for these within the audio file.
- Be careful about the quality adjectives you include when describing students work: especially if your institution links grades directly to verbal descriptors (i.e. do not describe something as excellent when it is only graded as good). This maintains internal consistency and mitigates ambiguity.
- Convert your recorded audio to mono files and save these as MP3 files of around 40kb/s. This is more than sufficient for clear audible playback, but notably decreases the file size for deployment.
- Decide upon a suitable method for distributing this back to students such as email or the institutional VLE. This should be manageable for you, efficient and reliable. If you are sending multiple files such as an audio file and grading sheet, it is good practice to encapsulate these in a zip file.