In 2007, researchers from West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina thought up an interesting study. In asynchronous distance learning scenarios, what would happen if one group of students received audio-based feedback on their work while another group received traditional, text-based feedback? Their findings were remarkable — especially now that so many of us find ourselves facilitating distance learning.
For one thing, audio feedback improved student satisfaction — students who received audio feedback were significantly more satisfied with the feedback their teachers gave.
But here's the crazy finding:
Students who received audio feedback were three times more likely to apply the contents of audio feedback to subsequent work.
That gets my attention. You're telling me there may be a way to get 3x the likelihood that my students will incorporate the feedback I give them on their writing as they work on later pieces? I'm interested.
Why audio feedback works so well
The researchers collected large surveys at the end of their study, and many of their participants agreed to post-study interviews. In their exploration of the data, they discovered four explanatory themes for their findings.
Students perceived audio feedback to be more effective than text-based feedback for conveying nuance.
When I write to a student something like, “not sure what you mean here” or “unclear,” it can sound a dozen ways in the mind of the student. But when I speak that feedback, my tone is way harder to miss. That diminishes the likelihood that I'll be misinterpreted as a cruel, cold-hearted joy-killer — and that's good for my credibility.
Here's how one of their respondents put it:
I have taken a couple of online classes and every time I would get these notes or critiques or comments back from the instructor and I would be wondering exactly what they were trying to say. I mean, I would understand what they were saying but not the way they were trying to say it. Sometimes you would wonder if they were agreeing with you or trying to figure out how to politely say you had it all wrong.
Now, when I first heard the audio feedback I was like wow! I get what he is saying to me. It was all in your voice and I understood when you were saying something like well this is good, but…
I understood then that you really liked what I was doing but were trying to tell me to add a little more, but in a good way. Now, in the first time we got feedback it was written and you said some things that were kind of the same but I thought you were really trying to bust me for not doing a good enough, you know, job. Then I looked at my grade and it was good so I couldn’t understand exactly what you were thinking.
Was my work not so good and you just gave me a decent grade? Or was it ok and I just didn’t understand what [was being] said to me. When I heard you say something similar though the whole thing made sense.
Look at the clarity that this student describes as being possible only through audio feedback. How much mental energy do students normally spend double- and triple-thinking the intent behind a given piece of written feedback? This is why teacher clarity makes so much of a difference — it allows more cognitive resources to be spent where they are needed for learning to take place.
Audio feedback was associated with feelings of increased involvement and enhanced learning community interactions.
This has the Belonging belief written all over it — for more on that belief and its four siblings, try this post.
Here's how a participant put it:
Yes, I would have to say that audio [commenting] made all the difference in the world to me. I’ve taken several online classes here and at [another university] because they are so much more… uhm, easier for me to get to. The downside is that I have felt like I am the girl in the bubble. Some of the instructors have done these things like the biography postings and online groups that help you meet other students and get to know them; some haven’t. But even where they have [used these types of activities] you still feel like you are at home in your own little bubble and you are telegraphing out to all these other bubbles that other people are sitting in. Then between all of you there is this cold wall type thing. It’s the course, the technology, all of that stuff that makes the course. There is this barrier there.
Now, some of that has went away a little when we did things like be in chats, but it’s still all kind of unreal you know? … I’ve always felt that these online classes are a little, you know, dehumanizing.
That said, I get this file where you put in this audio and boom! It was all a big change for me you know? It was like that bubble started getting popped in all these different places and made me feel like you were reaching in there and touching me. I know that’s probably kind of silly, but just your voice alone made me feel like it was a real class and not this big technology construct that was locking us into its parts.
This really changed the way I viewed the whole online learning thing.
Guys, keep doing this kind of stuff. Next semester and I’m done with my masters and I didn’t know if I would ever take another online class or not, but if I could see a class where this was going on between me and the instructor and me and the other [students] then I would be all about learning this way.
Do you see the way in which key beliefs are being shifted through the simple intervention of audio feedback?
Audio feedback was associated with increased retention of content.
We remember what we think about, and apparently audio feedback encourages a student to think about the feedback that they are receiving.
Here's one study participant's take:
I like this because I am listening to what you are saying and scanning what I wrote. I can see what you are talking about and it clicks that way. Now, granted, I might have to listen to it and read it two or three times because doing both at once makes it all not stick as well, but in the end it works better than if both parts had been written only.
Audio feedback was associated with the perception that the instructor cared more about the student.
I love how this participant put it:
You took the time to try out this new audio file thing and actually communicate with us. Earlier I told you how I thought that it was way better than just reading words that might be misunderstood. That’s true and so is the part when I said it made those connections that brought the class together. But what I left out is that it also showed that you were interested in our, in us learning what was going on. When you take the time to establish something that’s this complex it shows you want us to really be a class and not just a group of individuals all doing something similar. I know teaching is pretty thankless, but I do want you to know that I appreciate what went on this semester. I can’t really say that I’ve said that about any of my other online classes, but you talking to me, I mean really talking to me, and everything that was built up from that, made me feel that way here.
Look at the five key beliefs in action:
- You were interested in us learning. That's credibility.
- You want us to really be a class. That's credibility and belonging.
- I felt like this class was special. That's value.
A quick aside re: understanding the reasons for a strategy's effectiveness
Here's a quick tip that will make a world of a difference in your personal professional development if you take it to heart early in your career. When a researcher or a writer or a presenter or a colleague shares why they think something is effective, this is where our ears really need to perk up. Why? Because understanding that a strategy works is like being given the proverbial fish; understanding why a strategy works is learning to fish. As often as possible, we want to push ourselves to get to the bottom of the mechanisms behind a given strategy's effectiveness because this is massively more helpful long-term than simply knowing that the strategy is effective.
I missed this for so many years; writing These 6 Things was really the push that changed the game for me. Some of those chapters took a lot of hard climbing — but the view from the top was excellent.
My point isn't to go write a book — it's to push your PD as deep as you can. Work to know why a thing works — and take heart in the truth that researchers like the ones we are learning from today are way into this work, too.
Cue one of our mantras here at the blog: great teachers are great understanders.
The limitations of the audio feedback study… and why it's still worth giving audio feedback an earnest look this school year
Before I show you some high-polish screencasts of how to give audio feedback in a couple popular distance learning management systems, I do want to address a major weakness of this study: it's small, and to my knowledge its findings haven't been replicated. In fact, in a 2015 study I found, audio feedback did not lead to higher attainment on subsequent work.
In short, it seems that a consensus from the research on audio feedback is that it does increase student satisfaction but may not consistently increase effective student use of the feedback. My guess is that this is because of how complex the art and science of giving effective feedback is — there are way more variables in studies like this than simply audio v. written feedback. This is why smart colleagues like Matt Johnson are able to write entire books on the topic of effective, efficient feedback — and needfully so.
In other words, if you were looking for an excuse to ignore this school year's opportunity to give audio feedback… well, there you go. But look: we know that in 2020-2021, a remarkably large number of students and families are going to feel the dehumanization that one of the study participants above described. To me, the studies give a pretty clear picture on the reality that audio feedback helps with humanizing online learning spaces.
As for me and my practice, I see enough potential gains to merit the challenges of trying to get the hang of leaving feedback this way. I'm going to try it, earnestly.
Let's look at the technical nuts and bolts for a few platforms.
How to give audio feedback on student work in Canvas
This isn't hard at all in the Canvas learning management system that I'm transitioning to at my school. Here's how to leave audio feedback on student work in Canvas.
For more instructions:
- View the “Media Comments” section of the Canvas Guide, How do I leave feedback comments for student submissions in SpeedGrader Canvas Guide.
How to give audio feedback on student work in Google Classroom
But what if you're using Google Classroom? I've got ya — and thanks to colleagues who've written in since I first wrote this post, there are several solutions below.
Mote: the easiest method for leaving audio feedback on student work done in Google Classroom
Here's the link for getting the Mote extension added to your Chrome browser.
Talk and Comment: another remarkably easy method for doing this within Chrome / Classroom
Vocaroo: slow and a bit clunky (use this if none of the above work)
How to Give Audio Feedback on Student Work in D2L/Brightspace
I don't have access to this platform as a teacher, but here's a screenshare I found.
This explainer page also looks helpful.
How to Give Audio Feedback on Student Work in Schoology
Here's a walkthrough video made by a Schoology teacher.
How to add audio to Peardeck
How to give audio feedback using Microsoft Teams
Here's Will Middlebrooks, a middle school science teacher in the great state of Washington.
For our colleagues using MS Teams/Office Suite (like our district) you can easily add voice notes for feedback and MGC: from menu click Insert>Audio (see screen snip below). I add these into our science notebooks which I run exclusively on OneNote. Simple one click and students/teachers can record and embed on the page. Good two-way street as students can leave voice notes as easily as I can.
How to give audio feedback on student work using Blackboard
Our colleague Ashleigh Fox shared this link: https://elearning.uni.edu/faq/how-do-i-leave-videoaudio-feedback-student-submissions. (Thank you, Ashleigh!)
If you're using a platform that I don't have listed, leave a comment below and I'll get it added quickly.
In the meantime, I hope this post helped. Take care — I'm one of many people teaching right beside you.