Much has been written about best practices for providing feedback on student writing. As writing classes moved online in the late 1990s and into the twenty-first century, providing feedback often involved typing comments into a paper and posting the paper to the learning management system of the class. Instructors of online classes do not generally hold in-person office hours and have no physical classroom in which to converse with students, so written comments are often the only means of communication about student work.
Research on Written and Audio Feedback
Research shows, however, that students often find the written comments on their papers unclear (Niven and Meyer; Norton and Norton). In many situations, these comments feature jargon or direction from the teacher that students don’t understand (Bardine et al.; Glover and Brown).
Another option is audio feedback. A significant amount of literature has been published about audio feedback on students’ writing. In the 1980s and 1990s, audio feedback was sometimes given through cassette tapes. Chris Anson and his colleagues point out that as the teaching of writing transitioned online, “oral recorded commentary experienced a technology gap and disappeared from the scene” (381). But as fiber-optic connections and faster broadband capabilities emerged, digital audio files became widely used (Sipple; Still). Studies showed that students often found audio feedback to be more comprehensible and more thorough than written feedback and to have a friendlier, coaching tone (Cavanaugh and Song; Merry and Orsmond; Sipple). Audio feedback thus seems to offer a promising alternative to students who find written feedback difficult to comprehend.
Audio Feedback on Grammatical and Mechanical Errors
Nonetheless, much of the literature on audio feedback notes that for grammatical and mechanical errors, students often prefer written feedback (Ice et al.). This preference can occur because students want to know where the errors exist in their papers, and the written feedback allows them to locate the errors right away (Sipple). Conversely, students can find it challenging to locate specific errors pointed out by audio feedback (Brearley and Cullen; Wood et al.).
But in my experience, audio feedback works more effectively than written feedback for commenting on students’ grammatical and mechanical errors. If instructors are clear in verbally directing the student to the specific paragraph and sentence on which they are commenting, the student can easily navigate to the problematic area. If this potential challenge of mapping the comments to the specific area in the paper is overcome, then the benefits of providing audio feedback are clear.
In providing audio feedback about grammatical and mechanical problems, I can read a sentence to a student, thus enabling the student to hear the error. This dynamic occurs when I address sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and word-form errors—to name a few examples. For misspelled words, I can read the word and direct the student to look up the correct spelling. In this case, audio feedback might not present much of an advantage over typed feedback. However, for other errors, audio feedback has advantages. In addition, audio comments are more effective than typed feedback if one sentence has a number of errors in it. When sentences have multiple errors, marking such errors through written feedback can be cumbersome and render the feedback difficult to read. Audio feedback allows me to talk through all the issues in the sentence without having to help the student navigate the comments on paper.
Written and Audio Feedback: A Comparison
For example, let’s say a student named Peter responds to an article as follows:
In his article, “Maybe the Experts Were Right about Covid-19 the First Time,” Joseph Sternberg writes that many of the opinions from experts in February and March about how to handle the coronavirus might have been right. Although at the time many people criticized them. Sternberg mentiones that “[t]he stated goal was not to vanquish the virus but merely to try to control its spread.” He says that Swedens approach might have been the best. It’s leaders are coordinating herd immunity. Which might prevent a future peak of the virus. In fact, Sternberg argues that the viruses second surges in countries like Singapore and Hong Kong warn us of what might happen, in fact, these surges might indicate that total lockdowns are not that affective.
In this paragraph, Peter has the following grammatical and mechanical errors:
- a sentence fragment: Although at the time many people criticized them.
- a misspelled word: Sternberg mentiones . . .
- a missing apostrophe needed to show possession: He says that Swedens approach . . .
- confusion of its and it’s: It’s leaders are coordinating . . .
- a sentence fragment: Which might prevent a future peak of the virus.
- a run-on sentence: In fact, Sternberg argues that the viruses second surges in countries like Singapore and Hong Kong warn us of what might happen, in fact, these surges might indicate that total lockdowns are not that affective.
- the use of a plural noun instead of a possessive noun: that the viruses second surges . . .
- a misspelled word within the run-on sentence: . . . are not that affective
If this paragraph were marked using the Track Changes feature of Microsoft Word, it might look as follows:
In his article, “Maybe the Experts Were Right about Covid-19 the First Time,” Joseph Sternberg writes that many of the opinions from experts in February and March about how to handle the coronavirus might have been right. Although at the time many people criticized them sentence fragment. Sternberg mentiones spelling? that “[t]he stated goal was not to vanquish the virus but merely to try to control its spread.” He says that Swedens possessive expression approach might have been the best. It’s confused word leaders are coordinating herd immunity. Which might prevent a future peak of the virus. sentence fragment. In fact, Sternberg argues that the virusesthis should be possessive, not plural second surges in countries like Singapore and Hong Kong warn us of what might happen, in fact, these surges might indicate that total lockdowns are not that affective spelling? You are confusing this word with a different word. The last sentence is a run-on sentence.
If the instructor were to send audio feedback to Peter, it might sound as follows:
In the written feedback, Peter has to read the instructor’s comments alongside his original text and figure out why the sentence has the problems the teacher is pointing out. In the audio feedback, the instructor directs Peter to correct the errors. The errors are pointed out as if the instructor were talking to Peter in a face-to-face meeting. In talking through the issue, the instructor can explain why the problem exists, read the sentence that features the error, and even suggest ways of correcting the error. Providing this level of detail in typed comments might be cumbersome, but in audio form it may be enjoyable for the instructor and more comprehensible for the student. Peter is also directed to the three errors in the last sentence and thus does not have to navigate a myriad of comments sprinkled throughout. In addition, if the instructor is clear about what part of the paper the comments refer to, then Peter can locate the section or sentence and focus on the text while listening to the audio feedback.
Overall, I would encourage instructors to consider providing audio feedback for students’ papers, including audio feedback on grammar and mechanical errors. I have found it refreshing to be able to talk through grammar issues with my students rather than mark up or type words and phrases into their documents. I find that audio feedback enhances my ability to coach and nurture students and explain grammar concepts.
Anson, Chris M., et al. “Students’ Perceptions of Oral Screencast Responses to Their Writing.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol. 30, no. 3, July 2016, pp. 378–411. EBSCOHost, doi:10.1177/1050651916636424.
Bardine, Bryan A., et al. “Beyond the Red Pen: Clarifying Our Role in the Response Process.” The English Journal, vol. 90, no. 1, 2000, pp. 94–101. EBSCOHost, doi:10.2307/821738.
Brearley, Francis Q., and W. Rod Cullen. “Providing Students with Formative Audio Feedback.” Bioscience Education, vol. 20, Dec. 2012, pp. 22–36. EBSCOHost, doi:10.11120/beej.2012.20000022.
Cavanaugh, Andrew J., and Liyan Song. “Audio Feedback versus Written Feedback: Instructors’ and Students’ Perspectives.” Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, vol. 10, no. 1, Mar. 2014, pp. 122–38, jolt.merlot.org/vol10no1/cavanaugh_0314.pdf.
Glover, Chris, and Evelyn Brown. “Written Feedback for Students: Too Much, Too Detailed or Too Incomprehensible to Be Effective?” Bioscience Education E-journal, vol. 7, May 2006, pp. 1–16. EBSCOHost, doi:10.3108/beej.2006.07000004.
Ice, Phil, et al. “An Analysis of Students’ Perceptions of the Value and Efficacy of Instructors’ Auditory and Text-Based Feedback Modalities across Multiple Conceptual Levels.” Journal of Educational Computing Research, vol. 43, no. 1, Sept. 2010, p. 113–34. EBSCOHost, doi:10.2190/EC.43.1.g.
Merry, Stephen, and Paul Orsmond. “Students’ Attitudes to and Usage of Academic Feedback Provided via Audio Files.” Bioscience Education E-journal, vol. 11, June 2008, pp. 1–11. EBSCOHost, doi:10.3108/beej.11.3.
Niven, Penny, and Billy Meyer. “Understanding the Impact That Principled Formative Feedback Has on First Year Students’ Writing: Is It Useable or Not? An Action Research Project.” International Journal of Learning, vol. 14, no. 8, Dec. 2007, pp. 13–22. EBSCOHost, search.ebscohost.com.
Norton, Lin S., and J. C. W. Norton. “Essay Feedback: How Can It Help Students Improve Their Academic Writing?” International Conference of the European Association for the Teaching of Academic Writing across Europe, 18–20 June 2001, Groningen. ERIC, eric.ed.gov/?id=ED454530.
Sipple, Susan. “Ideas in Practice: Developmental Writers’ Attitudes toward Audio and Written Feedback.” Journal of Developmental Education, vol. 30, no. 3, 2007, pp. 22+. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42775244.
Still, Brian. “Talking to Students: Embedded Voice Commenting as a Tool for Critiquing Student Writing.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol. 20, no. 4, Oct. 2006, pp. 460–75. EBSCOHost, doi:10.1177/1050651906290270.
Wood, Kathryn A., et al. “Audio Feedback for Student Writing in Online Nursing Courses: Exploring Student and Instructor Reactions.” The Journal of Nursing Education, vol. 50, no. 9, pp. 540–43. PubMed, doi:10.3928/01484834-20110616-04.