Oral feedback on audio file

Motivation for the activity

Feedback from lecturers to students on current projects or submitted written exams is a good thing. The students often demand it and there are large learning benefits to be found in feedback, if it is done well.

Description of the activity

It is simply a case of giving the students feedback on their written assignments by recording the feedback on a smartphone or a voice-recorder and then sending the audio file to the students as an attachment to an email.

The following relates to feedback on already graded written exam papers, but it should be possible to slightly adapt the form for use on other 'products'.

Which students should be offered feedback?

Firstly, I decide which students I will offer feedback to. This is communicated already in connection with the teaching.

Should everyone who is interested be able to make use of this - or is feedback only for assignments that e.g. were graded below 7?

I also consider what I will do if a student approaches me to get feedback, which they are not actually entitled to - for example, a student who has received a 7 or 10 grade.

What should the students do?

Will I send feedback to everyone regardless or at least to those who meet the criterion (e.g. a grade below 7)?

The past couple of times I have required that the students who wish for feedback should send me a reflection on the qualities of their own assignment. I asked them to highlight three strengths and three weaknesses of the assignment. This they had to send to me via email by a specific date.

In my feedback I respond to these 2 x 3 points. The purpose of requiring input from the students is as follows:

  • Firstly, it is only the students who are genuinely interested in feedback who will receive it. It takes time to reread your own assignment and it is difficult. Those who can be bothered to do this actually take it seriously. Thus I avoid 'producing' a lot of feedback that the students do not want or use.
  • Secondly, rereading your assignment long after it has been written and submitted is in itself a learning activity (which all students ought to do in any case).
  • Thirdly, it paves the way for understanding the feedback that I later send. The student’s own text must be very fresh in their memory for the feedback to make sense.

Recording the feedback

I record the actual feedback on a digital Dictaphone that records in a widespread audio format (mp3 or wma). You can also use a smartphone, but they are more difficult to pause and you need to be able to briefly stop the recording during the recording.

It takes between 5 and 45 minutes to produce such an audio file, depending on the type of exam, its qualities and the thoroughness of the feedback.

There are some technical challenges which must be addressed:

  • Many minutes of feedback result in large files. Some students can have problems receiving files that are 10, 20 or 30 megabytes.
  • You need to be prepared for some students not being able to open the files, and they require guidelines or a converted file. However, this is not a big problem. Today's young people are often more competent when it comes to ICT than we lecturers are.
  • I always begin an audio file by recording the student's name. It would be almost inexcusable if I happened to mix up the files and names, as the content is confidential, or at least, personal.

Based on the assessment form

When I record the audio file, I base my comments on an assessment form that I have completed while reading the assignment. This form ensures in part that I assess the assignments according to the same criteria, in part that I can quickly provide feedback, even though it is several weeks since I read the assignment.

I also have a manuscript for the initial and final standard sentences.

Appreciatory dialogue

All student feedback should be based on an appreciatory form of dialogue.

That is a form where you make an effort to comment on the qualities and weakness in an assignment. All texts contain both.

I often use a model which is regularly described as the sandwich model, where you begin the feedback by highlighting (all) the specific, well-functioning things.

In this regard, it is important to try to remember the self-evident, because our experience often leads us to overlook this. For example, I always emphasise it as a quality if the assignment is relatively error-free. The students also need to know what he/she has done right.

Then I refer to the specific alternatives/problems/opportunities for improvement/errors.

Finally I end with a summary of the assignment’s general, well-functioning characteristics.

The sandwich model and other types of appreciatory communication are widely described in the literature.

E-mail with accompanying text

Once I have recorded the feedback I send it to the student in an email with an introductory, generic accompanying text.

This comprehensive text contains some useful information, but it also gives the impression that I really take this feedback seriously (which is correct).

In this respect the students are like everyone else: if they can feel that I take something seriously, then the chance of them doing the same increases.

Outcome of the activity

The aim has been to facilitate an activity (feedback) that is very rewarding for the students in a learning perspective.

Feedback takes time, but it does not have to take a lot of time.

That being said, the decision to use feedback should hopefully be matched by a lower priority being given to other activities. I have e.g. generally chosen to have less material presentation and review than I would otherwise have included in the teaching.

My claim is as follows: 10-11 lessons + feedback is much better in a pure learning perspective than 12 lessons without the possibility of feedback. (It is still not primarily during the lectures that the students learn something, but that is another matter.)

Discussion of typical reservations about feedback

In my academic environment, feedback - especially feedback on submitted and assessed exam papers - is something that the lecturers are reluctant to provide. I mean there are five identifiable reasons for this:

1. Feedback is time-consuming

It is time-consuming, and many lecturers feel that they are already under pressure. Feedback is therefore one of the first things to be scrapped (if it was ever an option in the first place).

Objection:

Feedback via audio file does of course take time, but considerably less time than virtually all of the alternatives. It takes both less time than written feedback of the same quality, depth and scope and less time than oral, face-to-face feedback discussions.

Oral feedback has a tendency to go in circles because the students ask the same questions or because the lecturer repeats the same points. Time is furthermore often spent on ordinary politeness and 'warming-up'.

Feedback via audio file is simply more compact in terms of pure information.

2. Feedback can be used against us

Some lecturers are concerned about the content of feedback being used as argumentation in any examination appeal. The feedback may be, as it were, used 'against' us.

Objection:

Feedback via audio file does not remove the risk of students use feedback as 'ammunition' in an appeal, but because it is a question of a more informal form, the wording is probably going to have less effect on decisions or judgements.

Moreover, I believe the argument as such to be entirely mistaken: If you have in your role of examiner/co-examiner done your work thoroughly then there is no reason to fear appeals. If it happens then it happens and feedback will almost certainly help prevent far more misunderstood appeals than it will encourage them.

The students who consider the idea of appealing have in almost all cases probably first and foremost a need to learn more about what 'went wrong'.

It is stupid to use the appeals system as feedback. The challenge of appeals points - in my eyes - to an increased use of feedback rather than the opposite.

3. Feedback is tiresome and tedious

It can be something of an effort to provide written feedback, because you have to be very careful with formulations and content.

The feedback must be organised and ordered in a way that does not necessarily follow that of the assignment. It is difficult to send written feedback that is just diffuse thoughts or a loose review of the assignment.

Objection:

Feedback via audio file is very easy to do - especially if you have already taken relatively careful notes on the exam assignment.

You can more or less speak your mind and as long as you keep to reasoned points and comply with good practice for appreciatory communication, then there is no particular requirement to organise the feedback.

Moreover, the oral form has the special advantage of being personal, dynamic and appreciative. A 15 minute audio file does not take much more than 15 minutes to produce and it will be able to contain far more details and be much more down-to-earth than three pages of written feedback.

4. Oral feedback is time-consuming and hard

Oral face-to-face feedback, where the students are invited into the office, has many qualities, but it also has disadvantages.

  • Firstly, it requires extensive coordination if there are many students.
  • Secondly, there is invariably either some wasted time or a risk of the timetable being 'overrun'.
  • Thirdly, oral feedback can be emotionally stressful and unpleasant, if the students are disappointed or angry.

Objection:

Feedback via audio file is emotionally much more manageable, because you avoid any bad atmosphere.

Of course you lose the chance for dialogue, which is clearly a loss in relation to oral feedback that is given face-to-face. If the dialogue aspect is important to you then you should not choose this type of feedback.

A hybrid could be feedback by phone or video conferencing. I have no experience with this but it undoubtedly also has both strengths and weaknesses.

An obvious advantage of recording the oral feedback is that I do it when and almost wherever I want. Moreover, I can utilise time efficiently because I do not have to sit and wait for the next student.

5. Spending time on feedback that is not going to be used is tedious

Not all students are, after all, interested in feedback on their exam assignments, but they may say that they want it.

I would have thought that some of us have found that the students really just want to move on and do not care about a completed exam, but none of the students are going to say no to an offer that does not cost them anything.

Therefore it can, in some cases, feel like a waste of effort to spend time on feedback.

Objection:

Feedback via audio file does not in itself change the fact that it is unproductive to 'spray' feedback out over the students who do not want it.

You should therefore, as described, make some demands on the students who wish for feedback.

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