Responding to student writing in an effective and timely manner is important to student success. And we want students to succeed, to be good writers.

However, students don’t often expect to receive detailed and intricate feedback on their work; they expect to see the dreaded “red pen” marks. They assume that we don’t really read their writing, that we give each page a cursory glance, and that we are only looking for spelling and grammatical errors. This implies–and the students believe–that “writing” is only “writing correctly.”

But writing is much more than that, and as professionals we understand this. We know that revision has a key role in the process of writing, but good revision requires good feedback.

Studies in composition research note that students pay most attention to the notes a professor makes at the end of a document and not the sentence-level markings within an essay. And even further studies indicate that if a professor provides oral feedback on written work, the student pays even closer attention to those words. So, we can surmise, the more feedback the better the revisions.

Teaching writing is hard work, and it takes a lot of time, more time than most of us feasibly have. However, we can find a way to respond to student writing in a detailed manner that doesn’t take significant blocks of time. We could conference with students (and this is a very effective teaching tool), but we can also respond to students through the use of digital/audio recording. By recording our comments to students, we are able to give more feedback, be more personal, and connect more easily with the student writer. And, as studies have indicated, the students are more receptive to those personal words.

Over the past few years, as I return their work to them, I’ve also sent them (through email or through a CMS dropbox) audio feedback response. Recording my often extensive comments about a student essay–instead of writing those comments–allows me to ask more questions, questions that might help a student think through her essay topic a little differently, and it allows me to offer oral praise for a student’s work. I still respond to student writing on the essay itself, but I limit those “red pen” marks by noting representative mechanical concerns. I spend most of my time recording, providing comments on the validity of the essay’s argument, its organization, its audience and focus, or other information a student might need about a particular assignment.

Responding these comments also allows me to read certain passages of the writing back to the student, and this permit the student to “hear” the writing differently, in a different voice. This methods helps students understand the work differently, thereby, revising it differently.

You can easily produce commentary on student writing by using a digital/audio recorder. Once produced, it’s easy to email an attachment of the file to a student or to a dropbox.

Of course, other options are available to record feedback on student writing and we can cover those in future ProfHacker articles. *(As far as I can tell, the 2007 version of MS Word no longer supports the insertion of audio files into a text, but if a ProfHacker reader knows differently please leave info in comments.)

The equipment I use is simple: an Olympus WS-510M digital tape recorder (this uploads files directly to a computer). This particular recorder has a built-in microphone, speakers, and USB (you can also use an external microphone and headbuds). If I need to edit a file (and I rarely do), I use Audacity (free download), as it’s easy to learn. There are other equipment types that work just fine. Maybe ProHacker readers can provide their favorite tools for this type of work.

The downside to this type of feedback is two-fold: one is about you, there is a learning curve to providing this type of student response. It takes time to learn to record yourself and not be self conscious about what you are saying; it takes time to make sure you are giving sound feedback. Secondly, it doesn’t make responding to student writing easier, but it does give the student more feedback than we can feasibly give with a pen.

Additionally, students can have difficulty with this type of feedback, at least initially. This type of feedback is not what students expect to receive. Many students will have technology issues. They won’t know how to open the file, they won’t know what to do with it when they receive it, and they will resist it (as they do with many other innovative technologies).

In the long run, though, this type of feedback is effective. Jeff Sommers, at Heterotopic Space, has written quite a bit on his use of audio feedback and he has statistical support for his work. He also provides examples of the types of feedback he gives. Good stuff.

In comments below, please tell us about ways that you respond to student writing in a digital/audio way. What equipment do you use? What kinds of resistance have you found with students and this type of technology?

[Image by Flickr user ragesoss; licensed by CC.]