For the past 100 years, folks in higher education have assumed that feedback must be written. Even when the assignment itself was not in text form, such as a video, instructors usually provided written comments. But feedback can be given in a myriad of different ways, including audio, video, screencasts, and other formats, and nobody has questioned whether text is the best format for giving feedback—until now.
Phil Ice, a longtime educational researcher, has compared the efficacy of voice feedback to text feedback in several studies. Ice started with a graduate teaching course of 34 students, and continued with a variety of courses totaling more than 300 students. Ice had faculty give students text feedback on some assignments and voice feedback on others. Faculty were not given any directions about the content of the feedback. They were simply told to give whatever feedback they thought was appropriate.
The results were striking. As one student put it:
We’ve had written comments twice and verbal comments twice now. Let me guess—this is someone’s research project, right? Let me just save you some time. The verbal feedback is much, much, much better than the written.
The end-of-class survey in the graduate course demonstrated a strong preference for voice feedback. Of the 31 student respondents:
The follow-up survey in other courses showed a similar distribution. Respondents were asked to respond to the following prompt using a five-point Likert scale (from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”): “I prefer audio feedback to text-based feedback.” The mean answer was 4.47, which was centered between “agree” and “strongly agree.” Only nine students out of 312 disagreed or strongly disagreed.
Five general themes emerged from the studies.
Theme one: increased content retention
Content retention is where the rubber meets the road. Students believed that they retained audio feedback better than they did text feedback, and, interestingly, students also believed that they retained content to which the audio feedback was related better than they did content for which they received text feedback. These beliefs were supported by the observation that students incorporated audio feedback three times more often in their final assignments than they did text feedback. In other words, students were not just getting it better with voice feedback, but also taking it more to heart. Here’s how one student explained the results:
I like this [audio feedback] 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.
Theme two: increased instructor caring
Studies have shown that the number one thing that students want from an instructor is caring. Studies also have shown that because voice feedback was more personal than text, it conveyed a sense of instructor caring. One student had a great comment. To understand it, you have to understand that Phil Ice has a strong southern drawl. The student said:
After reading the syllabus I was nervous about whether I could live up to the expectations of the course; it sounded so strict. But after hearing your voice, I felt better when I realized that you’re just a hick like me.
Theme three: more feedback in less time
To put it bluntly, we can speak faster than we can type. Plus, we feel compelled to reread our text comments to remove the grammatical errors and to polish up the prose. This can lead to comments that sound overly austere.
Without any direction at all, faculty were found to be giving more voice feedback in less time, as indicated in the following results:
Faculty were also found to be using five times as many adjectives with voice feedback than with text feedback. The use of adjectives is associated with more expressive language, which keys into our emotional centers, the centers that really pay attention.
Theme four: improved ability to understand nuance
The most common theme expressed in semi-structured interviews was that students could understand nuances in a faculty member’s feedback much better when it was given by voice. One student’s comment summarized it well:
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 [I] would wonder if they were agreeing with [me] or trying to figure out how to politely say [I] 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.
Theme five: less isolation and more motivation
Online education can be an isolating experience. Without the community of fellow learners in a classroom, an online student can feel like he or she is on an island. Traditional text feedback can add to this experience by giving the impression that it is coming from a robot—the ideal of a “teacher” rather than a human being. The presence of voice reminded students that the teacher is a human being, and as a result, students felt less isolated and were more motivated to participate in the class.
Giving voice feedback
Delivering voice feedback is easier than you might think. Faculty can record comments directly into older versions of MS Word, or use the free Audacity download to record their comments into an audio file and then insert that file into Word. Either way, the file will appear as a speaker icon within the document at the location where the feedback applies. Students merely click the icon, and it plays the feedback.
To get the best sound quality, record with a headset microphone, which can be purchased for around $50. Most laptops also come with built-in microphones, and webcams generally allow users to record audio-only files.
Ice recommends that faculty not worry about editing out the “umms” and other linguistic stalls from their feedback. This will only slow you down, and students listen through those just as they do when you say them live. Just speak through your comment and insert the result.
See the screencast at the beginning of this article for instructions on how to provide voice feedback in different versions of Word. For a text/screenshot version of these instructions, see www.magnapubs.com/files/newsletters/oc/voice-feedback.pdf). Give it a try, and see how you like it.
Ice, P. (2007). Using Asynchronous Audio Feedback to Enhance Teaching Presence and Students’ Sense of Community. The Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, v. 11, i. 2.
John Orlando writes, consults, and teaches faculty how to use technology to improve learning. He helped build and direct distance learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University, and has written more 50 articles and delivered more than 60 workshops on teaching with technology. John is the associate director of training at Northcentral University, serves on the Online Classroom editorial advisory board, and is a regular contributor to Online Classroom.