Career Advice

The Surprising Power of Audio Feedback

14 Dec , 2019  

This fall I tried a new approach to grading papers: recording audio clips instead of writing comments. I was amazed by the positive results.

I think audio is an idea to consider for anyone who gives feedback, whether the feedback is on papers, proposals, or individual performances.

 

The Grading Challenge

Grading is one of the most difficult parts of teaching. Going through dozens of papers or presentations, making insightful comments, and coming up with a grade is a huge challenge. I don’t think I’ve ever met an instructor who said the best part of teaching was grading papers.

Giving feedback on work presentations and completing annual performance feedback is a similar challenge.

 

My New Approach

As I headed into the fall semester, I knew I had to take a new approach to grading because I had three classes, with roughly 70 students each. I have a mix of group and individual assignments, so it was shaping up to be a daunting grading challenge. In total, I had more than 350 papers and presentations to evaluate.

I decided to test a new approach. Instead of writing or typing comments on each paper, I would record an audio file. I would go through the document and talk through my assessment. Then I would simply send the audio file to the student and record the grade.

The insight behind the switch was that it is easier to talk than write. Talking is pretty simple; we do this all the time. Writing is completely different. Writing is hard.

It is certainly faster to speak than to write. The average person speaks about 120 words a minute, but types only 40 words minute.

Speaking is also much more forgiving. With a written comment, the mistakes are clear and painful. A spelling mistake is awkward indeed, especially if you have been emphasizing that grammar and spelling and polish really matter. Speaking is completely different; when we are talking, we naturally make lots of mistakes, and some we correct and others we don’t.

 

The Results – My Perspective

For me, audio grading was amazing. It was quick; I would quickly scan the paper or presentation, then turn on my phone and start talking.

It was also less taxing. When I’m grading papers, I generally can only do four or five before I need to take a break; I have trouble keeping them all straight. With audio posts, I would grade 10 or 12 or 15 in a row. I suspect this is because speaking is just easier than writing.

Most important, I thought the quality of my feedback went up. I could cover more terrain, because I was speaking quickly. I could also use tonality to put more texture around my comments. I could be more positive for the strong papers, and more disturbed for the less effective papers. I found it much easier to deliver negative feedback in an audio format.

 

The Results – Student Perspective

At the end of the course I surveyed my students about the new approach to grading. I asked them if they preferred traditional written comments or the new audio comments. The results were very clear: they preferred the audio comments. On a numerical survey, 61% of student preferred the audio clips, and only 21% preferred the traditional written comments. The remaining 18% had no preference.

Several students added comments that explained their thinking. One wrote, “It is helpful to hear the tone of voice.” Another wrote, “I could gauge the tone of voice. It felt like you can provide more nuanced feedback which makes it more valuable.”

 

Implications

My test this fall suggests that audio recordings may well be a better way to provide feedback. It has certainly changed my approach.

I suggest you give it a try:

-Instead of writing comments on a student paper, record an audio clip.

-Instead of responding to a proposal with a memo or written comments, record a clip.

-Instead of a written annual feedback, record an audio clip.

 

You may well find, as I did, that it is a way to give better feedback with less effort.



4 Responses

  1. toddholscher says:

    I knew a jr. consultant who only produced decks. When writing the deck, his manager left 15-20 minute vocal feedback on the work-in-progress. He said it was hard to follow IF the feedback was 15 minutes of “stream of thought while flipping through the deck”. BUT if the feedback was precise, and didn’t loop or have inconsistencies, it could be very helpful. In that sense, maybe it is similar to a podcast.

  2. Danielle Wipperfurth says:

    This is great! I had a boss who was often in another country from me who would leave me audio clips with feedback and updates. It helped to bridge the challenging geographic divide and give me a glimpse into his mindset so I could more confidently act in the future.

  3. Grace W. Ueng says:

    Excellent and interesting post, Tim! Keeping in mind for clients that are moving to ongoing feedback processes. Thanks for sharing.

  4. philcorse says:

    Hey Tim,

    Great idea, basic but brilliant. Wish I would have tried it when I was at Kellogg. I’m sure I could have given better and more informed feedback, that was easier to deliver and in less time.

    Cheers,
    Phil Corse

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