Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

Timothy Sipe, Associate Professor of Biology has been using technology to provide more effective, personal feedback to his students by digitally recording voice comments on written assignments and then emailing them back to his students.

The concept is one he has used for years. Starting about ten years ago, Professor Sipe began looking for a new way to provide feedback to his students on writing assignments. He found that students generally responded to his line editing of their work by simply incorporating his suggested revisions wholesale without necessarily absorbing the reasons for them or considering other options. He wanted to provide feedback in a way that would limit line editing and help the students become better writers themselves.

As an alternative to line-editing, Professor Sipe decided to try providing feedback on the “now quaint” technology of cassette tapes. In this new system, he would provide some mark-up on the paper itself, but the majority of his feedback consisted of circled numbers on the margins of the students’ work that corresponded to audio comments on cassette tapes that he provided to students. For longer, journal-style papers, he might include as many as 40 or 50 circled numbers linked to 30 to 40 minutes of audio commentary. The audio recording itself would begin with a general overview and conclude with encouragement and a summary of the main issues to address while revising.

His students’ response to this approach consistently has been positive, but the technology that Professor Sipe employs has had to change with the times. Two years ago, he realized cassettes were "so yesterday." Few students had cassette players of their own or even access to one. The tipping point came when Professor Sipe heard that some students were sitting in the cars of friends to listen to their comments. Professor Sipe sought to find options for creating electronic audio files that students could listen to easily, anytime, anywhere. After an initial trial with a digital voice recorder, which worked well, but could only produce Windows Media Audio files resulting in the need to convert them to a more universal format, Oscar Retterer, Director of Instructional and Emerging Technologies suggested he experiment with an iPod Nano (5th generation) that had a build in microphone and audio recording application. The iPod Nano has worked well and Professor Sipe has used it ever since to record the audio comments that he emails to students.

Professor Sipe has found that students very much appreciate the audio feedback and how unusual it is. He notes that although he doesn’t necessarily save time by providing feedback in this manner, he finds that the audio files have allowed him to provide “better, more flexible feedback.” Instead of marking up the paper with his own revisions, he is able to explain the issue on the audio file and provide various options for addressing it, options that the students then implement themselves. Professor Sipe also appreciates that this system results in his providing comments only after reviewing the entire paper. This results in comments that are better for having been made while cognizant of the bigger picture of the entire piece of student work. He also notes that the audio files reduce problems with legibility. Furthermore, the mobility of the device allows Professor Sipe to be virtually anywhere while recording the comments. Lastly, he has found students value the personal connection of hearing his voice when he is critiquing their work and providing encouragement for its evolution.

Professor Sipe would like to build on his successful implementation of this technology in the future. He plans to explore the possibility of integrating audio files with Blackboard, the College's learning management system, as well as creating short video clips for students, not for feedback on papers, but as demos of procedures in the field or lab.

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