While written comments are a popular and potentially effective method of student exam feedback, that strategy can definitely be improved. In this paper I discuss the use of orally recorded exam feedback. After assigning points to a student’s exam solutions, I create a sound file of detailed exam comments for each individual student. The student can then securely access this file. The oral feedback is more understandable for and motivating to the students, and this method of grading is potentially timesaving for the instructor.
Assessment in statistics education is an important issue. The definition of assessment has become more than simply assigning points to student answers (Garfield, 1994). As a statistics instructor, it is now important to view assessment more broadly, and to find creative and effective ways to communicate with students. That said, traditional in-class exams are still a popular method of assessing student knowledge. If exams continue to be used, then it is important to create new methods of providing exam feedback. The feedback needs to be “timely, constructive, and regenerative” (Chance, 1997). The idea of orally recorded exam feedback fits nicely in this new assessment framework.
Each term I teach an Elementary Statistics course to at least 35 students. Among other class requirements the students have two in-class exams and a final exam. My exams consist of open-ended questions and I always strive to analyze carefully student answers, give partial credit, and provide detailed written feedback. I am frequently frustrated, though, by the limitations of written comments. Due to time constraints, I never feel that I write as much detail as I know would be helpful, and most of my students only get corrections and no real positive feedback. Furthermore, I never know if students actually closely read and understand my comments. My new method of oral feedback has many benefits over written feedback.
The oral comments are clearer, more detailed, and thus more understandable to students than written comments. Written comments are often cryptic and, depending on the handwriting, difficult to read. I find it easier to get my point across via speaking than writing. Because the students get more detail, they are more likely to ask me further questions, rather than simply forgetting about the exam. Since the oral exam comments are saved on the college’s network, the students can access them easily and listen to them repeatedly, both after the exam and throughout the course.
This new method of communicating with the students motivates them to learn from their exam performance. The motivation stems from the personal nature of the voice comments and the newness of the method, which encourages them to give serious consideration to the feedback.
Recording voice comments is more personal for the students. The tone of my voice combined with the content of my comments conveys much more than simply written comments. With written feedback I often only correct or penalize student answers and I rarely have time to write positive comments. The voice recording allows me to give positive feedback on a correct question, even if it is the only question a student gets right. This method also permits me to summarize a student’s performance and make suggestions to the student for further action. Of course, positive feedback and recapitulation can be done with written feedback, but as I have mentioned before, I am much more comfortable expressing myself via voice, and I can say more than I can write in the same period of time.
Because the oral feedback is new and fun for the students, they actually listen to my comments. In the past I have always wondered if my students actually read the comments that I write, or if they simply look at their grade. With the voice recording, I know that students are listening to my feedback. In fact, in each of the sound files I give an individual cue that is the answer to a future quiz question. This small step ensures that the students actually listen to the file. While I cannot then conclude that each student thoroughly processes my feedback, at least I know that they have taken a step toward understanding.
Voice feedback has the potential to save time in the grading process. Because most people can talk faster than they can legibly write, it is possible to give a little more feedback via oral comments, yet also give the feedback in less time than it would take to write it all. If an instructor has a large number of students, the time saved obviously increases. This means that students get more immediate feedback, and the instructor is not as drained by the grading process.
While this feedback method potentially saves time, I found that at least initially it actually takes more time than the standard written comments. Thinking through the logistics and setting things up are two reasons for the extra time. Most of the extra time I spend, though, is really on saying much more than I would ever write. That is, I purposely take more time to give students very detailed comments. The choice can be made, though, to not give the extra feedback.
My implementation of this new feedback method requires shared network space, voice recording software, and a computer lab with headphones.
At Lawrence University the computer services office provides a shared network drive where instructors can create class folders. Computer services and the individual instructor have permission to manipulate the class folder (e.g., save files, change files, etc.), but all other users only have the ability to view the information in the folder. After discussing my project with a computer services administrator, I was shown how to create individual student folders within my class folder and how to set the permissions for these folders. Thus my students can securely access their exam sound files (i.e., each folder can only be viewed by the individual student and no one else).
Before creating the exam feedback sound files, I first grade the exams. When assigning points to student exam answers, I work question by question to ensure consistency. While assigning points, I also write a few short comments or draw a picture to which I will refer in my voice recording. For example, when discussing a normal distribution problem it is much easier to refer to a picture of the normal curve than it is to orally describe the curve. The written comments are very brief, though, and take very little time to write. The bulk of the feedback is given in the oral comments.
After grading all the student exams, I then create the sound files. Simple sound recording software is now standard on personal computers, and more complex recording software can be downloaded from the Internet. When recording my comments, I use a set of headphones that has an attached microphone. Although I create the sound files at my computer, it is also possible to use a portable voice recorder, which allows for the flexibility of grading in this manner even when a computer is not available.
One student at a time, I create a sound file of exam feedback. After producing the sound file, I save it to the respective student folder on the shared network drive. I am very careful when saving the file, as a slight oversight may lead to the violation of a student’s privacy.
Once the exams are graded and the sound files are created, I require my students to listen to the feedback. I create a handout that describes the steps in accessing the sound files and I distribute it to the students along with their graded exams. As previously mentioned, I ensure that students listen to the feedback by including a cue in each sound file and then asking for that cue on a future quiz (specifically, I assign each student a unique color and then I ask for that color later).
It is important that the students are able to listen privately to their exam sound files. This requires not only sound cards on accessible computers, but also headphones. To assure this privacy for my students, I purchased headphones for all the computers in my statistics computer lab.
Student reaction to my new feedback method has been very positive. In the fall term of 2001, I used the oral feedback in both my classes (Elementary Statistics and Introduction to Probability and Statistics – a total of 71 students). Of the 66 students who filled out an anonymous questionnaire, 55 students said they liked the oral feedback better than the written feedback, 7 students said they liked the two methods the same, and only 4 students said they liked the oral feedback less than the written feedback.
According to the students who favored the oral feedback, the voice comments were more personal, more understandable, and more helpful than the written comments. A sample of specific student comments is included below.
“I liked it [the oral feedback]. It felt more personal and it seemed like you understood my way of thinking.”
“I liked the oral comments better, since it just had a more personal feeling to it. And you could go into more depth about mistakes and everything.”
“I found it [the oral feedback] much more helpful. You can usually say more than you can write, plus there’s no issue with legibility.”
“I thought the oral comments were fantastic – it was like having a personal session, everything I did wrong was very clear and helpful. The file was easy to access – it was personable – a great idea – keep doing it!”
Of the 4 students who preferred written comments, 1 student thought the voice comments went too fast and the other 3 students wanted a written record of the comments. I acknowledge the feelings of these students and I think these issues can be addressed. Even if the comments do move quickly, the students have the option of listening repeatedly. Furthermore, a future improvement to the process would be for my oral comments to be transcribed, so that students would have both oral and written feedback.
While this method of oral feedback has many advantages, there is also room for improvement. In addition, it is important to address certain issues in implementing this method.
Before using the oral feedback method I addressed issues of security and network space. Exam comments given to students are personal and most students want to keep the comments private. Before using the voice explanations, I wanted to ensure that students could access them securely. I was able to do this via the permission settings on the student folders. I feel that security is an important issue to consider before implementing the oral feedback method.
Network space is another issue to address before using the voice comments. Depending on the length of the oral explanations, the sound files can be quite large (e.g., a typical sound file that I create is 10 MB). For large classes and detailed sound files, a lot of network space is needed. At Lawrence, the computer services office allowed me to use as much space as I needed. This could be a potential problem in implementation that would depend on a school’s network resources.
As most instructors already know, student exam answers sometimes contain common mistakes. When this occurs in my class, I repeat the same voice comments over and over. I am then frustrated by the repetition and feel that I am not efficiently using my time. In one of my classes, I improved the voice recording of the second exam by creating voice templates for three questions that were frequently missed by students. Then for each student I created sound files separately by question. For most of the questions I used personalized voice comments, but if a student made a common mistake, then I simply directed the student to the voice template (included in the student folder). This allowed me to keep the process personalized, yet also saved me time.
Another potential improvement to this feedback method is the ability to easily audit the students who access the voice comments. As mentioned previously, I include a cue in each student sound file and then I ask for that cue on an upcoming quiz. This ensures that the students listen to my comments. In the future, I hope that the auditing could be done electronically (e.g., via a computer program).
Ultimately, I envision a grander scale of student access to my feedback. Ideally, through computer software package (yet to be written), a student could concurrently view a copy of the student’s exam, a copy of the exam answer key, and a transcription of my voice comments. From the same window, the student could listen to my voice comments and type any questions or comments that the student has. All of the information could then be saved as a large project. As one of my students said, “The more senses that I use, the better my understanding.” If students can use their eyes, ears, and hands when processing exam feedback, then I think their understanding of the material will definitely increase.
Chance, B. (1997), “Experiences with Authentic Assessment Techniques in an Introductory Statistics Course,” Journal of Statistics Education [Online], 5(3). (http://www.amstat.org/publications/jse/v5n3/chance.html)
Garfield, J. (1993), “Beyond Testing and Grading: Using Assessment to Improve Student Learning,” Journal of Statistics Education [Online], 2(1). (http://www.amstat.org/publications/jse/v2n1/garfield.html)