Audio Commentary on Student Writing:
Striving for the Three E’s of Instructor Response
Responding to student writing, in my brief experience as a writing instructor, and in countless testimonials from fellow graduate students, professors, and overburdened public school teachers, is a serious and near-constant pain. The stack of papers that seems to only grow larger as the hours stretch from night into morning; the pleading scrawls for clarity and specificity on page after page; the long and carefully planned endnote that seems to go entirely unheeded when the final draft arrives – this is our lot, our painful, occasionally-soul-deadening lot. After only three meager months of teaching, I have already encountered all of these issues and their accompanying emotional lows.
Unfortunately, recent composition research does not uniformly validate our efforts: much of the literature supporting teacher response as an effective method of improving student writing is anecdotal. And a 2006 review of empirical research by Knoblauch and Brannon revealed that over the last thirty years, material studying teacher response has been inconclusive at best about its efficacy. At worst, teacher response makes no visible difference at all to students’ writing, at least in the short term — taking a great deal of wind out of the sails of those who sacrifice time and precious, precious sleep laboring over their endnotes (Knoblauch 12).
But for Knoblauch, Brannon and other contemporary composition scholars, the absence of evidence connecting teacher response to immediate student improvement does not invalidate its presence in or utility for the composition classroom. Rather, in Knoblauch’s view, “what gives teacher commentary a particular importance in the classroom is the simple fact that it constitutes individualized teaching,” providing an engaged reader interested in students’ success, an emotional support system built in to the writing process (Knoblauch 15).
A review of recent literature, then, reveals a field split on the ideal main focus of teacher response. Many scholars continue to grapple with the question of efficacy: how can instructors respond effectively, supplying students with feedback they can understand, value, and thoughtfully incorporate into their writing? Those who are interested in reframing the debate (and moving away from the focus on efficacy) would like to instead further consider the question of emotional connection: how can instructors respond emotionally to their students, reinforcing a supportive relationship through disembodied comments on a page? Beyond this debate, many composition instructors consider efficiency the most pressing issue for writing teachers working today: how can instructors respond efficiently, providing sufficient and useful guidance to student drafts without becoming overburdened to the point of paralysis?
In this paper I will argue that incorporating audio commentary into instructor response can help instructors with each of these important considerations. These three E’s of ideal instructor response are not out of our reach. This method will work best, however, if it is tailored to the needs of the specific students involved, thus expanding the possibilities for “individualized instruction,” as Knoblauch advocates. Making instructor response a process that incorporates varied methods — and student feedback on those methods — can foster reflective processes in students and more satisfying results for instructors.
The Problem of Efficacy
For the purposes of this paper, I will be focusing on instructor commentary that comes “between the drafts” — notes and suggestions to the student which are “educative” more than “evaluative,” intended to encourage further revision rather than suggest an appropriate grade (qtd. in Lizzio 263). While both are important, between-draft commentary can help emphasize the learning process of writing for students and “provide support for writers at various stages during the process” (Anson, “In Our Own Voices,” 105).
For many scholars of composition pedagogy, instructor involvement in these stages is crucial to students’ improvement as writers. Harvard’s preeminent scholar of writing instruction, Nancy Sommers, maintains that “the relationship between teachers’ written responses and student learning cannot be underestimated” (N. Sommers xi). Straub has echoed this claim: “More than the general principles we voice or the theoretical approach we take into class, it is what we value in student writing, how we communicate those values, and what we say individually on student texts that carry the most weight in writing instruction” (qtd. in J. Sommers).
This heady description, unfortunately, does not discuss the many persistent problems with instructor response. Survey data, collected sporadically since the conversation began in the 1970s, indicates that the effectiveness of instructor response is often questionable.
Sommers’ own 1982 foundational study of instructor commentary, for example, indicated a number of problems with common methods of response. First, she notes, “teachers’ comments can take students’ attention away from their own purposes in writing a particular text and focus that attention on the teachers’ purpose in commenting” (149). That purpose, however, is often unclear to students — some teachers’ marginal commentary surrounding a paragraph makes no distinction between global issues of the paper and minor sentence-level errors, thus impeding students from revising in a thoughtful, multi-step process (N. Sommers 151).
Not only are teachers’ comments often vague about their degree of importance to revision — they can also just be plain vague, “rubberstamped from text to text,” leaving students at a loss for how to fulfill their assignment to their teacher’s satisfaction (N. Sommers 152).
Sommers recommends in her prizewinning research that composition instructors use their comments to tie back to principles discussed in class, to use vocabulary that is specific to the assignment before them, and to offer consistent encouragement (7).
Importantly, the value of instructor commentary is emphasized not just by instructors themselves but also by the students who receive it. “Feedback also appears to be an important contributor to the quality of the student experience,” write Australian researchers Alf Lizzio and Keithia Wilson. “Students endorse feedback on assessment as being important in identifying their strengths and weaknesses, enhancing motivation and improving future grades” (Lizzio 263).
Students are especially eager for feedback that is geared toward longterm improvement: Lizzio and Keithia’s 2008 study of 277 undergraduate students in various degree programs required participants to rank and describe the feedback they found most effective. Their submissions fell under three categories: developmental, encouraging, and fair. Students ranked developmental feedback most highly – the comments that pointed now only to how the student could improve one particular assignment, but how to tackle problems in other papers down the road (Lizzio 273). Participants also indicated that their feedback needed to be both encouraging and ‘fair’: they asked their instructors for clarity and consistency in their response, for otherwise, “at a basic level, written feedback that cannot be understood … cannot be used” (Lizzio 271).
Unfortunately, misleading or misunderstood feedback has been a consistent problem with the efficacy of that feedback. As Richard Haswell points out, “[s]tudents are avid for commentary… but when forced to explain their teachers’ comments, they misinterpret a shocking portion of it” (Haswell). Thus even when an instructor’s comments are carefully thought out and tailored to the assignment’s and student’s needs, they may fall on, as it were, deaf ears.
But students’ literal ears may be the key to improving the efficacy of teacher response. Jeff Sommers performed an analysis of the audio commentary he provided three of his students (in the “between-the-drafts” stage) over the course of a full semester, and concluded that “recorded commentary differs from written commentary in a meaningful way in kind, that is, in the types of comments made” (J. Sommers). For Sommers, audio commentary changes the type of comments made because it is temporal rather than spatial in nature. Instead of writing marginalia referring to a particular sentence, for example, the very medium focuses the teacher’s comments on the process of reading the work as a whole, and thus responding to the writing as such. This type of commentary, according to Sommers, leaves room for students and instructors to consider reading and writing processes as intertwined and important (J. Sommers).
Sommers concluded that he was able to make significantly more temporal comments than in written responses, and argued that these comments are ultimately more helpful. He made, for example, “retrospective comments” which tied to discussions he’d had with students in class, a move Nancy Sommers recommends for effective response that could help combat the student misinterpretation that often occurs with marginalia. He also found he often made “anticipatory comments” – comments which students from Lizzio’s study would have called “developmental,” pointing students toward future improvement in later assignments. Thus the temporal nature of audio commentary — forcing students to sit and listen and be aware of the passage of time — “affords an opportunity not only to provide more of the comments usually made in writing but also provides a greater opportunity to make different — and productive — kinds of comments” (J. Sommers).
The Problem of Emotional Support
It is the very idea of the productivity of teacher response, however, that some composition scholars take issue with today. Not all are convinced that modifying teacher response will make a difference to its efficacy. Knoblauch and Brannon, in their review of composition studies literature on teacher response, conclude that regardless of the quality, quantity, or methodology of response, it ultimately has little to no impact on students’ improvement, that “[w]hat works’ is an illusory ideal, however it may seek to pass itself off as a pragmatic standard” (12).
Instead of debating efficacy, Knoblauch and Brannon are more interested in considering teacher response from the angle of its possibilities for producing an authentic and emotional teacherstudent connection. And while this camp may disagree with Nancy Sommers on efficacy, she has also emphasized that a first year writing instructor is students’ “most personal, most direct interaction with the college writing culture” (xi).
Unfortunately, that direct interaction can become either impersonal or emotionally fraught when, as often occurs, “‘the image of the teacher that comes off the page becomes the teacher [Sommers influence] for that student and has an immediate impact on what those comments come to mean’” (qtd. in J. Sommers). Haswell has similarly noted that as responders to writing, instructors take on various roles they may not even be aware of, roles that “mediate the teacher’s commentary to the student” (Haswell). How then do we as responders control the role that our comments play for our students, in order to make it supportive rather than punitive, encouraging rather than skeptical? How do we make the promise of “invidualized teaching” that response offers truly connected to the way we interact with our students off the page?
Audio commentary is once again a useful answer. Chris Anson notes, in his reflection on his decades-long use of audio response, that while his responsibilities as an instructor-responder didn’t change as a result of the medium (he still had to critique and correct their work), his comments took on a distinctly different tenor: that because he was speaking with students directly, in his own voice, he was less brusque and more positive. “What had been correcting and judging eased gently into coaching and advising” (Anson, “In Our Own Voices,” 106), which Anson found his students openly preferred. They even gave him a boost in his overall teaching ratings (“In Our Own Voices,” 106). Jeff Sommers has echoed Anson on the practice’s popularity with pupils, indicating its effectiveness for improving the emotional side of the teacher-student relationship: “In thirty years of using audio response, I have had no more than three dozen such requests [for changing to traditional response]” (J. Sommers). Sommers insists that this method of commentary, distinct from its written counterpart, has a dual function (that serves at least two of the three E’s): “[temporal comments] seem to be doing other work at the same time that they are providing a response to the student’s written text: They may be building the relationship between teacher and student” (J. Sommers). Sommers’ and Anson’s conclusions offer exciting possibilities for the potency of audio commentary in teacher response. If we take their conclusions seriously, audio commentary can not only emphasize the reading and writing processes for students, but also provide a grounding context in the teacher-student relationship that doesn’t leave students hurt or confused at their otherwise friendly instructor’s suddenly vicious red pen.
The Problem of Efficiency
Some of that viciousness may derive from the resentment that simmers as instructors devote midnight oil responding to student drafts with (in my experience) rapidly diminishing patience. It is important to take into account that while composition instructors may struggle to provide their students with effective feedback between drafts, it is certainly (in most cases anyway) not for lack of trying. “A truth not often acknowledged about teaching writing,” Nancy Sommers proceeds to acknowledge, “is that we actually spend more time with students’ drafts than with our students. The amount of time we spend in the classroom, even preparing for the classroom, pales in comparison to the enormous time we spend in reading our students’ drafts” (x).
Indeed, in my admittedly slight experience, student drafts loom as a black hole into which hours upon hours of precious time disappear. This is the problem of efficiency. Even the most talented and thoughtful of instructors/responders is severely constrained as he or she provides students with feedback, particularly feedback that belongs ‘between the drafts’: as students continue to work on an assignment, instructors must turn their drafts around with alacrity. How, then, can instructor response be effective and emotional while also efficient enough to have utility for the student revision process?
For instructor Melanie Lee, this question is the central problem of instructor response. Lee conducted a survey of 30 composition instructors with a variety of teaching experience at a number of institutions and concluded that their burdens — number of students taught within each section, number of sections taught in a given semester, other consuming faculty commitments — severely inhibited instructor response. The time constraints these burdens created made it difficult for Lee’s survey participants to practice any of the strategies students noted were effective in Lizzio’s study: “Since I know that the faster the turn-around, the more effective the feedback, I simply can’t spend the time required for comprehensive feedback. Responding goes faster if I simply point out what’s wrong” (qtd. in Lee).
Lee’s meticulous survey and subsequent analysis evaluated the commentary respondents provided their students. After considering average comment length (ACL), Lee found that longer comment lengths, which Nancy Sommers recommends as an effective method, were more engaged with students’ writing than shorter marginalia. Tellingly, “findings indicate that not only does the ability to practice rhetorically engaged work diminish with heavier course and student loads, but also the addition of other responsibilities to the course and student load equation may decrease ACL” (Lee). Until universities alter their policies and alleviate the workload on composition instructors, Lee argues, instructor feedback will not achieve its rhetorical potential (Lee).
Until then, however, instructors must make do with finding a method of response that maximizes efficiency while still addressing student needs. This is a key concern not just for Lee; writing instructors at BYU are similarly invested. I conducted a survey with fellow graduate instructor Lauren Fields on teacher response among graduate student instructors, adjunct faculty, and fulltime faculty, all of whom teach firstyear writing. More than half of respondents indicated that they spend at least 20 minutes per student draft. When asked about their level of satisfaction with their method of response, nearly a third of respondents indicated that they wanted to find a way for their responses to take less time. Thus, at BYU as elsewhere, the conversation surrounding teacher response is a tightrope walk: the idealistic focus on efficacy and emotional support must be balanced by a pragmatic focus on efficiency.
Here too, however, research indicates that audio commentary can help our circus act. As Anson noted in his reflection, “I was also astonished to see how much more help I was giving students in my taped comments than in my written marginalia. In just a few minutes, I could offer advice or give readerly response that would have taken me hours to write out by hand” (Anson 106).
The few audio commenters among survey respondents at BYU (16 percent of total respondents) agreed. One participant who stated that she uses exclusively uses audio commentary noted, “I’ve noticed students tend to respond more positively to audio feedback – they can hear my tone, etc,” bearing out the notion of audio commentary enhancing emotional connections to students (Fields). But significantly, this respondent also noted the possibilities for more detailed response without more time on the part of the instructor: “They also get on average about 79 min[utes] of feedback, which is like, what? — a thousand times more feedback” (Fields). Given that most instructors surveyed spent easily twice that much time per paper when using written commentary, a dense 79 minute oral response could certainly benefit the instructor as well as the student. Audio commentary, then, has the capacity for those who use it to minimize the time burden that weighs down instructor response, without compromising the detail and care with which they craft their feedback.
Complications and Applications for Writing 150 Instructors
The potential for audio commentary to address and improve the main foci of instructor response today is clearly vast. I do not wish to argue, however, that current methods of response should be simply thrown over in favor of mp3s for every 150 student at BYU.
Firstly, audio commentary often raises problems with the response process. Some studies have argued that including too much feedback can be just as damaging as insufficient feedback, overwhelming and paralyzing students (J. Sommers). Audio commentary certainly has this capacity. And my survey participants, when asked why they respond to student writing as they do, did offer some straightforward, practical reasoning defending their use of traditional longhand marginalia and endnotes (the method of choice for a whopping 71 percent of respondents). Some cited fear of technical difficulties, others convenience: “I like the freedom of being able to take a stack of papers to different places away from the computer, and then students don’t have issues with Learning Suite not working, etc”; “I reword things in my typed paragraphs often enough that I would feel uncertain without that ability to revise,” offered another (Fields). Other reasons tend more to the superstitious or ritualistic: “[I respond in longhand] because I think better with a pen in my hand” (Fields). But while many of these qualms could be allayed or diminished with practice, the comments point out that as writing instructors, we value writing; we use it to think. Modeling for students the ways writing can help foster communication is an aspect of response that should not be lightly tossed aside.
One study from earlier this year examined nineteen undergraduates’ (studying engineering at the University of Santa Barbara) response to two different forms of instructor feedback over the course of a semester – Microsoft Word comments and screen-capture software. The study’s author Silva noted that audio commentary “can be more problematic if the student does not have a draft in hand. If students do switch back and forth between the audio feedback and their paper, cognitive overload may occur due to the split-attention effect, which would result in less processing of essential information” (Silva 4).
Further, Haswell’s student “consumption” will be an issue, it seems, regardless of medium; no matter how jovial instructors are in a carefully composed mp3 response, a student will not necessarily download it to her ipod. One respondent who marked that he or she used audio commentary to provide feedback mentioned this very issue: “the main problem is I can’t be sure that students actually open up the file … We were on the third paper when some of them admitted they hadn’t figured out how to access the comments. This after I had held class in the computer classroom to teach them how” (Fields). How disheartening.
Thus audio commentary is not exempt from many of the problems that plague traditional response, and favoring it exclusively over traditional methods would no doubt dislodge and dissatisfy many enthusiastic, competent responders. But incorporating audio commentary as part of a larger vision of response over the course of a semester can, I argue, more closely approach Knoblauch and Brannon’s argument for teacher response as “individualized teaching” (15).
Chris Anson, in his widely reprinted work on reflective teacher response, echoes Knoblauch and Brannon’s idea by claiming that developing an established set of principles guiding instructor response to student writing may actually inhibit helpful, sensitive response (Anson, “Reflective Reading,” 375). Response methods, Anson claims, should be figured upon the timing and purpose of particular assignments, or even oriented around the specific students themselves. He concludes that instructors should be reflective and flexible in their approach to student writing, and aware of the influence of our own circumstances as we respond (Anson, “Reflective Reading,” 387).
His emphasis on flexibility is borne out by current empirical research. Silva’s study, for example, tested ideas of student preference by providing half of her subjects/students with video responses and half with Microsoft Word comments. She found that while some students preferred the “conversational” nature of the video responses, others found Word comments more practical and helpful for corrections, suggesting that students at different stages in the drafting process will prefer different modes of response (Silva 11). As the quarter ended, in fact, “students recommended that [Silva] use a combination approach by doing teacher feedback videos and detailed Microsoft Word comments” (Silva 12, emphasis mine). While this recommendation clearly does not provide a resolution on the problem of efficiency, providing students with access to both at different points in the semester would be at least a step in the right direction down a path to individualized feedback.
Thus it is flexibility of response that I recommend — for myself and my fellow Writing 150 Instructors. Consider the first the major writing assignment, the Opinion-Editorial: Audio commentary can be included as one step in “between the drafts” response. Students’ first full draft will be an ideal moment for this, when teachers will have considerable suggestion to offer, but students will benefit from an initial, conversational response rather than a sea of frightening red ink. After incorporating audio commentary, students will then turn in another draft for conferencing, upon which instructors can make traditional longhand or typed marginalia, perhaps referring to smaller structural issues that can be further elucidated in conference, familiarizing students with the instructor’s lexicon to avoid confusion.
Including flexibility in teacher response, however, does not merely mean alternating modes. Seeking student feedback on those modes will both combat student “consumption” problems and provide instructors with crucial information as to the most helpful method of feedback for students themselves – who are, after all, the intended audience of our work. I recommend that freshman writing instructors require students to respond to response, to voice their thoughts on which mode of response was most helpful for them and why, citing specific examples of comments that provoked an ‘ahha!’ moment or, alternatively, crickets. Requiring that students give feedback on their feedback at the end of each unit will allow us as instructors to further tailor the next unit to optimal methods of response. This practice will bring us closer to the ideal combination of the three E’s of instructor response: our comments will be more effective if students must evaluate their utility and offer thoughts on what works for them. If our students are aware that we are working to accommodate what works for them, our response will enhance the emotionally supportive relationship of teacher to student. And if we can effectively incorporate audio commentary into even one step of drafting process, we will have saved ourselves from some furious, sleepless, maniacal scribbling – for which our students and our souls will surely thank us.
Anson, Chris M. “In Our Own Voices: Using Recorded Commentary to Respond to Writing.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 69 (1997): 105113. Wiley Online Library. Web. 24 Oct. 12.
Anson, Chris M. “Reflective Reading: Developing Thoughtful Ways to Respond to Students’ Writing.” 1999. The Allyn and Bacon Sourcebook for College Writing Teachers. Ed. James C. McDonald. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000. Print.
Fields, Lauren and Laura Marostica. “WRTG 150 Revision Policies and Feedback.” Survey. Created 10 Nov. 2012. 19 Nov. 2012.
Haswell, Richard. “The Complexities of Responding to Student Writing; or, Looking for Shortcuts via the Road of Excess.” Across the Disciplines: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Language, Learning, and Academic Writing 3 (2006): n.pag. Across the Disciplines. Web. 24 Oct. 2012.
Knoblauch, Cy and Lil Brannon. “Introduction: The Emperor (Still) Has No Clothes — Revisiting the Myth of Improvement.” Key Works on Teacher Response: An Anthology. Ed. Richard Straub. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 2006. 116. Print.
Lee, Melanie. “Rhetorical Roulette: Does WritingFaculty Overload Disable Effective Response to Student Writing?” Teaching English in the Two Year College 37 (2009): 165177. National Council of Teachers of English. Web. 24 Oct. 2012.
Lizzio, Alf and Keithia Wilson. “Feedback on Assessment: students’ perceptions of quality and effectiveness.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 33.3 (2008): 263275. EBSCO. Web. 19 Nov. 2012.
Silva, Mary Lourdes. “Camtasia in the Classroom: Student Attitudes and Preferences for Video Commentary or Microsoft Word Comments During the Revision Process.” Computers and Composition 29 (2012): 122. Science Direct. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.
Sommers, Jeff. “Response Rethought…Again: Exploring Recorded Comments and the TeacherStudent Bond.” Journal of Writing Assessment 5 (2012): n.pag. Journal of Writing Assessment. Web. 19 Nov. 2012.
Sommers, Nancy. Responding to Student Writers. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. Print.