Listen Up: The Advantages of Audio Commenting

By: Professor Abigail L. Perdue 

One of the most surprising things about teaching is that each new semester brings entirely new challenges. Just when you think you’ve finally mastered the craft, Life throws you a curveball to keep you on your professional toes.

I experienced one such curveball this semester when I began experiencing persistent discomfort in my wrists and fingers, which often made typing onerous and even painful. As a Professor of Legal Writing, this pain simply wouldn’t do because I must provide oral and written feedback on multiple written exercises for my three classes and 50+ students throughout the term, not to mention the countless emails I must draft on a near daily basis or the book manuscript I’m currently trying to complete.

As the symptoms increased, they impaired my ability to provide thorough written feedback in an efficient manner to my students. My preliminary research (otherwise known as a “Google search”) revealed that excessive computer use – something of which many of us are guilty – could be correlated with various medical conditions from Carpel Tunnel Syndrome (“CTS”) to musculoskeletal issues. Indeed, one study indicated that roughly one in eight computer professionals experience CTS.[1] But surely my level of computer use didn’t rise to the level of a “computer professional,” right?

Wrong. When I calculated the amount of paper on which I must comment during the fall semester, I was shocked. For instance, this semester alone, I’m providing written feedback on 810 pages in my first-year Legal Writing Course and another 512 pages in my 2L Appellate Advocacy course. Even excluding my third course with twenty or so students, I’m providing written feedback on a staggering 1,322 pages! I’m not alone in this daunting task, which may be even more burdensome for my colleagues with larger classes. That is a tremendous amount of stress to place on one’s wrists and hands over the course of a lifetime.

And for many of us, our sex puts us at even greater risk for injury. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health, “[w]omen are three times more likely than men to develop carpal tunnel syndrome, perhaps because the carpal tunnel itself may be smaller in women than in men.” Yet a 2013 survey by the Legal Writing Institute reports that 73% of professors who teach legal writing are female. Thus, this group, of which I am a proud member, is particularly vulnerable.

Armed with this new information, I began exploring possible solutions and found one that really works. While ergonomic interventions may prove helpful, it was Kaizena, a free commenting app for educators, that proved most beneficial for me. Kaizena takes the stress out of commenting by allowing me to embed thirty second audio comments into student papers. It’s simple and easy. Simply download the free add-on and share a link with students explaining how they can download it, too. They must download it in order to hear my audio comments. Then convert the student work product into a Google doc by dragging it into Google drive or ask students to submit their work as a Google doc. In Google docs, click “Tools” and then “Add-ons.” This will allow you to open Kaizena. Highlight a piece of text and then record your message. An affordable paid version permits you to embed longer messages, up to ten minutes. You can include audio messages coupled with textual comments or exclusively provide audio feedback.

Kaizena was a lifesaver for me this semester, and I plan to use it again in the future. While a respected colleague recommended it to me, I used it reluctantly at first, concerned that students would dislike any departure from the “norm” and perceive audio feedback as somehow less helpful than written comments. Out of an abundance of caution, I still provided some written remarks in the text, but they were far more succinct than usual. For instance, I might simply say “improper citation format” and then use the audio feedback to explain specifically what was incorrect about the citation or which rule to review.

Aside from addressing the discomfort I had been experiencing in my wrists and fingers, the audio feedback had several other distinct pedagogical advantages. First, it allowed me to elaborate on my remarks, more clearly and precisely explaining their underlying reasons. While I could speak several sentences, even a paragraph, within the thirty second allotment, a typed message that extensive would have been far too much to include in a single comment bubble or track change. In addition, such lengthy comments might have been overwhelming to the student. Second, students could hear my tone of voice as I explained the comment, which allowed commenting to more closely mirror our productive, face-to-face conferences. Third, I was able to provide feedback more quickly, which enabled me to review drafts more efficiently and return papers more promptly than in the past. In turn, this gave students more time to incorporate feedback on subsequent work in the course. Finally, although I lack empirical data to support this belief, I suspect that listening to feedback may cultivate stronger listening comprehension in students, something that our distracted, technophile law students desperately need. Perhaps it may even compel them to really focus on the feedback and listen to it several times.

While the advantages of audio commenting were readily apparent to me, I still wondered how my students would perceive it. After all, I aim to put my students first and want to assess the success of any pedagogical experiment. Consequently, I asked my students to complete an anonymous reflection of their work, which embedded one specific question regarding the efficacy of Kaizena specifically and audio commenting generally. It was one of many questions on the reflection, most of which pertained to which strategies had worked well on their assignment and which things they would do differently next time. Their anonymous responses, which had no bearing on their grade, made clear that while Kaizena was new to students, by and large, they appreciated it. As one student explained, “These comments were my favorite part of the returned feedback. It really helped me to hear you talking about the draft. Paired with your notes, it was so comprehensive. I would definitely use them again in the draft phase.” Another observed, “This was a great change! I’ve never had a professor use this tool, and I really liked it.” A third student advised, “I would keep these comments in the draft stage as they were helpful while following along with the written comments.” Another described the audio feedback as “my favorite tool this semester.”

While the vast majority of students appreciated, if not preferred, the audio feedback, a handful had reservations. For example, one student cautioned, “I find that written comments are more helpful so when I am revising I can have a hard copy of your comments instead of having to plug in headphones and real[ly] listen to each comment. The voice comments were also easier for me to miss and harder to share with my TA.” Another noted that having two sets of comments – some audio and some written – was “a bit complicated.” A third student described the audio comments as “helpful because they allowed a fuller explanation” but noted that it was more challenging to “figure out the logistics of how to address them” at our subsequent conference.

While every pedagogical tool has pros and cons, most of these concerns can be easily resolved. In the future, I plan to address them by, inter alia, announcing the use of audio feedback at the outset of the exercise, establishing an earlier draft submission deadline and returning drafts sooner so that students have a longer amount of time to listen to and jot down audio feedback before our conference, and giving students the choice of receiving a combination of audio and written comments or only audio. If a student has an opportunity to meet with a TA after meeting me, which is atypical, I will require the student to email his or her draft with audio feedback to the TA reasonably in advance of that conference so the TA can listen to the audio feedback before meeting with the student.

Pedagogical experiments always have hiccups, but my foray into audio feedback was largely a success. I am a true Kaizena convert and would encourage other educators to give their wrists a rest and try audio commenting.

What are your favorite tips and tools for commenting? Share them at [email protected]

[1] Andersen, J. H.; Thomsen, JF; Overgaard, E; Lassen, CF; Brandt, LP; Vilstrup, I; Kryger, AI; Mikkelsen, S (2003). “Computer Use and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: A 1-Year Follow-up Study”. JAMA. 289 (22): 2963–9.


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