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Teaching Time Savers:The Microphone Is Mightier than the Pen

By Emily Mead

In my upper-level courses for math majors, I am fond of assigning projects. These multi-stage assignments include a brief proposal, a written report, and an oral presentation. While these projects create an excellent opportunity for students to explore new mathematical topics and take ownership of their learning, they also add significantly to my grading pile. On the written components of the project the bulk of my feedback takes the form of end comments, in which I try to point out both strengths of the document and areas for improvement. I am extremely careful, almost obsessive, when I write these comments. After all, if I want my students¹ writing to improve, I should model good writing. Each set of end comments takes about 20 minutes to compose.

Technology to the rescue! Using standard recording software (see below for details), I find that I am able to say my end comments in two to three minutes. It takes me a few minutes to compose my thoughts, and I sometimes listen to my comments to make sure that I struck the right tone. But I now spend at most ten minutes producing substantially the same feedback as before, just in a different medium. And the medium makes all the difference ‹ my speaking isn¹t perfect, but I¹m less obsessive about it. Also, I find it easier to convey criticism in the oral format without the harshness that a written comment can sometimes carry. While I am no longer explicitly modeling the mechanics of good writing, I am still emphasizing the importance of formulating thoughts clearly and in an audience-appropriate manner, which is the guidance my students seem to need most.

Of course, this dose of grading relief is applicable to more than just comments on papers. While probably not appropriate for offering feedback on computationally-heavy problem sets, the method can be used for work that is expository or includes substantial abstract arguments. You can read a student¹s submission and write numbers in the margin at spots where you have a question or comment, then simply refer to those numbered spots in your recorded feedback. For the more technologically inclined, Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat Professional allow you to embed audio files throughout a document; if students submit their assignments electronically in one of these formats, you can directly replace written margin comments with audio clips.

How do students respond to this change? Well, my students are already used to being bombarded by audio, and they haven¹t reported any problems with listening to my comments. I can tell that they do listen, because later submissions in the process incorporate my suggestions. Since students are frequently asked to submit work electronically, it seems natural to receive electronic feedback.

Okay, so how can you do this? First you need to check whether your computer has recording software and a microphone. I use Audacity, which is available for free download for various operating systems including Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux; go to Your computer may have a built-in microphone; otherwise, a basic plug-in microphone will cost you about $15. Plug in the microphone, open the software, and you¹re ready to record. I usually export my comments as MP3 files, since my students are accustomed to listening to these. Then you can either e-mail the files to students, or place them in students¹ personal directories if there is a ³drop box² system in place at your institution.

Time Spent: A one-time investment of 10­30 minutes to find/download recording software and get comfortable using it, plus at most 10 minutes per student per assignment to provide feedback.

Time Saved: At least 10 minutes per student per assignment.

Emily Dryden is an assistant professor at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA. Technology has not yet invaded all aspects of her life, as she prefers to cycle to work and exist without a cell phone.