Escape from Grading Jail: Back-to-School Edition

Hey look! Another batch of exams to grade!

Every semester, I do it.

I plan on comparing my syllabi to make sure that I spread out exams and papers between my various classes so the assignments aren’t all dumped on me at once, and EVERY DAMN TIME I screw it up and get bombed with exams and papers on the same day. Then I drag them all home in an oversized publisher’s tote bag I got from some conference, muttering and cursing about my inability to perform such basic tasks as comparing calendars. MATH IS HARD, OK? QUIT JUDGING ME!

At least, that’s what happened before I stumbled across the method I now use to evaluate papers: audio feedback.

If, like me, you assign regular written work in your classes–short papers, longer papers, research papers, reflection papers–and you teach writing as a process, which means multiple drafts, then you know how much of a time-suck a section’s worth of papers can be. No matter how much we try to be efficient, some papers just need LOTS of feedback. And even though we aren’t correcting every single tiny grammatical flaw, we try and provide meaningful, substantive feedback both during and at the end of the paper. And then WHERE THE HELL DID MY WEEKEND GO? I SWEAR I LEFT IT RIGHT HERE NEXT TO THESE ESS….OH.

So in what originally started as a defiant yet ultimately futile attempt to procrastinate from the grading, I looked into a way to provide the type of feedback I wanted for students, yet not have each paper expand like air into a vacuum to fill all my available time. The answer: Audio Feedback.

For me, at least, it’s much quicker to talk than to write. And I can talk A LOT. When I meet with students in individual conferences, we go over their papers together and I talk them through it–my reactions, my questions, areas of strength, areas of concern, and so on. What if I could do that for every student? I’m a tech geek, so surely there was some way I could build a process to simulate a writing conference. With that idea, I created a system which enables me to provide good, substantial, detailed audio feedback in less than half the time it took me to write my comments. Here’s how I do it:

1. I use an app on my Nexus 7 (Android) tablet–Easy Voice Recorder Pro ($1.99). I wanted a simple interface, easy sharing capability, and no ads. This fit the bill, but there are a bunch of voice recorder apps out there, for both Android and iOS.


2. After having read the student paper through and thinking about what I want to say (scribbling a few notes here and there in the margins as reminders), I record my comments. I talk them through the paper (“OK, on the third paragraph of page 2, you introduce a cScreenshot_2014-08-25-10-05-56ouple of general points, but I need to see some supporting detail. Think about how you can bring in more evidence here.”), paying attention to both style/mechanics and argument/analysis. After I get through the paper, I offer some summative words to tie everything together and suggest next steps for the student. Usually, for a 4-5 page paper, I go anywhere from 5-8 minutes with my comments. I save the file in the Voice Recorder app, using the student’s name as a filename to keep things straight. Then I upload the file to a Dropbox folder using the “Share” function.



3. I discovered rather quickly that sending the file as an email attachment wouldn’t work, as the file sizes made it difficult to do more than one at a time. But Dropbox (or any other cloud storage service) will let you share the file by generating a URL link that you can email to students (or post in the comments section of their BlackBoard/other LMS gradebook), and then they can either stream it or download it. I also keep an archive of all my feedback files for the semester, indexed by student and assignment.


Here, I selected the file and hit “share” to send a link via email

4. Total time for each paper: less than half of what it was before. And that’s great. It works for me–but does it work for students? Is this at least comparable to written feedback? I did some informal assessment of my class last Spring, and their comments surprised me. Every one of them liked the audio feedback better. Granted, this is a small and anecdotal sample, but the unanimity surprised me. They said that the audio feedback felt more personalized, and they felt like they got more specific evaluation of their work (and I agree). But what threw me for a loop was several of my students’ assertion that the audio comments were better because they felt like they “had to listen,” whereas with written feedback, they usually didn’t read it all. My first reaction to that was something along the lines of “WHAT HAVE I DONE WITH MY LIFE? ALL THE HOURS I SPENT WRITING THINGS YOU WON’T READ!” But sober second thoughts helped me understand that hearing feedback is qualitatively different than reading it. And for some students, it seems to be significantly better.

So with the usual caveats about small sample size blah blah blah, audio feedback seems to be doing what I want it to. First and most importantly, it provides my students with meaningful assessment and evaluation. But almost as significant is the way it does so while significantly reducing my time on task. (Talking doesn’t give you carpal tunnel syndrome, either. Worth noting.) So that’s my grading workflow now; audio all the way! And this semester, I won’t spend nearly as much time in Grading Jail, sentenced to hard labor, wailing and gnashing my teeth at the existential misery of it all. Everybody wins!

So how about it? What are some of the ways you manage your grading workflow? Your comments could help others escape the scourge of Grading Jail!



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