Lend me your ears: the subtle qualities of voice in learning

Seldom a day seems to go by without some mention of the word ‘voice’ in academic discussion. Educators and policymakers frequently refer to the importance of representing ‘the student voice’ in teaching and learning activities. Similarly, the concept of ‘the academic voice’ is often used in conversations around the values, opinions, and perspectives of the university community.  However in this post I would like to take some time to talk about the real-life, living-and-breathing human voice itself in relation to teaching, learning, and assessment. Given the evidence of feedback as a powerful learning tool (Hattie & Timperley, 2007), I would like to reflect on the perhaps underestimated contribution of a person’s actual voice in developing and enhancing knowledge.

Andrew Middleton, well known for his research and staff development work around the development and use of audio-based feedback in higher education, was guest speaker at the recent DCU Teaching and Learning Day. He described audio feedback as “the recording and distribution of spoken feedback on a student’s work” and gave a wide-ranging, stimulating presentation on why, how, and when feedback in audio format might fit into an assessment strategy. We heard how audio feedback can take many forms, ranging from personal to general, and it is ideally suited to constructive criticism on aspects such as evidence, structure and academic argument. You can watch the video of his presentation here: Andrew Middleton at DCU T&L Day

One of the slides that I felt most vividly captured the potential of the audio medium is shown below – it illustrates some reactions from students who received audio feedback from lecturers and it captures many of the key benefits described in the literature.

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 14.18.50.png

Clearly the timeliness, replayability, and mobility of the approach appeals to students. But it is that intangible quality of being prompted to “listen more when someone is talking to me than if I’m reading it” that is particularly intriguing.

The importance of tone

One possible factor is the indisputable quality that audio offers around tone of voice. As one of the academics quoted in the presentation said “You can get some of the kindness that we intend… into how you talk about it”. This seems important when, as Evans (2016) suggests, we need to consider the emotions of feedback, and allow sufficient time for students to process it before they take the necessary steps to address.  There’s also the possibility that the spoken word, even at a distance, can seem more ‘alive’ than the text-based equivalent.  Perhaps hearing (and re-hearing) clear and personalised guidance from a lecturer who seems more physically present can encourage students to be more receptive to and motivated by the points made.

From a lecturer’s perspective, there’s also a welcome place for tone in delivering the tough news when it needs to be said – one of the attendees at the conference spoke about her efforts to keep her frustration out of her voice when recording negative feedback. The advice? Be yourself, don’t even try to keep it out completely, and if necessary, perhaps ask the student to come to your office. Most of us are not robots and it is that evidence of humanity that might very well prompt the student to engage in the type of dialogue around learning that leads to better outcomes for all involved.

Further resources on audio feedback

Obviously, there is much more to be learned about feedback in audio form and how it might (or might not) influence engagement with learning in different contexts. If considering using it in your teaching, you may wish to hear from those who have already implemented it. The audio feedback toolkit on the Media-Enhanced Learning Special Interest Group (MELSIG) site includes practical tips, literature, and recordings of experiences from several UK educators who have been using audio feedback for a number years. (By the way, the general consensus seems to be to keep it to under 5 minutes, don’t edit, and get used to the sound of your own voice.) In an Irish context, the Y1 Feedback site contains several excellent case studies of technology-enabled feedback approaches that are well worth exploring. For example using screencasting to close the feedback loop, visual audio screencasts to enrich feedback, and screencasting for enhanced and manageable large group feedback in language learning 

At DCU we are about to embark on a new pilot project around audio feedback involving a group of kindred spirits who wish to try out and evaluate audio feedback approaches in their practice. I will report back on this in due course. In the meantime, my final word for now has to go to DCU School of Computing lecturer Monica Ward who has created a little audio drama of her own, uniquely recounting her experiences of implementing peer feedback with students. Listen up, learn, and enjoy – and do add your voice to the conversation too!

Five-minute Feedback Fairy Tale

Monica by Mark
Monica Ward tells a Five Minute Feedback Fairy Tale at DCU T&L Day


Evans, C. 2016. Enhancing assessment feedback practice in higher education: The EAT framework. Retrieved from https://www.southampton.ac.uk/assets/imported/transforms/content-block/UsefulDownloads_Download/A0999D3AF2AF4C5AA24B5BEA08C61D8E/EAT%20Guide%20April%20FINAL1%20ALL.pdf

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. 2007. The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.dcu.idm.oclc.org/stable/4624888

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