gradeIf Professors Rebecca Carroll and Barry Eckhouse have their way, a teacher’s red pen may become a thing of the past.  Co-authors of  “Voice Assessment of Student Work: Recent Studies and Emerging Technologies,” in the April edition of Business Communication Quarterly, Carroll and Eckhouse argue that a more effective way of providing feedback to students could be voice grading—a technique that replaces traditional, static evaluation with a media-rich assessment. Or, in simpler terms, providing students with a recording of an instructor’s voice as they grade a paper instead of comments on text made with pen and paper.

The idea of voice grading isn’t exactly a new one. In the early 1980s, an article titled “Cassette Tapes: An Answer to the Grading Dilemma” outlined how teachers could use the technology of the day to overcome the impersonal nature of written comments. Of central concern was that students weren’t actually reading the written feedback provided by teachers, but instead flipped to the back page, glanced at the letter grade and disregarded the instructor’s notes. While that same problem—a stilted, tone-less conversation where students can bypass comments from the instructor—still persists, the technological solutions to it have matured considerably.

Eckhouse and Carroll break the evolution of voice grading technology into three tiers. Tier one consists of simply embedding audio files in the text document at different intervals—a note at the end of the introduction or an explanation of incomplete analysis in an argument—which students would listen to as they reviewed their papers. The second tier is an mp3 file. By having students number the lines of their papers, instructors can discuss specific areas of the work by referring back to the line number. The mp3 format reduces file sizes and allows for students to pause and replay the feedback.

Tier three takes the next step and fully embraces the technology that’s in classrooms today. Instead of only utilizing audio, instructors use screen-grab technology to make “mini movies.” By recording both the screen gestures and the voice of the instructor, students receive a video of the professor discussing their work that simulates an individual, one-on-one tutorial. The video function allows instructors to annotate on the page as they give their audio comments, allowing for outlining or a written explanation. As is the case with all audio and video grading, teachers can embed the letter grade in their remarks, ensuring that they have their student’s ear for a least one pass through the message.

There are other benefits to voice grading as well. The survey that Eckhouse and Carroll conducted showed that old problems of tone or miscommunication of static text are easier to overcome with a voice. Inflections come through, and there is more clarity between the comments that the instructor makes and the grade they ultimately designate. Survey results also indicated that students found that receiving a paper that had been voice-graded was more conversational. Rather than handing in work that comes back with red marks on it, the dynamic is less adversarial.

There are drawbacks of using this technology though, and one of the primary disadvantages is the learning curve educators will face when first implementing voice grading. While it’s easy enough for a professor to reach for their favorite red pen and hunker down with a stack of essays, getting the hang of voice grading will take some time, not to mention that as technology changes and advances, instructors will be tasked with using programs that are still current.

Perhaps most importantly, the study—which consisted of 193 undergraduate students and 105 graduate students from 2006 through 2010—concluded that while students had strong and favorable perceptions of voice grading, the study could not speak to an improvement in student performance as a result of this method of grading. The conclusion of the article suggests further research is needed into how effective voice grading is at improving the work of the students. 

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