This week, I came across an interesting study about student perceptions of, and preferences for, written and audio feedback in an online composition class. (The study comes from Volume 38 of Research in the Teaching of English and was titled “Online Technologies for Teaching Writing: Students React to Teacher Response in Voice and Written Modalities”). Although the study was from 2004, I found the results from the study to be practical and worth considering. The study involved a set of four teachers, each of whom had taught college-level English for a minimum of six years, and a pool of thirty-nine students participating in online composition courses. In the study, the four teachers were presented with examples of student writing from each of the thirty-nine participants, and composed both written feedback and recorded audio feedback about the student writing. The students were then asked to evaluate the instructor commentary and indicate their perception of its merits and preferences for either the written or the audio feedback. Particularly, the students were asked to evaluate what feedback was the most helpful and why, as well as what aspects of the feedback they found unhelpful.
Perhaps surprisingly, students did not show a statistically significant preference for one mode of feedback overall, with 46.2% preferring voice modality and 41% preferring written feedback (Kim 316). However, when the results were evaluated across the four teachers, the results showed a stronger preference for audio feedback for certain instructors, and written for others (Kim 322-324). This deviance was explained by Kim as indicative of the ability of each instructor to provide effective audio commentary and is related to their skill as an oral communicator. Kim explains, when discussing the differences in student opinion regarding the merits of the audio feedback of the four instructor participants:
“This finding suggests a couple of things: First, it dramatically points out that not all teachers may benefit from commenting in a ‘media-rich’ modality. An increased capacity to convey cues that are more revealing of a person’s attitudes may actually prove a disadvantage for people who are less skillful oral communicators – that is, they simply may not be able to mask their less-than-positive feelings from their students” (328).
Kim later explains that teachers have good days and bad days, and something as simple as instructor mood can come across more in rich-media formats, such as audio (326). Considering this, Kim indicates that teachers “even those who are good and enthusiastic – may not benefit from the media-rich modality all the time” (326).
Within the study, students commented on the different modes of feedback across a range of metrics, one of which was the merits of the feedback in terms of its helpfulness and clarity. The study found that positive feedback was overwhelmingly preferred to negative feedback, which is not surprising, and that constructive criticism was deemed less intimidating in audio feedback than written (Kim 320, 322, 326). Students were found to infer much from more intangible aspects of audio feedback, such as speaker tone, hesitation, and they drew conclusions from these subtle audio cues. In particular, the students in the survey indicated that commentary where a level of care and sincerity were the most valued, and the level of these qualities was often ascertained by subtle cues.
The overall perception of online feedback was rated highly for students, not only in this study, but in similar others (see Clark-Ibanez, Scott, 2008; and Bender, 2003). In fact, in one study, students indicated that they learned more in an online class than in a more traditional classroom, and that feedback and improved one-on-one communication between instructor and student was a major factor for improved learning (Bender). Concerning this need for, and appreciation of, online feedback, a student from Kim’s study provided the following insight:
“I think it’s really useful because sometimes you kind of forget what they write and can you can go back to it and see it over and over again and hear it over and over again. I think it’s a good way for doing it. (S25)” (Kim 326).
Although the overall preferences for one modality over another in Kim’s study were surprising, the basic findings were rather intuitive. Specifically, what students value regarding feedback in a virtual classroom is the same thing they value in a traditional classroom. Namely, sincerity. Whether online or face-to-face, showing students that we care is a rather infallible best-practice.
Bender, Tisha. 2003. Discussion-based Online Teachine to Enhance Student Learning: The Theory, Practice, and Assessment. Sterling, VA.
Clark-Ibáñez, Marisol, and Linda Scott. “Learning to Teach Online.” Teaching Sociology, vol.36, no. 1, 2008, pp. 34–41., www.jstor.org/stable/20058625.
Kim, Loel. “Online Technologies for Teaching Writing: Students React to Teacher Response in Voice and Written Modalities.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 38, no. 3, 2004, pp. 304–337., www.jstor.org/stable/40171616.
Rendahl, Merry A. “It’s Not The Matrix: Thinking about Online Writing Instruction.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, vol. 42, no. 1, 2009, pp. 133–150., www.jstor.org/stable/25674361.