Speak the speech, I pray you … trippingly on the tongue
Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2
Recently, Maria Bach (an academic in the Economics department at the American University of Paris and a participant on the LSE PGCertHE) produced a podcast as an assignment. We had negotiated this as an alternative to a written piece, and it was intended to address the topic critically and to engage with literature. Maria’s podcast accomplished these things and more, but as a reader/listener I was unprepared for the impact of spoken text. Firstly, in her exploration of the topic (small group teaching and feedback), Maria used not only her own voice, but also incorporated the voices of current students, early career professionals and academic colleagues to illustrate ideas and provide counterpoints. We heard adults now in employment reflecting on the long-term impact (positive and negative) of university teachers’ feedback, and we were taken into the classroom to hear current students’ spoken accounts of their experiences of classes and learning in small groups.
Listening to the range of voices and the ambient sounds of the different locations in which the podcast was recorded was powerful. In many ways, it was reminiscent of a radio documentary in which auditory cues transported the listener: introductory music, shifts in location, voice and fade-ins all helped signal transitions, and the overarching narrative voiced by the author carried the argument. In effect, I was taken on a journey through the use of site-specific ambient sound (such as students chatting before the start of a seminar) – into classrooms, academic offices and social spaces – with the voices themselves offering quite intimate insights into speakers’ views on, for example, the long-lasting effects – positive and negative – of feedback.
I also appreciated hearing (rather than reading) the primary speaker’s arguments, which were made all the more compelling with inflection, volume and tone of voice. Having listened to the podcast, I felt that the most appropriate way to respond would be through audio feedback, so I recorded my response. I found this a creative and thought-provoking experience because it offered a more conversational engagement with the assignment, and, as with the podcast, I was able to use inflection and tone to discuss and critique the piece. It seemed both appropriate and authentic, and, dare I say it, pleasurable. I enjoyed using my voice to communicate in this more personalised manner.
For her part, Maria says that narratives and conversation combine for a powerful learning experience:
I have been learning from podcasts ever since my undergraduate days when they were only for the very studious. I was captured by the ability of podcast presenters to tell a narrative through their own voice and those of others. … Teaching has always been enjoyable to me because of its hands-on, practical and interactive nature. It offers a welcome escape from my lonely archival research. I therefore wanted my PGCertHE learning experience to reflect these practical dimensions of teaching. My idea was to record interviews and produce a couple of podcasts. However, I did not realise how much I would learn about teaching, student experiences and more generally about my own personal development from the conversations I recorded. The experience showed me how dialogue can uncover and produce powerful ideas about how learning happens and what education is, as well as what education could or should be like.
In her book on using podcasts in university teaching, Gilly Salmon argues that there are a number of affordances of the spoken voice (especially in relation to teacher feedback) when communicating with students, particularly in terms of tone and delivery:
Even the widest vocabulary in written text cannot replicate the voice’s ability to ‘adjust intonation, inflexion, phrasing, pacing volume, loudness and timbre… Print does not allow a learner to identify and interpret audible nuances that personalize content because, print cannot stimulate the auditory senses (Power 1990: 45 cited in Salmon, 2008).
Research suggests that students perceive spoken feedback to be more personalized and more accessible:
‘You can actually interpret the importance (of audio feedback)…with written feedback you can read it over again but it kind of gives you the same thing, but when you listen to it, you gain more of an understanding because of the tones of the voice and you get a feeling of how important (specific comments are) by the way they (tutors) talk… it was communicating…(the audio) meant more than just words on a piece of paper’. (Student 2) (Merry and Orsmond, 2008)
This student’s comment is reminiscent of Joughin’s (2010) citing the (Schoultz, Säljö & Wyndhamn, 2001, p. 213) observation that ‘Talking and writing are two very different modes of communication that mediate the world differently.’
Finally, the introduction of voices in assessment is also about listening. As teachers, podcasts require us to sit and listen in full, and the same applies to students. For me, engaging with a podcast required a new interaction with student work. I had to listen carefully in a sustained way. Likewise, my feedback was designed to be listened to over several minutes. Merry and Orsmond (2008) found that nearly 90 % of the students in their study listened to the feedback more than once and all spoke of using it to prepare further assignments, often annotating their work while they listened.
For further case studies and practical information about using podcasts and oral assessment see:
- Chris Buddle writes of using group podcasts as a form of assessment on an ecology course in McGill University: https://teachingblog.mcgill.ca/2013/06/19/hear-this-podcasts-as-an-assessment-tool-in-higher-education/ Buddle and his GTA Carly Ziter created their own sample podcast to model the practice of creating an audio text for students. Creativity is foregrounded and built into the marking criteria.
- Mira Vogel at UCL describes in depth practical aspects of providing recorded, spoken feedback: https://wiki.ucl.ac.uk/display/UCLELearning/Audio+feedback
- Gordon Joughin’s A short guide to oral assessment offers wide-ranging advice on spoken assignments. https://www.qub.ac.uk/directorates/AcademicStudentAffairs/CentreforEducationalDevelopment/FilestoreDONOTDELETE/Filetoupload,213702,en.pdf
Merry, S. & Orsmond, P., (2008) Students’ attitudes to and usage of academic feedback provided via audio files. Bioscience Education Journal, 11. Available at: https://www.reading.ac.uk/web/FILES/EngageinFeedback/Students_attitudes_to_podcasts.pdf.
Ribchester, C., France, D. and Wakefield, K. (2008) ‘it was just like a personal tutorial’: Using podcasts to provide assessment feedback. Higher Education Academy Conference. London. July 2008.
Salmon G. (2008) Podcasting for Learning in Universities. McGraw Hill.