Digitized Audio Commentary in First Year Writing Classes

by Susan Sipple, University of Cincinnati Raymond Walters College

Instructor Name:

Susan Sipple

Course Title:

English Composition I


University of Cincinnati Raymond Walters College

What is the overall aim of the course?:
English Composition I (ECI) is designed to help students master effective writing processes and critical thinking skills. To that end, it requires that they write several papers and make substantial content revisions in all essays. In addition, ECI encourages students to reflect upon their writing processes in order to help them to recognize successful and unsuccessful patterns in their work. The course attempts to enhance their skills in choosing appropriate rhetorical strategies, to develop sophisticated arguments and interpretations, to think and write in increasingly complex ways, and to become better critical readers and more effective writers.
Course design and scope of the project:
ECI is a quarter-long course—one in a sequence of composition classes required of all students at Raymond Walters College, a two-year branch of University of Cincinnati. Enrollment is capped at 20 students per section. In my sections of ECI, students write four essays; on each one, they receive extensive instructor commentary. In addition, students make substantial content revisions and editing changes to every essay at least once during the quarter, using my feedback and new skills they have acquired along the way to guide them. My frustration with the time and space limitations of handwritten instructor commentary, combined with a sense that students sometimes ignore or misinterpret feedback delivered via this method, led me to experiment with audio commentary, beginning in 1990. Inspired by the work of Jeff Sommers (see References/Links), I began offering students extensive audio commentary on cassette tapes. Over time, my method of delivery changed: I now make audio CDs for students or e-mail them MP3 files. In an effort to better understand student attitudes toward instructor commentary on their writing and learning outcomes enhanced by varying commentary methods, I began in 2003 a series of qualitative, classroom-based research projects studying several aspects of handwritten and audio commentary. The results have convinced me that audio instructor commentary on student writing is received more positively by college composition students and leads them toward more substantive revision of their essays.
Incorporation of Technology:

Audio commentary on student writing can be produced in a variety of ways, from the low-tech method of recording comments on cassette tape, to producing MP3 files that can be burned on CD-Rs, e-mailed as attachments to students, or even placed in the Digital Dropbox on Blackboard course websites. In addition, MSWord offers the option of introducing audio inserts into computer files of student texts, using the “voice comment” menu selection on the reviewing toolbar. For several years now, my primary method of delivery has been via CD-R. Using my PC, a microphone that plugs into the designated jack on my computer’s CPU, and the Sony sound recording program, Sound Forge 7.0 (version 8.0 is now available), I am able to make high quality audio recordings for my students. Sound Forge is easy to learn, easy to use, and offers a variety of editing options as well. Audio recording software can also be downloaded free from a variety of sources (see http://www.users.muohio.edu/sommerjd/recording.htm for two options).

Lessons Learned:
Audio commentary can be used in any class, regardless of discipline, where instructors want to offer students formative response to their writing, course projects, or presentations.