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Critiquing Student Work with Dictated Comments

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Compared to comments on a final paper at the end of the course, I'd say it's about twenty times as valuable per minute invested.


The posting below looks at an innovative and time-saving way to comment on students’ written work.  It is by Michael O’Hare, and it was posted on April 6, 2016 on the Berkeley Center for Teaching & Learning website . This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License 2013 (may be reproduced with credit for non-commercial purposes. Michael O'Hare's blog:


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Critiquing Student Work with Dictated Comments

This note describes a method for critiquing student work (and colleagues’ drafts, come to think of it) that greatly increases the efficiency of the process compared to written comments.  I discovered it by accident, when I graded a bunch of papers on a portable dictating machine while traveling, back in the day when professors didn’t have laptops but did have assistants. I gave the tape to my assistant to transcribe. I asked the next day whether she had finished, and she said “are you kidding? Do you know how long this is?” Transcribed, the comments were way more than I would have written. 

The updated system described here has the advantage of using a technology familiar to students (mp3 audio).  An intermediate stage involved cassette tapes that were tedious to keep track of and exchange.


(1) Obtain a headset such as you would use for Skype (earphones and a mic).  Also get this software   (windows only) or this

(mac or  windows).  The voice recorder that comes with Windows is pretty rudimentary and makes only .wma files, which are less widely used than mp3’s. Here is a page of options for Mac audio recording -

(2) Invite submissions in MSWord (or on paper); pdfs are quite tedious to annotate and almost impossible to edit (unless you use PDF Annotator or an equivalent, with a tablet screen you can write on).    

(3) Start a memo of general comments, with numbered entries.  It should begin with “Comments on your paper are on the attached mp3 files and keyed to letters on your original.  Listen to file 1 first. GN refers to something in this memo, RN to the Rhetoric Note distributed earlier.”

(4) Open student Smith's paper and turn on Track Changes.  Under Track changes/Change tracking options, switch the colors for inserts and deletes to blue or green, anything but red (grownups do not write on other grownups' work with a red pen,; it's affectively very bad).  (Option: if you like to work from a paper draft, you may of course just write on it, edit with proofreader's marks, etc.)      

(5) Set the recording software to mono and a low bit rate, for smaller files.  Start a new file, which will be called  smith2.mp3 . Say  "Hi, Georgia. These are thoughts on your paper draft that came to me as I read it", then pause the recorder.  Annotate the student paper with edits to the text as you see fit, to illustrate rhetorical issues and the like. But when you want to make a substantive comment, just put a key letter in the student paper (A, B, C, etc.) and dictate "At letter A: this is an interesting insight. Can you apply it also to your second alternative policy?", "At letter B: shouldn't the predominance of poltergeist manifestations  have been mentioned earlier?" etc.      

(6) After a few papers, you will have found that some comments apply to many; put these in the general comment memo, and then you just have to highlight or circle text and write "GN3"      

(7) When you finish a pass through the paper, you have three options; the important thing is to be sure the student hears your general comments, which must begin with something positive, first.  Your passim observations will mostly be critical or questioning. Of course if you can catch students doing specific things right and (i) say so  (ii) say what it is, not just “good” in the margin, It's valuable; I don't do enough of this and am trying to  teach myself to do more.        

a. Type or write a few lines of overview evaluation at the beginning of the draft.        

b. If using Stepvoice, which doesn't allow you to insert, start a new file, called smith1.mp3 and dictate overview comments.  End it with "now listen to the other mp3 file for specific comments keyed to letters in your draft."    

c. If using Audacity, you can insert the general comments at the beginning of the mp3 file.  You can also open the first-pass mp3 file from Stepvoice in Audacity to do this, but then you have to resave it as an mp3.      (8) Return the annotated Word file (or the scribbled paper copy) and the mp3 file[s] to the student, the mp3s as email attachments.  Students are quite accustomed to dealing with mp3 files.        

Technical notes:  Stepvoice has VAS, which starts recording when you speak and stops when you are silent. This saves a lot of mouse clicks recording and pausing, and avoids long silences when you forget to pause; Audacity doesn't.  If you can do the recording on a separate machine, like a laptop at the side of your desk, it's a good idea: you can put the mp3 files on a thumb drive and then move them all to your main archive of student work to return. The reason for this is that if you scroll your mouse with the focus on the Stepvoice window instead of the paper you are critiquing, for example if you paused it manually to cough or answer the phone, you will turn down the gain on the mike and not realize it, and dictate a lot of deathless insights that aren't captured.        

Experience notes:  I don't usually report grades.  If a paper seems to be headed for the bottom fifth of the grade distribution, I make sure the student knows that (still beginning the overview comments with something positive, no matter how much of a stretch it is). I tell the class that if anyone wants to know the grade I will tell him, but I also  tell them they should be more concerned with how to make the paper  [even] better (which is what the critique is aimed at) than with its  absolute-scale score, no matter how good it is.  In my last large class I returned 85 drafts of course papers this way, and only one student asked me for her grade, including students who came to office hours to discuss their work!  I told her to email me that evening, when I was at the computer with the records, and I would send it to her, but she never did.

I can't say enough about critiquing (i) a draft (ii) early enough in the semester for the student to use the feedback on that paper instead of having to remember it all through the next semester and then apply it to a completely different task.  Compared to comments on a final paper at the end of the course, I'd say it's about twenty times as valuable per minute invested, especially affectively, because negative comments on a finished paper are just lost chances for the student to regret, but on a draft they are opportunities to seize.  

I require drafts in the form of a sentence outline, the best writing tool since Theodore M. Bernstein, with as much expanded into prose as they can accomplish, and the draft counts about half as much as the final paper as a grade component. I also have three students critique each student’s draft.  I don’t review these but they presumably figure into everyone’s peer class participation grade.