A decade ago, English teacher David Narter had a revelation. One of his students had asked for extra guidance on her writing. She and Narter, a teacher at the Leyden High Schools, outside Chicago, sat down to review an essay of hers that he’d marked up. Narter started by simply reading his comments aloud. To his surprise, that process made a big difference.
In an article for the English Journal, Narter recounts how the student found his feedback more encouraging when he expressed it orally. As his student explained to him, “When I see the writing all over the paper, it just sounds like you’re saying, ‘You’re a bad writer.’ But now I feel like I can actually write this.”
Feedback is a funny beast. We all need pointers on our performance, but giving and receiving feedback can be fraught with misunderstanding. Take red pens. Social psychologists and sociologists have found that, as opposed to blue ink, grading in crimson can lead to more aggressive critique. The recipients of these mark-ups, meanwhile, may see their teacher as less approachable.
Fortunately, some simple, creative changes can help. Although Narter could not provide one-on-one counseling to every student, he has found a way to simulate such tête-à-têtes to reach a larger audience: by replacing written comments with personalized, five-minute video reviews of each assignment. The videos, he has found, allow him to provide useful, big-picture commentary. They also keep students feeling motivated rather than deflated — and the task takes Narter less time than writing out his notes.
Narter is not alone. In the past few years, a handful of educators, working in different disciplines and various education levels, have made similar observations. Michael Phillips and Michael Henderson, education faculty at Monash University in Australia, have been experimenting with video feedback for years. They’ve created a website with recommendations for teachers who want to try it out themselves. To date, Phillips and Henderson have helped instructors use video feedback for classes from 20 to 700 students, across high schools and universities, in subjects as far ranging as philosophy and engineering.
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Technology has limitations, of course. Teachers need to master their smart phone or computer’s basic recording techniques. Videos must be relatively brief (about five minutes or less) lest the files become unwieldy to share. But technological advances are making the task easier and easier. For example, screencasting apps, which create the video equivalent of a screengrab, now let teachers highlight specific passages in a student’s work as part of the film.
Overall, Phillips and Henderson, who previously taught in high schools, have been blown away by their pupils’ rave reviews. Students, without any solicitation, have been emailing them to praise the videos for their clarity and encouragement. “In our combined 25 years of experience,” Phillips says, “we never got responses like that.”
Cognitive scientists may be less surprised by the enthusiasm for video grading. Simply put, video carries more communication cues, such as tone of voice and facial expression, than a written message. Those clues make it easier for students to correctly interpret their teacher’s meaning.
Emotion, for example, is largely conveyed through nonverbal cues, as psychologist Albert Mehrabian (now an emeritus professor at the University of California, Los Angeles) revealed in studies in the 1960s. And Mehrabian believes the video format offers other advantages to both teacher and student. “Speaking and recording are bound to involve far greater freedom and less effort than composing a written comment,” he explained in an email to me.
Indeed, in the videos, teachers typically use a casual, conversational style, which students see as authentic and accessible. Phillips, for one, stresses that he never edits or performs any post-processing: “It’s not a Spielberg movie.”
Video may be rich with clues, but the written word is relatively sparse. As a result, we do a lot more mental work to interpret this latter form of communication. “We have this way of processing things in our brain where we actually attach information to a particular person, so we can imagine that person talking as we read their words,” says Monica Riordan, a cognitive scientist and assistant professor of psychology at Chatham University, in Pittsburgh.
The implication, then, is that the more we know about a speaker or writer, the better we’ll interpret his or her meaning. Riordan has studied text messages and email where, broadly, we struggle to communicate fully. In 2016, she found, for instance, that we tend to overestimate how well we share our feelings via email — even among friends. Happily, the study also hinted that this confidence was slightly more warranted when people have known each other longer. (It also found that people were more likely to accurately interpret negative emotions than positive ones.)
If a student doesn’t know his teacher well, Riordan points out, it may be easier for him to misinterpret her feedback. What’s more, without cues like tone of voice or facial expression, a reader’s mood can easily color his interpretations. If a student is feeling anxious and distressed, it’s probable he’ll take corrections critically. (Thus, it’s easy to imagine why Narter’s student was so reassured by his spoken commentary.)
Of course, we receive even more cues when we communicate in-person. Mahdi Roghanizad, an assistant professor of management and organizational studies at Canada’s Western University, has demonstrated that we’re more persuasive when we make requests face-to-face than via email. He has also found that people are better at gauging a stranger’s potential generosity when chatting in person, rather than in a video-to-video format (a la Skype). This in-person advantage disappears, however, when people wear mirrored sunglasses, obstructing eye contact.
Evolutionary psychology, he says, offers a possible explanation: “Our brain has evolved to communicate face-to-face, the more we go away from that specific channel, the less efficient we are.”
That logic might also explain why online-only courses, including much-vaunted MOOCs, struggle to retain students. But could video technology enhance these courses by adding more human elements?
Another Chatham professor, Meigan Robb of the nursing department, is trying to find out. Robb teaches an online course to experienced, degree-holding nursing professionals. Yet, just like Narter, she’s found that many pupils take away far more from a brief video than a densely edited manuscript. “I was pouring my heart and soul into [written feedback],” she recalls. But the students, she says, “didn’t do anything I asked them to do.”
To remedy that, she now combines written edits, audio files and narrated presentations to comment on her students’ work, both at the level of individual assignments and their overall progress in the course. Although it’s time-consuming, Robb believes the approach makes the class more engaging.
Back at Monash, Phillips reports that students in classes with video feedback seem to take greater responsibility for their work. “It’s the only time ever that I’ve had a student apologize for failing,” he says of a recent class in which he used video. He suspects the rich, individualized feedback helped the student form a more personal connection to the course. That may be a small fail for the student but a big win for video.