Let them hear your voice.

This post is part of a series on bringing a human touch (cue the Bruce Springsteen song) to online education. See the series introduction here.

Today I have a simple tip to offer you, yet I’ve received more positive student feedback in response to this practice than almost anything else I’ve ever done as a professor. I would like to invite you to consider making videos for your students. And I don’t mean scripted lectures shot in multiple takes with official-looking title cards provided by your institution (though there can be a place for those). I mean short, personal, off-the-cuff video responses to students’ assignments. Here is a short account of my experiences with this practice.

I teach two research classes in which students submit a major project in several steps, the first being a proposal. Though the assignment instructions for the proposal are relatively formal and lead students to take it seriously, I treat it as a formative assessment–that is, not a finished product but a stepping stone. So instead of making corrections and deducting points from the rubric, I read each student’s proposal, then use the recording feature embedded in our learning management system (Canvas) to make a short video (2-5 minutes) expressing enthusiasm for their projects and giving them some advice about things like the scope of the project (students often start out a little too ambitious), pitfalls to avoid, and sources that might be helpful. The videos tend to be longer if I know something about the topic and have specific source recommendations to make or if the student seems to have had a little trouble understanding the assignment. But in all cases, I try to project excitement about their ideas and let them know that I’m a helpful resource.

The videos don’t take long to create because I shoot them in one take, without doing any editing and without even writing down notes first. I am pretty good at speaking ad lib–others might want to jot some notes first (and I do sometimes miss important things I meant to say or should have said!). Video grading gives me a break from writing, which constitutes the bulk of my work, and it allows students to see my face and hear my voice, letting them know I’m a real person who’s invested in them and their writing. The students love these videos–I get more positive feedback on them in my course evaluations than on anything else. Often the videos initiate a warm and enthusiastic exchange of questions and ideas that continues throughout the course.

Next week, it will be time for me to make proposal feedback videos for my new set of students, and I am genuinely excited to make them–not something I can normally say about grading. I encourage you, if you are a teacher or any type of communicator (aren’t we all?), to find ways to let the people you work with hear your voice. It will lay the foundation for trusting relationships and make your future written communication less likely to be misunderstood. Try it out and let me know what you learn!