April 15th, 2016

Audio Reflection Assignments Help Students Develop Metacognitive Skills

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male college student with phone and laptop

From the bold honors student to the timid learner in the back row, reflection can help students become more aware of themselves as learners. But because we often rely on writing as the primary mode of metacognitive reflection, some students, especially those who struggle with college-level writing, may not experience the full cognitive benefits of reflection. For such students, the stress of writing can compromise their focus on reflection.

To offer more metacognition opportunities for students at every writing level, we’ve added audio reflection to our repertoire. When we want students to pause and consider their learning—at the end of a project or before a new challenge—students record their own voices in response to assigned prompts and submit the audio reflection as an assignment.

As they become accustomed to capturing their verbal reflections about their learning, they access benefits of metacognition they might miss in a writing-only reflection. From a teacher’s standpoint, audio can be a welcome change from the ever-present stack of papers. We can respond to ideas without the tedium of addressing spelling and other common writing errors.

Benefits of audio reflection
Reflection can be more manageable for more students For students who are insecure about their writing abilities, audio reflection relieves the paralyzing fear of spelling errors and misplaced commas. Pauses, missteps, and rewordings don’t risk the dreaded red pen that might mar a written submission. Although writing forces some students to slow down enough to think more fully, voice recordings can help others gather enough speed to complete full reflections that may seem too daunting or time-consuming to write. A student might offer three comparisons in an audio recording compared to the one they can muster in writing. Quick and accessible, routine audio reflection helps students establish and reinforce metacognitive processing.

New language is less intimidating Students naturally revise and self-correct as they speak. They can layer synonyms around more challenging course vocabulary to make sure they are understood. For example, a student struggling to discuss logical evidence might call her work factual, supported, and reasonable or point out how she provided multiple examples to prove her point. Other students may come close to properly pronouncing new terms they’re learning even if they’re not sure about how to spell them. Although novice learners aren’t going to speak in the straight-forward prose we usually value, students are building vocabulary and wrestling with understanding as they experiment with new course terms.

Students construct more nuanced accounts of learningWritten and audio reflection assignments can share similar goals, be similarly structured, and can even ask students to respond to the same prompts. Yet, for some students, the shift away from writing can help them elicit new insight they may not be able to express on the page. Since audio reflections feature students in their own voices, personalities come across more easily, especially those of students whose writing is stilted and laden with errors. The result is often a livelier and more detailed representation of cognitive processing.

Logistics of audio reflection
Audio reflections require more logistical planning than pulling out a scrap piece of paper, but most of the work is in the initial setup. Especially for repeated use, a bit of prep work goes a long way to open up metacognition for more students.

Record and submitFirst, you’ll decide how students will record and submit their audio reflections. We aren’t picky about what recording tool students use and usually default to the voice recording app that comes with most smartphones. Although many students prefer to use their own recording devices, a classroom iPad also works well.

We usually ask students to complete their first audio reflections as a practice test to make sure they know how to record and submit voice recordings. Many are technologically savvy, but the initial setup for audio reflection still takes a little time to troubleshoot.

The first time we used audio reflections, we read the question prompts to students and recorded their answers like an interview. Then the next week, students used the same prompts to complete an audio reflection on their own. The initial practice session helped students understand the depth of reflection we wanted as well as the approximate length of the reflection. Still, length of reflection varies by student. The important thing is that they give enough evidence to help themselves and their professor understand their thinking. Especially in the beginning, we informed students when they seemed to be rushing through an answer or when they should pause to elaborate. Now, we rely heavily on the reflection checklist that reminds students of how detailed they should be.

Space and time to record – It works best if students have a relatively quiet space to record their audio reflections. Classes with lab components are particularly well suited for an audio component since students can pause at a workstation, step outside the room, or just grab a quiet corner to reflect on their learning. Audio reflections also work well as homework assignments.

File managementFor teachers, audio files are easy to manage. If you prefer to keep all student work in one place, most course management systems accept mp3s or other audio files. We’ve also used shared folders in Google Drive; students simply upload their recordings to a file we can both access. The important part is to keep the submission guidelines consistent throughout the course so students can focus on the reflection rather than the technology.

Grading and respondingLike any metacognition exercise, you’ll need to decide if the audio reflections are graded and how you’ll respond. We want students to respond honestly, of course, so we try to give points for completion and specificity. As with written reflection, specific prompts with clear expectations contribute to better cognitive processing. For example, the reflection checklist might ask students to reflect on at least two specific examples of writing improvement or discuss one troublesome part of their writing with ideas for how to improve.

Because we usually assign a reflection in connection to a written assignment or project, we often attach feedback for the audio reflection to the feedback given on the assignment or project as a whole. The easiest way to do this is to add a marginal comment or end comment about the student’s audio reflection. We also give feedback on the audio reflection in the writing conference when there is one.

The value of audio reflection assignments doesn’t discount the importance of written metacognitive activities, but we’ve found audio reflections to be a useful tool for including and supporting an even broader range of students.

Karen Sheriff LeVan and Marissa King teach at Hesston in the English and education departments and serve as directors of the first-year experience program.