When the red pen fails, try sending the message on tape

I teach biology at a small college in central Maine. As part of the course, students are required to write essays in which they summarize and interpret their laboratory findings.

The problem with writing comments in margins and between lines is that, even while I am at it, I realize that much of what I write will not be read by my students. As testament to this, I have often found essays in the wastebasket - deposited there before the students took the time to read and understand my corrections.

Surely Socrates would have been disappointed by such a response. But then again, he would probably have been disappointed in this approach to teaching as well.

In this light, I decided years ago to radically reform the way I assess my students' work. In essence, I decided to take as Socratic an approach as I could with a class of 35. Realizing how attentive my students generally are when I speak to them, I designed a way for them to take my voice (along with its sage counsel) home: instead of writing comments on their papers, I would record them on tape.

At first my students were apprehensive. Their greatest fear was that they would have to speak on the tapes. When I assured them it would be a one-man show, they grew more accepting. A week later they handed in their first essays, along with the requisite blank cassettes. I took the 35 tapes and papers home in a cardboard box. That evening I spread them out on the floor and began to read and record.

As I adjusted to this new way of doing things I found that I could be both more personal and detailed in my comments. When I gave the tapes and papers back, the students took them with bated breath, wondering what on earth I had to say.

Later that day, I got a first inkling of the impact of my commentaries. While on my way to the library I saw some of my students huddled around a table in the lounge area. They were all listening intently to one of the tapes, periodically remarking at something I had said.

As the weeks went by both the students and I became more comfortable with the tape approach. Some of them even began to have fun with it, recording fragments of their favorite music, which I retained as an overture to my recorded remarks. Others found the courage to say a few syllables. One student managed, "This is fun," while another told an endless joke.

As for the papers, they were generally of average quality, but one student's early papers were nothing short of abysmal. I felt that if I tackled all of his deficiencies at once I would discourage him, so I decided to try to bring him around by degrees.

When I returned his first tape he accepted it with palpable trepidation. He didn't say a word, but his eyes conveyed a sense of, "I know I'm not good at this, but I really am trying."

This student commuted to school from quite a distance. My take on him was that he came from an impoverished background, but was a hard worker who just had not had access to the necessary means of study.

He seemed to be profiting from the tapes, though, because with each passing week his work visibly improved. By semester's end he was actually writing coherent and sometimes creative essays. I finally took him aside to tell him how proud I was of him. "I hope the tapes helped you," I said.

"I learned a lot from them," he assured me. "Despite the cold."

"The cold?" I echoed.

That's when I learned how hard he had really worked. "Yeah," he said. "I don't have my own tape recorder, but there's one in my dad's truck. So at night I go out there, start it up, and sit and listen to the tapes."

If not for the tapes, I might never have known how seriously he took his education. That was eight years ago. I'm still doing the tapes, but the service they provide still occasionally pales against the insights they yield into how good-hearted and deserving these people are.

In a profession that can too easily become routine, such thoughts need to be cast in bronze, or at least recorded on cassette.

*Robert Klose is an associate professor of biological science at University College of Bangor in Maine.

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