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Using Audio Feedback to Promote Teaching Presence

What does a teaching assistant do in order to be present in the classroom? The answers to this question may seem obvious; show up for class, lead class activities and discussion, and assess student learning, to name a few. Such in-person interactions have been a benchmark of quality instruction for years and are usually indicative of smaller, discussion-based classes. But when class sizes are larger or when courses are transformed to blended or fully online formats, how can the same quality of dialogue and connections among students and teaching assistants be maintained? Let’s explore the tenets of an engaging learning environment and one possible approach for connecting on a personal and meaningful level with students despite class size or format.

No matter the discipline or subject matter, a primary goal of many teaching assistants is to foster an engaging learning environment that promotes critical thinking and application among students. As students exchange ideas with teaching assistants and are challenged to deepen their understanding, opportunities for authentic knowledge construction and enriched application often result. Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2001) refer to such a collaborative and constructive educational experience as a Community of Inquiry (COI) whereby three key elements crucial to the success of any learning endeavor are highlighted: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence. Figure 1 illustrates the integration of these elements of the learning environment.

Community of Inquiry Model

Figure 1. Community of inquiry

(Reproduced by permission from Pergamon. From Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.)

The role of the teaching assistant is vital to developing a Community of Inquiry (COI) and the overall success of the course. Specific tasks such as selecting course content, setting the climate of the online community, and supporting discourse throughout the course all take place within the interplay of the cognitive, social, and teaching activities. Let’s now take a closer look at each of the key components that comprise the COI and then explore the use of audio feedback to promote teaching presence.

Social Presence

Social presence is defined as, “The ability of participants in the community of inquiry to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as ‘real people’” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000, p. 89). In blended or online course environments, developing social presence can be more challenging than in more traditional face-to-face environments and yet is equally important to the overall success of the learning experience. Social presence is the pathway whereby cognitive presence is developed. As teaching assistants and students cultivate social presence in a course through meaningful dialogue, deepened analysis and application of course concepts can take place.

Cognitive Presence

Cognitive presence categorizes the intellectual processes of an educational experience and refers to the degree to which participants in any community of inquiry are able to construct meaning through sustained communication (Garrison et al., 2000). Involving the higher-order thinking processes and knowledge acquisition associated with critical thinking, cognitive presence in the learning community is shaped as learners reflect upon their learning experiences and incorporate insights into their collaborations (Garrison, 2003; Garrison et al., 2001). The experience of actively engaging with the concepts of learning in both a self-reflective fashion internally as well as exploring and refining understanding in community is one benchmark of quality learning experiences.

Teaching Presence

Teaching presence refers to functions within the learning experience often performed by the instructor, including the design and facilitation of the educational experience (Garrison et al., 2000). These roles need not be limited to simply the instructor, as students can also exhibit teaching presence in the course through such activities as leading group discussion assignments of collecting and sharing instructional resources. In fact, Rourke and Anderson (2002) found that students actually preferred peer teams leading online discussion as compared to the course instructor.

Students have indicated that exemplary teaching assistants are those who create a learning climate that includes strong elements of social, cognitive, and teaching presence (Perry & Edwards, 2005). Especially in blended or online learning environments marked by significant reliance on computer-mediated communication, the necessity for teaching presence is amplified. Pawan, Paulus, Yalcin, and Chang (2003) found that without the instructor’s definitive teaching presence and modeling of collaborative discussion contributions, learner discussions primarily consisted of low-level cognitive interactions. While there certainly is a place for such cognitively insignificant postings in the creation of the social climate, the ultimate goal should be for learners to engage in high-level thinking and communication of new knowledge gained in a way that stimulates the learning experience for all members of the community.

Students expect to be reciprocated for their efforts (Aviv, Erlich, & Ravid, 2005). The teaching assistant’s influence within the educational experience is crucial to ensuring that communication flows freely and that dialogue proceeds in a collegial and responsive fashion. As the teaching assistant sets the climate for the dialogue to take place, the expectations established help guide the interactions of all members of the learning community. It is through purposeful development of social, cognitive, and teaching presence that teaching assistants can connect in meaningful ways with students no matter the class size or format.

Why Audio Feedback?

For many years teaching assistants have relied solely on textual comments for providing feedback to students. These comments often take the form of handwritten notes in hard copy form on written assignments of all kinds as well as written feedback on project rubrics or evaluation forms. Convenient and accessible to the vast majority of students, such comments often highlight strengths and weaknesses in student performance and provide specific suggestions for improvement. With the development of electronic assignment submission tools within learning management systems like Blackboard, students can now submit written assignments and projects electronically, allowing teaching assistants more options for reviewing student work and providing feedback. No longer must feedback be provided in hard copy form as such written comments can be embedded electronically within submitted student files.

Yet, textual feedback, particularly in the context of a blended or online course, can lack rich detail and tone. Whereas face-to-face learning environments provide ample opportunity for students to hear the “voice” of the instructor and ask questions seeking further clarification, such interactive experiences are more difficult to foster in the online learning environment. Teaching assistants often attempt the time-consuming task of providing detailed written comments to student work submitted electronically while longing for a more efficient and personable way to provide meaningful and personal feedback to students. As textual forms of communication dominate current electronic communications, opportunities to engage auditory and kinesthetic learners ought to be cultivated.

Easy-to-use audio and video technologies are available to teaching assistants who seek to provide alternative forms of feedback beyond simple text. While text feedback is still by far the most accessible to learners, audio and video capabilities are becoming commonplace among learners today and many are growing to expect and appreciate when such media are incorporated to enrich feedback. Ice, Swan, Kupczynski, and Richardson (2008) studied the impact of asynchronous audio feedback in an online course and noted the following:

  1. Students perceived audio feedback to be more effective than text-based feedback for conveying nuance.
  2. Audio feedback was associated with feelings of increased involvement and enhanced learning community interactions.
  3. Audio feedback was associated with increased retention of content.
  4. Audio feedback was associated with the perception that the instructor cared more about the student.

In addition, Ice (2008) reported that students were far more likely to apply content for which they received audio feedback than content for which text-based feedback was received and at significantly higher cognitive levels. This supports the rationale the audio feedback can enhance textual feedback and serve as a viable alternative.

Approaches to Using Audio Feedback

Teaching assistants have numerous options when considering incorporating audio feedback to enrich the quality of the feedback provided to students. With an affordable microphone connected to a computer, teaching assistants can take a number of different simple approaches to adding audio feedback to student assignments, including but not limited to, the following:

Audio Comments in Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word allows for the insertion of voice comments in any Word document. In Word 2002 and 2003, simply click the drop-down arrow of the New Comment button on the Reviewing toolbar and select Voice comment. This opens the Sound Object dialog box for you to record your comment. In Word 2007, add the Voice Comment button to the Quick Access toolbar using the following steps and then insert comments as described above:

  1. Click the Office Button.
  2. Click the Word Options button.
  3. Click Customize.
  4. Click the drop-down arrow of the Choose Commands From box and select Commands Not In Ribbon.
  5. Scroll to and select Insert Voice.
  6. Click the Add button, and then click OK.

Several drawbacks to using the audio commenting features in Microsoft Word exist. Some include the requirement of using Microsoft Word as well as the fact that depending on the number and length of audio comments included, the size of the file can become too large to email or return electronically to the student in Blackboard. This presents obvious challenges and therefore should only be considered for very brief audio commenting.

Audio Comments Using Adobe Acrobat Professional

For more extensive audio commenting in electronic documents, a more feasible option is to use the embedded audio features of Adobe Acrobat Professional. Similar to adding audio comments using Microsoft Word, teaching assistants can record and embed audio comments resulting in considerably smaller file sizes than resulting from the same approach with Microsoft Word. Teaching assistants would need a license of Adobe Acrobat Professional in order to convert submitted files to PDF and record audio comments in the files, while students only need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader software to open the commented files. Details on academic pricing for Adobe Acrobat Professional are available from ITS.

Audio/Video Feedback Using Jing

Perhaps the most versatile and affordable approach is to use a capture program such as the free Jing in order to record audio feedback while viewing electronically submitted work from students. These short video recordings, also often referred to as “screencasts,” can include cursor movement, typing, or other on-screen activity as well as narration.

After downloading Jing from and installing on either a Windows or Mac computer, teaching assistants simply can launch Jing and then open an electronically-submitted file, select a window or region, and begin recording. Jing records all on-screen activity and narration, allowing the teaching assistant the freedom to virtually review students’ work, showing where in the assignment improvement is necessary. Such an approach can be used for any type of electronically-submitted assignment or project and is not restricted to only written assignments. Once finished recording, Jing compresses it into a Flash.swf file that teaching assistants can either save and then return to the student via Blackboard or upload to the free Jing server and receive a link to the video file that can then be sent to the student.

As the available technology continues to advance, numerous additional approaches are sure to become available in the future for enhancing the quality of feedback for students. No matter what approach is ultimately selected, an improved educational experience for students will result.

Learn More

The Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center offers a variety of programs regarding the principles and practices of incorporating media in teaching. The current program schedule and online registration information is available at


Aviv, R., Erlich, Z., & Ravid, G. (2005). Reciprocity analysis of online learning networks. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9(4), 3-13.

Garrison, D. R. (2003). Cognitive presence for effective asynchronous online learning: The role of reflective inquiry, self-direction and metacognition. In J. Bourne & J. C. Moore (Eds.), Elements of quality online education: Practice and direction. Needham, MA: The Sloan Consortium.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1).

Ice, P. (2008). Better learning with sites and sound. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved December 3, 2008, from

Ice, P., Swan, K., Kupczynski, L., & Richardson, J. (2008). The impact of asynchronous audio feedback on teaching and social presence: A survey of current research. Paper presented at the ED-MEDIA 2008 - World Conference on Educational Multimedia & Telecommunications.

Pawan, F., Paulus, T. M., Yalcin, S., & Chang, C. (2003). Online learning: Patterns of engagement and interactions among in-service teachers. Language Learning & Technology, 7(3), 119-140.

Perry, B., & Edwards, M. (2005). Exemplary online educators: Creating a community of inquiry. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 6(2).

Rourke, L., & Anderson, T. (2002). Using peer teams to lead online discussion. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, (1). 

TA Connections is a newsletter for graduate teaching assistants published every fall and spring semester by Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, Adams Hall 319, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois 60115. Phone: (815) 753-0595, Email:, Fax: (815) 753-2595, Web site: For more information about featured articles or upcoming graduate teaching assistant development programs, please contact the Center at (815) 753-0595 or

Last Updated: 10/01/2015

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