Audio Assignments, Oral Communication, and Accessibility

I’m taking a break from specs grading this week–not because I don’t have anything to write about, but actually because I’m too busy writing specs and grading homework modules to write up everything that’s going on.  Plus we are in the midst of a search, and I’m buried in applications.  I’ll be back on topic next week with my thoughts about grading, and some micro adjustments I had to make to the course as a result of my reflections.

When I’m not talking about specs grading, I try to share some quick and easy ideas for teaching that can make a big difference. These often fall into the vein of James Lang’s Small Changes in Teaching, both his book and his series over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed (definitely worth checking out!).

Today’s idea is about using audio and oral assignments in the classroom.

According to the AACU’s 2015 survey of employers, the top skill that employers want is “the ability to effectively communicate orally.”  This beats out–albeit not by much–other essential skills such as teamwork, written communication, ethical reasoning, and critical thinking.  Now, many courses incorporate oral presentations into classes.  But to what extent do we actually give students the opportunity to practice these skills?

An oral presentation, after all, likely focuses more on the substantive content and less on demonstrating solid oral communication ability. And yet, a poor skill set in this area can easily hurt a students’ performance and grade, even if the instructor is not explicitly grading on it.  The same is true of written work–even when grammar and style are not explicitly graded, it is not hard to imagine that a student with a poorly written essay may end up receiving a lower grade than that of their peer with a well-written but substantively similar paper.  Instructors have turned to scaffolding of written assignments to ensure that the final work is solid, but my (entirely unsubstantiated and ready to be proven wrong) hunch is that little scaffolding occurs with oral presentations, besides reviewing the written materials such as powerpoint slides, posters, or handouts.

Adding in oral assignments during the semester makes sense to me, both as a way to practice this essential skill in general, and to ensure a quality final presentation at the end of the course.  It also signals to students that this IS a skill, and may help them develop a greater comfort with public speaking that will serve them well outside the classroom.

To this I add another reason to regularly incorporate oral assignments and options throughout the course: accessibility.  For some students with physical and visual impairments, writing and typing can pose significant challenges.  Likewise, some students for whom English is a second language may be stronger and more confident in their verbal than written abilities. The ability to turn in assignments orally could allow these students to demonstrate the knowledge and skills that instructors are looking for without penalty–after all, if written communication is not expressly desired as a learning outcome in the course, there is no real reason why writing must be the medium through which students demonstrate their understanding. Allowing all students to choose between turning in their work in a written vs. oral form  increases the accessibility of such students without compromising their performance, and in the vein of this article from the Chronicle, promotes inclusivity of students for whom writing poses challenges.

Okay, so how is this done in practice?

The first step is to review your assignments and see which, if any, could be completed through an oral format.  Short answer questions or essays of a page or less could conceivably be answered orally, for example.  If you have assignments that really cannot be done orally for some reason, consider whether you could provide a substitute assignment that hits the same learning outcomes but could be completed orally.

Here is an example from my own class.  Our senior capstone experience is called the Overview.  Every year the faculty of the department choose a book for the seniors to read and then discuss in a one-hour oral exam with two faculty members.  When I first came to the department, I noted how much anxiety the seniors had about this capstone, and I realized that this was in part due to the fact that they had no experience in their first three years that helped them prepare.  Doing end-of-term presentations is not the same thing as sitting at a table, facing two faculty members, and being grilled on the themes and contributions of a scholarly book.  So I changed the written midterm in my required research methods class to an oral exam dubbed “the mini-overview”.  Students read a book chapter or journal article and then sit a fifteen minute oral exam with me, and are evaluated on the same criteria we use for the capstone Overview (with a larger emphasis on methodology). It’s a small step, but it gives them some practice with an oral exam, and over the years a number of students have anecdotally reported that the practice really helped them prepare.

The next issue is a practical one: how do students submit their work?  Good news–both Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard have an option you can select when creating assignments that allows students to upload media recordings.  They can record their answer in Audacity or other free audio recording software, and then upload the audio file instead of a written .doc or .pdf. Alternatively, have them leave you voicemails on your office phone, or email you a recording they make using a recorder app on their phone. When I do the oral exams with my students, I record them using either my digital recorder or an app on my phone, and upload the files to dropbox so I have a record of the exams.

Finally, a word on grading.  You have to consider your main rationale in letting students turn in work orally.  If it is mostly for accessibility reasons, then explicitly grading oral communication may not make sense.  If, however, you are trying to engage in scaffolding or practice for an end-of-term presentation, or want to build oral communication skills, then be sure to take that into account in your grading.  Consider using part or all of the AACU’s rubric on oral communication as an aid.


Again, allowing oral assignments does not mean that we should give up on written assignments, which of course are essential to the college experience.  My point is simply that adding in oral assignment options not only helps students build this essential skill set but also provides accommodations and opportunities for students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of substantive material in a variety of mediums.