Please engage with students after the beep — Josh Neufeld

When teaching a large second-year “Fundamentals of Microbiology” course with 800+ students each fall, connecting with individual students is an important, yet challenging, goal. In addition to in-class student engagement, email helps me make connections with students outside of class, assisting them with particularly difficult course concepts. That said, with hundreds of student emails received every term, typing responses can become time consuming and burdensome. This year, I discovered a simple technique that saved me a lot of time, provided increased student engagement on a personal level, and surprised students pleasantly. The technique? Voice mail.

In September 2014, when a long student email with five different questions arrived one day, I decided to pick up my phone to respond instead of typing. Because the University of Waterloo has a service that allows employees to have voice mails forwarded to our email accounts as a .wav file attachment, I simply dialed my own phone extension and left a message: “Hello Isabel…”. After answering her questions in under three minutes, the time limit of our answering service, an email arrived with my audio file.

I replied to Isabel and attached the file, simply stating “Hello Isabel, Please see attached. Let me know if you have additional questions. JDN”.

By replying to the email verbally through voice mail, I was able to answer all five of her questions with detail beyond what I would have written in an email. Isabel heard me talking to her, using her name, and responding in a friendly and helpful tone. A surprising additional benefit was efficiency for me: this process took approximately five minutes, from reading her questions to sending the voice mail reply.

Isabel’s response to this new form of communication? “It was actually a brilliant idea! At first, I was kind of worried it would be difficult to answer all those questions via an email; just cause you have to type it out and sometimes it makes less sense than in an actual conversation. However, when I received the audio message, it was clear and I think it’s easier to understand.”

From then on, when an email required thoughtful responses, when general student questions were best answered with a suggestion to review a podcast or videocast for more detail (i.e., we covered that topic in class), when questions moved beyond the scope of course material and required more in depth responses, when I needed to decline requests for exam accommodations, when students asked for career advice, voice mails have made my life easier in every case, saved me time, and left the recipient thrilled with the personal touch.

Student feedback on the voicemails has been 100% positive since I first used this technique in September. Feedback was sufficiently enthusiastic that I began using voice mails for responding to emails from colleagues and graduate students when I don’t have time to type a response, or when the tone of the conversation is important to convey correctly.

Drawbacks? One downside is poor email searchability. For me, this has been a minor issue; I’ve not yet needed to search for any of the dozens (hundreds?) of voice emails sent since September. File size is another drawback. A three-minute audio file (e.g., .wav, mp3, m4a) can range between 300 kb and 3 mb, depending on the method used to generate the file. These days though, emails with attachments are common. Voice mails certainly don’t exceed the size of a photo or journal article. It may also worry some to have voice audio files circulating on the internet. That said, sending an email to a student is similar in that ideas are out there for posting or sharing anyway.

And how will I will carry this practice forward in 2015? Now that I am overseas on a sabbatical, calling my University of Waterloo extension is no longer feasible. Instead, I’ve discovered an excellent alternative. Creating audio recordings with Vocaroo is effortless. Vocaroo is a website that can be used instantly, without membership or software installed. An advantage to Vocaroo is that audio files can be downloaded directly or, alternatively, a short url link is provided that can be sent to a recipient instead of an email attachment. It is even possible to upload an audio file to Vocaroo in order to share a link that allows the recipient to listen instantly. In this way, I uploaded an example audio recording sent to one of my 2014 students (“Jennifer”) who sent a six-question email, providing an example of how the approach can be used to respond to students. Additionally, here is a link to a video for educators explaining the features and functionality of Vocaroo in a step-by-step manner.

In summary, voice mails help increase student engagement outside of class and provide a personal touch for instructors wanting students to know that they are more than a number in their class. In the process, leaving a message after the beep saves a lot of time. I hope this simple practice helps you and your students as much as it did me and my Fundamentals of Microbiology class.

Note: to set up your university voice mail so that messages are emailed to you as .wav files, send a request to . 


Josh Neufeld (Twitter: @JoshDNeufeld) is an Associate Professor in Waterloo’s Department of Biology, studying the microbiology of terrestrial, aquatic, and host-associated environments. Josh teaches a large second-year introductory microbiology course as well as smaller upper year courses in biogeochemistry and microbial ecology.

Telephone keypad image courtesy of Raindog808

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