Recording Your Lectures 2: the one thing you can do to improve your recording experience

Tl;dr: record in segments of 5-10 minutes. Never record a full class’ worth of material in a single take.

That’s the short version, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

Slightly longer summary:

  1. Plan your class as you would normally (making whatever adjustments you make for it being online).
  2. Using the plan, record 5-10 minute segments of your lecture. Label each one clearly in terms of what it covers.
  3. Before you record, make a test recording to make sure levels are good and there isn’t a bunch of room echo. Use a test phrase. I always say “testing, testing, sibilance, sibilance, plosives, plosives. I love kittens, yes I do, I love kittens, how ’bout you?” (I am not kidding.). Then listen back and make sure it’s clear. That’s the only thing you will audition in its entirety.
  4. Record your first segment. Only stop if you really spectacularly embarrass yourself. When done, spot check it to make sure it sounds ok. Label it and save it in the right place so you don’t record over it.
  5. Record your next segment….etc.
  6. When done, upload your segments for your students. Make sure they are properly labelled, and make the order is clear.


In the first instalment of this series, I focused on modifying your recording space as the most important factor in improving the sound of your lectures. In this instalment, I focus on how you will spend your time recording them. How very Cartesian of me.

(the next instalment will discuss addressing your students and performance factors)

People prepare differently for lecture courses when they are in a classroom. Some lecture from a script, some work from notes, some build an elaborate lesson plan. Some build it all into a slide ware presentation using PowerPoint or Keynote. I’ve been a “notes-with-quotes and stage directions” guy, so I walk into class with something like a chart of what I want to cover, but there is lots of room for spontaneity.

Think in terms of adding components together, rather than dividing up your time: However you prepare, once you’re in the classroom, it’s a block of time that is subdivided. You experience it that way, and your students more or less experience it that way (just add some boredom and distraction into the mix).

For an online class, you need to think in terms of addition rather than division. It’s not that you are dividing, e.g., 80 minutes into small units, it is that you are making smaller units that add up to 80 minutes. The pedagogy people will tell you students’ attention spans wane when they have to just sit through 80 minutes of you talking, but I am concerned about you, the teacher, in this episode.

What happens if you make a big mistake 40 minutes into recording an 80 minute lecture?

In a live setting, you’d correct yourself and move on. But perhaps because it’s recorded you are now more self conscious. Now you have a dilemma: you either learn how to edit audio (a nice skill to have but in the context of all you have to do for the fall, it’s Just One More Damn Thing), or you live with it.

By building up lecture from 5-10 minute units you reduce the need to edit and audition your recordings after the fact. Think in terms of topics or ideas or examples you want to cover. Or just stop every 5-10 minutes. It also allows you to course-correct if you, like me, do not work from a script and may realize you need to explain something else in advance of what you are discussing. Now, you no longer have to record your lecture for class in the order your students will hear it.

If you are recording audio into PowerPoint, this is super easy, since you just record the audio that does with a slide. If you don’t like the audio, you redo it, but you avoid having to re-do the whole lecture.

Building up lectures also lets you work in other activities the students can do for the class meeting. In a classroom setting, I pause every 10 minutes, give or take, to ask a question, solicit feedback, or do something else like look at an image or show a clip. This is also highly recommended for online learning, though it is more fiddly.

Finally, lectures in small chunks, if they are well-labelled, means that students can find the part they need more easily when it is time to review. This saves you the trouble of marking up a longer lecture for students, or them digging through it to get the bit of information they need.

Assessing your audio recordings: I’ve heard it said that Zoom meetings are like having meetings in front of a mirror: you are constantly looking at yourself. Recording your voice is in a sense worse because you are not used to hearing yourself speak, and our heads remediate the sound of our voices, so our voices sound different to us than to anybody else. The good news: you have gotten this far in your career not listening to your lectures. You probably shouldn’t start now. Yes, you should spot-check each recording for sound (just skip around to a couple spots). You are simply making sure it is intelligible. Don’t listen to the whole thing. It’s true you might miss a problem, but if there is a huge problem, students will tell you, and that’s ok–just like in a live classroom setting.

For whether the recording is good enough, ask yourself if it is roughly of the quality of a lecture you would give in a classroom. You can stop and start, hem and haw, stumble to find the right words, have odd timing. There can be weird background noises from time to time so long as you are clear. Students hear that sort of thing all the time in a classroom. For years I lectured over the racket of 200 people typing on their laptops. People coughed, farted, munched, sipped, stirred, shifted, sneezed, and shuffled over one another. A phone would go off now and then. That’s what an undergrad lecture course is like.

You will get better at it as the semester goes along, but you are used to hearing polished audio from radio or live performance. Your goal right now is not a perfect radio show; it’s a usable, easy-to-understand lecture. Focus on that.

To recap, this is how I would recommend doing it:

  1. Plan your class as you would normally (making whatever adjustments you make for it being online).
  2. Using the plan, record 5-10 minute segments of your lecture. Label each one clearly in terms of what it covers.
  3. Before you record, make a test recording to make sure levels are good and there isn’t a bunch of room echo. Use a test phrase. I always say “testing, testing, sibilance, sibilance, plosives, plosives. I love kittens, yes I do, I love kittens, how ’bout you?” (I am not kidding.). Then listen back and make sure it’s clear. That’s the only thing you will audition in its entirety.
  4. Record your first segment. Only stop if you really spectacularly embarrass yourself. When done, spot check it to make sure it sounds ok. Label it and save it in the right place so you don’t record over it.
  5. Record your next segment….etc.
  6. When done, upload your segments for your students. Make sure they are properly labelled, and make the order is clear.

These first two instalments are all you really need to get going on recording audio for your students. But I will add additional posts on performance and technical subjects for those who want to get deeper into it.

My third instalment on gear is here. You should skip it unless you’re really into this sort of thing.

My final instalment on performance is here. This is highly recommended.

Recording Your Lectures 1: the one thing your can do to improve your students’ listening experience

Hang a blanket, quilt, or something else that’s absorbent behind you while you make your lecture recordings.

That’s it.

A whole lot of people are going to be audio recording their university lectures in the fall, or delivering lectures live over Zoom. This series of tutorials will give you some easy steps to make them better.

Students are going to spend hours listening to recorded lectures. It’s going to be difficult for them. Some small improvements in sound will make a huge difference in their experience of your course.

The most important thing you can do for the sound of your lectures is to reduce the room echo that people will hear in your recordings.

After months of Zoom meetings, I can tell you that many people deliver lectures from echo-y spaces. The current fashion for sparse decoration, and hard wood floors means that sound bounces around the room a lot.

The problem with echo is this: If you record yourself with a lot of echo, your words are less clear. It’s like doing course readings from a bad photocopy with blurry font (#gradschoolflashback). If your students have trouble hearing you, they have to turn you up more, which also amplifies all the echo in your room, which means they have to turn you up even more. Pretty soon they are blasting their ears. Now multiply that by 5 classes by 160 minutes a week. Brutal.

The solution: Luckily, this is easy and low tech to fix. You do not need fancy room treatment (unless you are a nerd like me and doing other audio recording).

You just need something behind you that absorbs sound. One inexpensive solution is a moving blanket or thick quilt. A Canadian Tire moving blanket will set you back about $20 (Canadian). You will want to hang this a couple feet behind you, about a bit higher than your head while sitting in the position where you will record. Anything can be used to hang it: a clothes rack will work just fine. Just make sure it’s hanging behind you and the mic.

Why this helps: Reverb comes from sound reflecting around a room. Your microphone tends to pick up sound coming from behind you.* By having something to absorb the sound, you get less echo in your mic, which is then less amplified by the software, which makes your words clearer, which means that students don’t have to work as hard to hear you, which makes your lectures easier to understand.

But this isn’t a perfect solution. This will not get you perfect acoustics, but it will greatly improve the sound your students hear. You can move the blanket around and position yourself as you like and try different approaches. It is worth messing around a bit to find a sound you like for your voice. Then just do it every time and forget about it.

Bonus round: If sound absorption is the goal, and fabric absorbs a lot of sound, should I record in a closet where all my clothes are hanging? Ask yourself if you want to record a semester’s worth of lectures from inside a closet. I believe the answer is a hard no.

An alternative solution: Some kinds of microphones pick up less room sound. These are particularly good for voice recording (and are often used in radio). If you use one, room sound is less important. The mics in laptops are just fine for recording your voice, but they do tend to get a lot of room sound because of how they operate. I will cover this in my microphones tutorial.

The second instalment tells you to record in shorter segments and not obsess over what you’ve recorded. This is the most important thing in terms of preserving your time and sanity.

You can skip the third post–don’t get hung up on the technical part of it unless you are really into that stuff.

The third instalment tells you what gear to buy if that quilt or blanket, your laptop, and your existing headphones aren’t enough (NB: do not listen or edit over bluetooth).

This final instalment deals with some of the points of performance and technique.  Once you have the moving blanket or quilt hanging up behind you, you can skip to this instalment with not much trouble.

*not true for all microphones, but that will be covered in a later microphone post

And now, a cancer update

I feel like these should be called “Iatrogenesis” updates but that wouldn’t make sense to most people.

So, the good news: I had my bloods done Wednesday. Same deal as last time: go to the Jewish, get my blood drawn, leave. Again my tumour marker is the lowest. it’s. ever. been. Tg is .5 for those who want the numbers.

The drugs are working.

Although Montreal is in no way safe from Covid right now, I learned this week that the air in our practice space is not circulated between studios (and everything is double-walled for acoustic isolation), so it is highly unlikely I would get sick from someone next door. This is where being married to a drummer comes in really handy. Since we already breathe the same air every day, it’s fine for us to go in and play together. I have cleared it with my doctor and have permission. I am also cleared for some very restricted outdoor, distanced, and ideally masked socializing. I don’t think most of my friends meet the criteria but it’s also not zero. I think our social lives will still mostly be Zoom dinners for now, with a couple exceptions.

So I will be leaving the apartment for something other than errands, starting tomorrow with going to the practice space (I’d go today but my calendar is full of stuff I have to do).

The drugs are also still working in other ways to produce side effects. My hand and foot stuff continues. Carrie and have been walking a lot (her every day, me some days) and on the longer walks my feet get quite sore. I am thinking of taking up biking again. I will try a bike soon and see if I like it before investing in a comfortable bike for myself. Hands are the same as always.

My blood pressure is well-controlled at the moment, but I am having dizziness issues. We are stopping one of the drugs to see if it makes a difference.

And then there’s the…pooping. No big updates there from previous posts, except to say I have been continuing to experiment with food and Imodium combinations, but have not found the right art or science. Between this and the rather stringent timing rules on my food consumption (nothing at all after 8:30pm, give or take), I am continuing to lose weight, which is the one side effect I can really get behind. On the phone yesterday, my oncologist said it’s fine “but I don’t want you to become a stick.”* I laughed out loud. We are still a long way from that.

Fatigue is still there and waxes and wanes. Diarrhea doesn’t help.

*said no doctor to me ever.

Multiple Choice Exam Theory: Remote Teaching Edition

(This is a revised edition of a 2012 blog post I did for the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s ProfHacker column, which is now in 404 Error Heaven.)

Edit: I did a talk about this for the Faculty of Arts.

A pdf of the slide deck is here.

The “live” 10 minute presentation is here and below, and it’s followed by a good presentation about a video assignment for students (not by me).

A video of me talking about multiple choice exams. The slides aren’t great so if you can’t see them, you aren’t missing much, except for a slide of a cat in space with a synthesizer. That is a great slide.

At McGill University, as of this writing, it is allowed to have students in remote courses take timed multiple-choice exams, so long as the window is flexible.  This means you can’t have everyone take the test at the same time.  

This also means you can’t be absolutely sure that students will not seek help. This is a concern for some people. But it doesn’t have to be. “Academic integrity” can mean many different things.

From 2011-2014 I developed a system for COMS 210, a 200 student lecture course, that allowed students to seek help and collaborate while taking multiple choice exams.  My results are unscientific, but overall test averages only went up by about 3%.  I was honestly quite surprised. Student complaints about testing, and even test anxiety, seemed to drop precipitously. It required more front-end preparation, but the grading was easy and the learning experience was better.

A couple caveats are in order here: 1) students need to adjust to it and may initially really dislike it.  They have good reason to feel that way.  It looks like other multiple choice tests but it’s not, so skills that were well developed in years of standardized testing are rendered irrelevant.  

2) in past courses, multiple choice was only one axis of evaluation for the course.  Students must write and synthesize, and they are subject to pop quizzes, which they also dislike (except for a small subset that realizes a side-effect is they keep up with readings).  On the syllabus, I am completely clear about which evaluation methods are coercive (those I use to make them keep up with the reading and material) and which are creative (where they must analyze, synthesize and make ideas their own).

So, here’s my multiple choice final exam formula.

Step 1: Make it completely open-everything (book/friend/internet), but warn students that they should make a study sheet because they won’t have time to look up everything.  

The advantage of the study sheet method is it allows students to write down anything they have trouble memorizing, but it pushes them to study and synthesize before they get to the moment of the test.

I also advised them to work in groups, but not to centralize study sheet labor, as there would often be wrong answers in the “centrally made” study sheets.

To further reduce student anxiety, I renamed the exams “quizzes” and said we would drop their lowest score (out of 4 of them). Shockingly, I think the renaming made a difference.

Step 2: Rules for the test: for teaching on campus, I told them that if they came to the classroom that day, we would enforce it as a quiet space, but that they could take the exam anywhere they wanted.  Most students selected that option.  So I already know a system like what we’d have to do online can work.

Step 3: Build a unique exam for each student (sort of).  Let’s say you are giving a 50-minute exam with 40 question.  Each question will be an “objective” on a topic.  Now, you need to write four (+/-) questions for each objective.  Yes, that’s 160 questions fora. 40 question test but I follow a formula (see Step 4).  Using the exam tools in MyCourses, each student then gets a set of 40 questions in a unique order, and with a unique order of answers.  They can phone or text a friend for help, or take it with a friend, but if they get stuck their friend has to actually give them the right answer, rather than saying “the answer to #6 is C,” so there is some learning going on.

NB: I am not providing technical support on how to actually design exams in MyCourses.  Please contact TLS if the online training materials don’t work for you.

Step 4: Eliminate recognition as a factor in the test.  

Most multiple choice questions rely on recognition as the path to the right answer.  You get a question stem, and then four or five answers, one of which will be right.  Often, the right answer is something the student will recognize from the reading, while the wrong answers aren’t.  

But recognition isn’t the kind of thinking we want to test for.  We want to test if the student understands the reading.

The answer to this problem is simple: spend more time writing the wrong answers.

I’ve come up with a formula that works pretty well.  Pretty much all my multiple choice exam questions take this form:

Question stem. This is the “question” part of the question in multiple-choice lingo. The ideal question stem has more words than any of the possible answers and is clearly worded, though I do throw in a negation (“not”) from time to time.

A. Right answer

B. True statement from the same reading or a related reading, but that does not correctly answer the question

C. Argument or position author rehearsed and dismissed; or that appears in another reading that contradicts the right answer.

D. Converse of one of B or C.

From here, you’re basically set, though I often add a 5th option that is “the common sense” answer (since people bring a lot of preconceptions to media studies), or I take the opportunity to crack a dad joke.

Step 5: Give the students practice questions, and explain the system to them.  I hide nothing.  I tell them how I write the questions, why I write them the way I do, and what I expect of them.  I even have them talk about what to write on their sheets of paper.  At the beginning of each class, we would do a multiple choice question reviewing something from the last class. At the time, I used clickers, which we also used for surveys and attendance.

A few other guidelines:

Answers should be as short as possible; most of the detail should be in the question stem

Answers should be of roughly the same length

I never use “all of the above” or “none of the above”

Since we are testing on comprehension of arguments, I always attribute positions to an author (“According to Stuart Hall,”), so it is not a question about reality or what the student thinks, but what the student understands authors to me.

Exception: I will ask categorical questions, ie, “According to Terranova, which of the following 4 items would not be an example of ‘free labour’?”

Step 6 (optional):  In 2012, I had students try to write questions themselves.  Over the course of about 10 weeks, I had groups of 18 students write up and post questions on the discussion board (that follow the rules above) that pertained to readings or lectures from their assigned week.  A large number of them were pretty good, so I edited them and added them to my question bank for the final exam.  So for fall 2012, my COMS 210 students wrote about half the questions they were likely to encounter on the final.  If they were exceptionally lucky, their own question might wind up on their own exam (we used 4 different forms for the final).

Here is a link to a copy that assignment. So long as the rules about timed exams do not change between now and September, I plan on using a variation of it for my fall lecture course:

The Week in White Supremacy

Most weeks in the history of white supremacy are not good weeks, but this is a particularly bad week. Some lowlights:

In my hometown of Minneapolis, a white police officer lynches George Floyd while three other officers look on. The incident is caught on video, which is important because the initial police report does not match what happened in the video. Despite the officer’s history of violence against BIPOC people, no arrests have been made as of this writing. A peaceful protest is tear-gassed by Minneapolis police, only weeks after white protesters at the Minnesota State Capitol were not tear gassed, and armed protesters in Michigan were allowed into government buildings there.

There are now riots happening in Minneapolis. White commentators seem very concerned about property damage. White supremacists seem to be supporting the uprising, but for all the wrong reasons.

In Toronto, a black woman named Regis Korchinski-Paquet winds up dead when family members call the police for help getting her to the Centre for Mental Health and addition.

In Tallahassee Florida, police shoot and kill Tony McDade, a black trans man.

In Western Australia, a mining company wantonly destroys a 46,000 year old Indigenous cultural site.

In my town of Montreal, which is currently a global hotspot, COVID-19 infections continue to go up. The provincial government diverted federal funds destined for a local Indigenous women’s shelter. The curve has not flattened, and our emergency rooms are over capacity. Apart from long-term care facilities (which themselves have been defunded due to ageism), the most affected population in the city lives in Montreal-Nord, which is majority immigrants and people of colour. The current Quebec premiere ran for office on an anti-immigrant platform but recently said he’d consider allowing more asylum seeker in if they were willing to work in long-term care facilities.

In my corner of the academic world, it has become fashionable in some quarters to focus on black and Indigenous resurgence and agency rather than white aggression because the latter still makes white people the centre of attention. I totally get that. But the need to pay witness to the horrors and everyday violence committed as a direct result of white supremacy will not disappear until white supremacy does. It also seems resurgent right now.

COVID-19: This Time It’s Personal

As regions and municipalities start to relax their lockdowns, advice is starting to pop up about risk and decision making. It is almost entirely addressed to readers in the second-person singular. For instance, Madison physician James Stein outlined different levels of personal risk and says “I can’t make decisions for you”; The New York Times op-ed “Putting the Risk of Covid-19 in Perspective” uses the “micromort,” or one in a million chance of dying, as the way to measure Covid-19 risk.

But all of these perspectives are highly personalizing, as if risk is an individual decision. The reporting sounds like it’s from the lifestyle section, where you can decide whether you want to follow the no-knead or sourdough approach to baking bread, or whether it’s ok to still like a Michael Jackson song. Covid-19 is like none of those things in terms of risk or responsibility.

Since nobody can know if they have been infected with the virus, risk is not a personal decision. In going out, or not wearing a mask, you are making decisions to put other people at risk, both by potentially transmitting the virus, and by thereby potentially filling up emergency rooms and intensive care units (NB: Montreal’s ERs are already over capacity).

I am not arguing against going out or even some measure of harm reduction. Rather, I am arguing that if you are concerned about the virus and think that the lockdown was a good idea, the right approach in assessing risk is civic, rather than personal. How much risk should the others around you tolerate so that you can exercise the freedom of going out? How can you move about the world in such a way as to minimize risk to others? I realize that there are people who don’t care, as amply demonstrated by the anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests in the U.S. I am not writing for them. I am writing for the people who care, or want to believe that they care.

All of this has a fine point for me because Quebec just announced its triage guidelines in the event that intensive care units are overrun. While there are a lot of great things about our healthcare system here compared with the U.S. system in which I grew up, it is subject to the same managerialist cost-cutting one finds elsewhere, which means that there are real limits to what the system can accommodate in a crisis.

The guidelines are shockingly ableist, and the Société québécoise de la déficience intellectuelle has launched a project to persuade the National Assembly to change them not to exclude people with disabilities. But even if that gets fixed, I am caught up in another net that is unlikely to change.

Among the people who will be triaged out of intensive care are people with “metastatic malignancies,” in other words, people with cancer that has metastasized to other organs. That’s me. Although my drugs are working well and my cancer is “well-controlled,” if ICU’s were overrun and I showed up at the hospital, even though I am technically not sick from the cancer and only from my treatments, I would be triaged out.

I am not saying I’m special here: plenty of people are told by the state that their lives don’t matter, as the police murder of George Floyd yesterday in my hometown of Minneapolis sadly demonstrates, and as the Quebec guidelines also show.

But I’m seeing a lot of people who consider themselves progressive and good-hearted starting to talk in terms of personal risk. Don’t. If we’re friends, instead of thinking about how much risk you’re willing to tolerate for yourself, consider if you’re willing to put me in mortal danger, knowing that my safety net just got a lot thinner. Then, remember that everyone you might bump up against has someone who loves them. That should be our measure for how to act in public.

And if I turn down your social invitation in the next couple weeks, or counterpropose a Zoom dinner, you’ll know why.

Instant thoughts on moving instruction online for the fall

I was very happy to read that McGill is taking instruction online in the fall. There are still some ambiguous words in the provost’s email about the student experience, on-campus seminars and learning experiences, etc.* But this is so much better than pretending everything will be the same when we know it can’t be. And it’s something approaching a science-based response to a public health crisis (an approach sorely lacking in Quebec right now).

I am very motivated to do the best I can for my students under the circumstances. Taking courses online will be a ton of work and require special consideration given that they will still be dealing the pandemic in the fall. Cathy Davidson has a great piece on the student experience that’s now a blog post, and which I highly recommend. But there are still a lot of problems to be solved. McGill has a lot of rules and regulations about what we can require of students, and those will need to change to fit the situation. This will affect how we can teach and evaluate. Students also have privacy rights in Quebec that they don’t have elsewhere, which raises questions about Zoom and other courseware taking a more prominent role in instruction.

And let’s not forget that profs will have all sorts of new access needs; not just the students. For once, profs with mobility issues won’t have to struggle to get to or around campus several times a week (McGill is the most inaccessible space I have ever worked). But now people with disabilities that affect their experience of online communication will have a host of new problems to deal with. And then there are all the profs who can’t simply set up to teach in their homes because of care work, or living arrangements, or other life circumstances.

This is absolutely the right move, but it is just the beginning.

Postscript: I forgot to mention that our department did a cool thing a couple weeks ago that others might want to do. Rather than making the fall transition an individual problem for profs, we met and made subcommittees and will try and produce templates (or at least options) so we are not all reinventing the wheel on our own. This probably only works in departments that are functional units, but I am fortunate to have that.

Post-postscript: Our dean followed up with a note suggesting that “we intend for instructors to be available when and where possible on campus, subject to public health directives.” Um, probably not while Montreal is a global hotspot in a pandemic. Unless you count “sneaking in under the cover of night to retrieve something from my office.”