Just-in-Time Audio Files to Facilitate Student Learning Beyond the Classroom

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 18–19, 2011

University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras and University of the Sacred Heart
San Juan, Puerto Rico


For thousands of years, the human voice has been an essential instructional tool. Teachers talked to students and students responded with questions and comments. This content-­?focused conversation has been the basis of almost all subsequent teaching and learning approaches. More recently, technology has permitted the recording of the human voice, and both live and recorded audio has been used for instruction.

Research has demonstrated that audio can be a very effective tool for student learning under the right conditions (Moreno, & Mayer, 2000; Mayer, Sobko, & Mautone, 2003; Mayer, 2005, Prion & Mitchell, 2008). Recorded audio files have been used as historical records of a live event, class or discussion, and to provide rich feedback to students about projects such as term papers. A more recent use of audio files is to offer “just-in-time” instructional support to students as they master difficult and complex content, or to provide remedial or enrichment content outside of the classroom (Prion & Mitchell, 2007a and 2007b).

The effectiveness of audio for learning is explained by the Dual Coding Theory (Paivio, 1985) and Mayer’s Theory of Multimedia Learning (2001). Paivio’s theory of dual processing proposed that humans collect instructionally-­?related sensory input via two distinct but interrelated systems: a visual system for processing still and moving picture, diagrams, illustrations and written text, and an audio system for spoken word, music and other types of sound input. Subsequent research on working memory (Badderly, 1992) and cognitive load (Sweller, 1994) identified the importance of planned sensory input through both channels and cautioned about the problems caused by cognitive overload. Mayer’s theory (2001) integrated working memory and cognitive load with the advances in instructional technology to describe ways to maximize learning through the thoughtful use of the wide variety of technological adjuncts available (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). Mayer’s theory predicts that audio explanations will be more effective than text because text-­?based explanations compete for limited cognitive processing space with the visual information because both used the same image coding system.

Just-­in-time audio

This term is borrowed from business colleagues to describe relatively short audio files (typically under 10 minutes) that address specific student learning issues at the moment that these issues arise. Instructionally significant is that these audio files are created in response to a clear learning need identified by the instructor through student questions in the classroom, student email or online discussion board questions, or conceptual difficulties experience by previous students in the same type of class. These audio files provide timely and targeted conceptual scaffolding for students that can be easily downloaded from the course website and referenced as often as the student needs to master the content or concept.

Three types of audio narratives have been used to facilitate student learning:

  1. Audio for known conceptual difficulties
  2. Audio for unexpected conceptual difficulties
  3. Audio for enrichment and supplementation

Audio narrative for known conceptual difficulties

In this instructional situation, audio narratives were developed in advance of the classroom discussion to address an especially difficult or confusing concept of which the instructor was aware from previous semesters. These were known challenging topics and it was expected that the students would have difficulty mastering the information after only one exposure. The file was made available on the course management site immediately after the class discussion was completed. Students first participated in the classroom explanation and then had unlimited access to an additional resource to review and reinforce their understanding. These files are formatted in MP3 or MP4 files so they can be played on any computer or mobile computing device. There is often one visual, usually a flowchart or a color-­coded image or diagram that accompanies this audio file. An example of this type of audio narrative content would be the differences between statistical and practical significance calculations.

Audio narratives for emerging conceptual difficulties

The second type of just-­in-­time audio was used in situations when students unexpectedly struggled with a concept during class. Although the idea was explained it during class, it was very clear from student questions and demeanors that there was continued confusion about the content. The audio narrative provided at least one alternate explanation and directed students towards potentially useful resources that could be used to master the content. This type of audio reinforced the classroom content but also allowed the student to review the material at his or her own pace. This is very helpful when the classroom discussion flows too quickly for a student’s understanding. These audio files were recorded and edited within 24 hours of the class conclusion and uploaded to the course management site as MP4 files for maximum student accessibility. There was often one visual, usually a flowchart or a color-­?coded image or diagram that accompanied this audio file. An example of this type of audio narrative content would be a review of research reliability and validity threats for entering doctoral students.

Audio narratives for conceptual enrichment and supplementation

Often, students demonstrate an interest in a topic that is not directly relevant to the course or does not justify a time-­consuming classroom explanation. In this situation, a just-­in-­time audio narrative can serve as a fulfilling cognitive enrichment that supplements the classroom content but does not take extra classroom time. Like the other audio files, these narratives are made available on the course management website within two-three days of the classroom discussion and are formatted as MP3 or MP4 files for maximum accessibility. There is usually a resource list that accompanies these types of supplementary audio files. Examples of this type of audio narrative content include information about different types of effect size calculations, and a detailed description of post hoc statistical comparison techniques.

Identification of student learning needs

To maximize the effectiveness of these just-­in-­time audio files, the identification of student learning needs should be quick, precise and ongoing. The professor’s teaching diary from previous iterations of the course was useful in identifying “difficult” topics that might require an audio narrative. Review of student performance on test items, coupled with student questions from individual emails, class discussion boards, and office hours, all provided rich information for the creation of audio files. Student behavior during class, including the content and pattern of questions, also provide good information about the content for possible audio files.

Creation of the audio narratives

The instructor has an important opportunity for a ‘teachable moment” in response to these learning situations. Just-­in-­time audio narratives can provide key instructional support at the precise time that the student requires additional assistance in mastering the concept. Just-­in-­time audio narratives need to be prompt in responding to an identified learning need; precise in addressing the specific content for review; concise and complete but not overwhelming with too much information; professional quality because students listening to these files through high fidelity equipment will be annoyed by poor audio and distracting vocal habits; and personal, meaning that the students know that the audio narrative was made by their instructor in response to their identified learning needs.

Student feedback

Student reaction has been extremely positive to the instructional use of just-­in-­time audio narratives. A summative survey of student perceptions about the course collected affirmative comments (“extremely helpful” and “helpful”) from over 95% of the students enrolled in the class over five semesters (n = 92). Students reported “relief” knowing that an audio narrative would be available for difficult topics.

Students also reported that the audio files increased and enhanced their learning of the specific content. They rated the topics for the audio narratives as “well-­chosen.” The audio quality was judged “high” or “extremely high” by respondents. The rapid availability of a high-­quality audio narrative in response to an identified learning need was also rated highly.


Just-­in-­time audio files offer personalized study opportunities as students self-select which materials to review and how often to use the audio files. Audio narratives provide the instructor with alternate methods to encourage review of prerequisite knowledge and to offer enrichment with information that extends the textbook and course assignments. The human voice remains an effective teaching tool, both inside and beyond the classroom.


Baddeley, A. D. (1992). Working memory. Science, 255(5044), 556-­559.

Mayer, R. E. (2001). Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mayer, R. E. (Ed.). (2005). The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 43-­53.

Mayer, R.E., Fennell, S., Farmer, L. and Campbell, J. (2004). A personalization effect in multimedia learning: students learn better when words are in conversational style rather than formal style. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96 (2), 389-­395.

Mayer, R.E., Sobko, K., and Mautone, P.D. (2003). Social cues in multimedia learning: role of speaker’s voice. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95 (2), 419-­425.

Moreno, R. and Mayer, R.E. (2000). Engaging students in active learning: the case for personalized multimedia messages. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92 (4), 724-­733.

Paivio, A. (1986). Mental representations: a dual coding approach. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Prion, S., & Mitchell, M. (2007a). Audiobooks for meaningful learning. Paper presented at the Proceedings of E-­Learn 2007 World Conference on E-­?Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education, Quebec City, Canada.

Prion, S., & Mitchell, M. (2007b). Just-­in-­time audio for effective student learning. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Ed Media World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia & Telecommunications, Vancouver, Canada.

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