Free Software and Five Minutes: Limitless Possibilities for Improving Student Writing



Jessica McCaughey is an Assistant Professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC, where she teaches and writes about the intersections of academic, creative, and professional writing. You can reach her at and find her online at

When it comes to communicating with students, all writing instructors face two hurdles:

  1. Students have different learning styles, so not all students understand or retain the written word in the same way, and
  2. Sometimes it’s just easier to speak than it is to write.

The latter is a challenge that becomes especially clear when I find myself crafting embarrassingly long emails that could have been presented orally and visually quite easily. I have—although I’m really not proud of it—taken four paragraphs to clarify a homework assignment. I have written multi-page emails detailing the wonder that is the inter-library loan system. Most writers—and writing instructors—I know love the quote, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time,” by French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. (You may have heard a similar quote falsely attributed to Mark Twain.) Concision takes time in writing, especially writing that is intended to teach in some way. And so it was with genuine pleasure that I discovered and began implementing the use of Jing, a program that supplements and improves the way I teach writing in so many ways.

Jing is a free (to a certain point, although you can purchase a more comprehensive version) voice and screen-capture program, which means you speak (provided your computer has a microphone, which it almost assuredly does) and the program records your voice, along with whatever it is you want to show on your computer screen. Jing then makes a video for you that you can share with other people. It works well on both Macs and PCs, and – in addition to saving me from weighing my students down with text-heavy emails – it’s become clear that the visual along with aural explanations, examples, tutorials, and responses cater to some students’ needs in a substantial way.

Instructor Use

The most obvious (and, to me, most exciting) use of Jing is the opportunity to provide audio and visual feedback to students on paper drafts. Although the idea of providing students with audio comments is not new (even if it is a whole lot easier these days with applications like Jing), I understand that it can be daunting. But it’s worthwhile, and including video with audio affords huge benefits. First of all, the amount of time it can save is significant, as is the way it can help instructors deal with the constraints of multiple or large classes. Sara Bauer, in her article, “When I Stopped Commenting on Their Papers: Accommodating the Needs of Student Writers with Audio Comments,” refers to responding with audio comments as the chance to consider what she would say to the student if she had “the luxury of conferencing” more often—a dilemma many of us face. I see this as a perfect way to conceive of audio commenting, even if I’m not ready (and I doubt I ever will be) to forgo written comments all together.

Additionally, as Andrew Cavanaugh in his compelling article, “Audio Comments in the Online Classroom Pedagogically Sound, Ergonomically Necessary,” points out, “If a student struggles with writing, often he/she will struggle with reading,” and “this challenge renders text-based comments problematic.” Providing audio comments that can be received with a visual component addresses variations in learning styles in a way that is especially crucial. Susan Sipple, in her article “Ideas in Practice,” also suggests that handwritten comments are more likely to be ignored or misconstrued. It’s also been suggested that audio comments might cement novice writers’ understanding that there is an actual audience for their writing (Sipple), as they get to actually hear the audience’s response. Commenting on student work with Jing or a similar program can also be advantageous as we consider how the students perceive an instructor’s tone in those responses; nearly every article written by instructors who have utilized audio comments states – either anecdotally or from more formal student survey responses – that audio feedback is perceived as more personal, supportive, and motivating. Sarah Bauer also states, “I have found that using audio comments helps students to see that my comments are meant more as suggestions than as corrections of their writing.”

I’ve seen how these comments provided with Jing can allow the student to digest and prioritize comments for revision, but they can also help instructors focus their own comments. As a former editor, I am one of those teachers who sometimes finds it difficult to focus on higher-order concerns, and especially so for first drafts, Jing comments can be particularly helpful. For instance, spoken comments lend themselves less to discussing comma use, but they work extremely well for conveying observations about organization and argument, and research shows that this is typically how instructors actually use audio commenting (Cavanaugh and Song).

[Note: I’ve provided a short excerpt of this kind of feedback here.]

Finally, when I’ve taught hybrid and online courses, I found myself longing for the in-class connection that I had grown accustomed to having with my students. Even when I found their online work to be substantial – especially in the form of discussions – other crucial benefits of being face to face with them were lost. My pep-talks over email didn’t seem to have the same effect they did when I was standing in front of my students. Instructions seemed more difficult to provide, and my communications were often loaded with links and sentences such as, “About three-quarters of the way down on this web page you’ll see a paragraph that begins…” or “In the lower right-hand corner of page 17, we see the quote…” It felt not only tedious, but also distancing and likely hard to follow for many students. Consequently, I was thrilled to find Jing as a solution. As distance-learning courses become more and more prevalent, audio comments can also be a way to connect with students who otherwise would never hear the instructor’s actual speaking voice. For my own online courses, I make a brief “Welcome to the course!” introductory video so that my students can both see and hear me, at least briefly. And, of course, whether you’re teaching a class with an online component or not, Jing can provide these simple supplements that will make communicating that much easier, whether it’s providing simple visual assistance (“Here’s a tour of Blackboard, freshmen!”) or more complex tutorials for online resources, for example.

Student Use

Students can also utilize Jing in various ways, as well. In a course related to selling as it occurs on social media, students created a five-minute “tour” of the ways they are marketed to online, showing their audience everything from Tweets from companies they follow to sponsored Instagram photos to sidebar ads on Facebook. I’ve also asked students to verbally “annotate” a round of revisions on a paper. They were able to scroll through an individual page, highlighting new work and respond to the activity in really specific ways, such as saying, “This section of the paper [highlighting with cursor] previously attempted to present and respond to a counterargument, but I realized in this next draft that, instead…”

Additionally, I’ve had students use Jing to walk their peer reviewer through a current draft, asking specific questions about certain sections, noting where and how they’d like their partner to read and offer comments. Alternatively, of course, it can be used to provide peer feedback. It’s been suggested that audio feedback in the peer review process would likely be more effective in improving performance because it allows students to be more specific in their comments and explanations (Nelson and Schunn). Students also have a tendency to be clearer and more comprehensive in their spoken feedback. As Melissa M. Nelson and Christian D. Schunn articulate in their article “The Nature of Feedback,” “a reviewer may [in traditional written feedback] suggest, ‘Delete the second paragraph on the third page,’ but without the explanation, ‘because it interrupts the flow of the paper,’ the writer may not take the suggestion because he or she does not know why it is a necessary revision.” Further, in my experience, students are more likely to suggest possible solutions to issues in their peers’ papers when talking in person as opposed to commenting on their papers, and it’s been shown that explicit suggestions about solutions improve writing performance in revision (Nelson and Schunn). Audio peer commenting might also aid in this respect.

Technology Overview

Technologically, Jing is extremely easy to use, and videos are also easy to share (although options for doing so are somewhat limited). Once the Jing application is downloaded from the website and opened (a simple process), you will see what looks like a small, bright sun in the top right corner of your screen:

If you hover the mouse over it, it will expand to show three options: Capture, which allows the user to start “capturing” video and audio or a single image (like a screenshot); History, where you can view past videos; and More, which allows you to access help and change the application’s preferences. To create a video, you’ll simply bring the window you wish to capture to the front of the screen, choose Capture, and select the amount of your screen you’d like to capture. (For instance, I sometimes crop out the very top of my screen, so my students don’t see that I’m making videos at 2:00 a.m.) After this minimal set up, Jing will count down (3, 2, 1, in large on-screen numbers), and then begin recording. At any time, you can hit the stop button to end, save, or restart the recording process.

Sharing Jing videos is easy, although it’s important to note that attaching them to an email isn’t a great option, as the standard format is an uncommon file type and the videos are very large. However, you can choose to have any video hosted by Jing on indefinitely. This means you can always send a link and recipients can click and view videos immediately. (The videos linked in this post are hosted here so that readers can get a sense of what this looks like.) Once a video is completed, in the bottom left corner will appear a button with the option to save to Screencast. Once the video has uploaded, you’ll choose “View in Screencast,” and the program will open a browser window with the video, ready to play and showing the link that can be shared.

It’s also worth noting that there are other, similar programs available that can all likely be used to do exactly the same tasks I’m identifying here; I just happen to think Jing is the easiest of those I’ve tried to use, and it’s free for videos up to five minutes long, which most of us would agree is about right in terms of holding students’ attention in that form.


These suggestions are, of course, just a starting point, and I’m sure most readers can already imagine many more possible uses for Jing (please let us know what they are in the comments section below!), as was the case in a recent WID faculty workshop I led that focused on teaching writing with technology. I explained Jing and within minutes professors from business, sociology, and international affairs all had ideas for use in their writing intensive classes. Further, those interested in beginning to implement some form of digital composition in their classrooms might find Jing an interesting first step. It’s a great tool, and I continue to find new ways to use Jing to improve my students’ writing. I hope you will too. Good luck, and happy video-making.

Works Cited

Bauer, Sara. “When I Stopped Writing on Their Papers: Accommodating the Needs of Student Writers with Audio Comments.” English Journal, 101.2 (2011): 64-67. Web.

Cavanaugh, Andrew. “Audio Comments in the Online Classroom Pedagogically Sound, Ergonomically Necessary.” University of Maryland University College. May 2006. Web. 19 January 2015.

Cavanaugh, Andrew, and Liyan Song. “Audio Feedback versus Written Feedback: Instructors’ and Students’ Perspectives.” MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 10.1 (2014). Web.

Nelson, Melissa M., & Schunn, Christian D. “The Nature of Feedback: How Different Types of Feedback Affect Writing Performance.” Instructional Science. 37.4 (2009): 375-401. Web.

Sipple, Susan. “Ideas in Practice: Developmental Writers’ Attitudes toward Audio and Written Feedback.” Journal of Developmental Education. 30.3 (2007): 22-24, 26, 28, 30-31. Web.

Techsmith: Jing. 1995-2014. Web. 19 January 2014.