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Student Produced Podcasts Provide Opportunity to Demonstrate Content Knowledge and a Variety of Skills

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The students in my English classes read some of the best in nonfiction literature — Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — and to demonstrate their understanding of these texts, I recently decided to have them make a podcast.

At first, the students were skeptical, even fearful, at the thought of having to plan and produce this kind of work. And who could blame them? We all know how cringeworthy it can be to listen to our own voice. But the end results were inspiring and worthwhile.To listen to one particularly well-done, student produced podcast, click here.

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For starters, the students read the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This book tells the story of how an African-American woman becomes an unwitting pioneer for medical breakthroughs when her cells were used without her consent to create the first immortal human cell line in the early 1950s.

After reading the book, I encouraged my students to work in groups and start “low-tech” by using the voice memo apps on their cell phones. Some groups conducted campus-wide polls. Others interviewed fellow students. Still others wrote scripts and then staged reenactments. After recording all of their content, I had them edit their podcasts in class using GarageBand and Audacity. When the editing phase was over, I asked each group to upload their podcast to SoundCloud and then send me the link (consider using a hashtag for searchability). That way, I could easily share the links with their peers as well as any other interested party — colleagues, parents, the community at large.

Skills Demonstrated

Mastery of content: First off, they had to know the content well enough to be able to discuss it at length. I required that they reference a minimum of two passages from their books, which ultimately resulted in a kind of on-air close reading. Their discussions spanned everything from a rhetorical analysis to a conversation about the nuances of the political and social implications of their issue. Bottom line: they couldn’t fake their way through this assignment.


Tone development: Inevitably, after listening to hours of professionally-produced podcasts, my students began to develop a mature tone for discussions. They spoke with fewer sentence fillers and more substance. They maintained focus on a particular question or passage until coming to a natural conclusion. And, it helped that they knew they would have listeners — their peers — who were both familiar with the medium and the content of the episode.

Group dynamics: I realize that group projects often result in some students getting stuck doing the work of three or four when other group members ditch them. Producing a podcast can escape this common problem if group members are asked to speak for an equal amount of time during the recording. The real fairness comes at the editing phase. If you have students edit their podcasts outside of class, it is not unlikely that one student will get stuck doing all the work, like adding intro music and cutting out all the “ums.” I tried to avoid this by giving students a significant amount of in-class editing time, as well as stressing that I didn’t expect the production aspect to be professional on their very first podcast. If you partner with an audiovisual class, though, you might make the editing more important.

Problem-solving: Because this assignment requires students to engage with some form of technology, the problem-solving learning curve is always going to be steep. I tell my students that most professionals record and edit about four or five “trashed” podcasts before sharing their final product with the world,so they have realistic expectations for their final product. I try my best to remove the pressure by emphasizing that their final products might not sound like something on the iTunes Top 100. Experimenting with the tools is a lesson in itself.

Risk taking: Once students start hitting the record button, their creative fears seem to dwindle and the number of creative risks that they were willing to take became extremely satisfying to see. I’m not sure how many other projects would have resulted in (no joke) a group actually calling up the Equal Justice Initiative and trying to schedule an interview with Bryan Stevenson himself (they got an on-air interview with a first-year Stanford law student working for the EJI, which is not a bad consolation prize).

Putting out a finished product: Having students create something that “lives” on the internet was both satisfying and terrifying. Sure, we think that this generation is comfortable putting their lives online, but in reality, publishing their final project was pretty intimidating. With the right encouragement, though, this pressure can result in a better product and some equally constructive feedback from peers. Publishing their podcasts to SoundCloud also showed them that they could produce a podcast for mass consumption on their own if they wanted. I realize most of them won’t, but I still like that it puts the idea in their minds … there’s no better reward than watching students learn to creatively and analytically think for themselves.


In the end, I didn’t care so much if the podcasts were ready for primetime. I was just satisfied that my students were invested in their final project — even proud of the final results — and that they seemed more invested in the texts we had studied. Best part, I got the impression that students would take some aspect of the project away and apply it to other classes and experiences. That for me was a win.

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