The role of a committed educator is, of course, multiform and demanding on many, many fronts. And so one seeks advice on best practices. The frequent and troubling discovery is a trove of “best practices,” all demanding superlative position and attention. One of the hardest questions for a teacher (or parent) to reckon with is: “which voices of guidance should I listen to?”
There are those who warn us that the Age of Technology has come to cast a dark veil over reason, to numb the minds and blunt the purpose of our young people with seductive, glowing screens. And yet, just as many cry out for revolution, for a bonfire of all the old wisdom that has brought us to this moment of undeniable transition.
As always, the clamorers on either end of catastrophe aren’t the ones worth listening to. Listen carefully instead for measured voices.
When it comes to the much-debated value of educational videos, leading experts agree: when they are produced with the strengths of the medium in mind; when they connect with the same passions as have always moved students to understanding; and, when they place control over learning in the hands of the students they serve, educational videos are an excellent, and potentially transformative, learning tool in the classroom and beyond.
In the following, we summarize two recently published papers in the field: one from Vanderbilt’s Cynthia J. Brame* and the other from researchers at MIT, Rochester, and edX.** These scientists track, first: the effectiveness of educational videos, and second: what makes an educational video successful.
Let’s start with what we know: the world we live in is increasingly informed and activated by the power of video. Students of all ages spend most of their media time consuming short videos on social media or YouTube, and have developed habits of encoding information this way. Educators, rather than trying to hide from the influence of prevailing technologies, should mold them to the benefit of their curriculum.
An educational video, in the broadest sense, transposes a standard lesson into a digital format that can be watched by students on devices within or away from the classroom.
Tracking the length of time hundreds of students spent engaged with a video, the number of times they paused the video, and their responses to assessment questions, researches arrived at the valuable finding that, “Video may provide a significant means to improve student learning and enhance student engagement.”
Sifting through their data, researchers describe the key factors a good educational video must balance:
1) Cognitive Load
The concept of cognitive load has mostly to do with how memory works. As in any form of lesson, the goal of a teacher is to be memorable. If a student is going to do the foundational work of education—namely, to learn something—they’ve got to be primed to encode it into long-term memory.
Memory at large is a complicated dance of sensory memory—transient information collected from environmental stimulus—working memory—temporary storage of sensory memory with limited capacity—and finally, long-term memory, whose capacity and recall is essentially unlimited.
In order for sensory information—in this case, the audiovisual stimulus of a video—to be encoded into long-term, recallable memory, it should a) be richly connective with other material the student has encountered, b) require active cognitive effort, rather than merely passive viewing, and c) contain no extraneous information that would prevent the crucial information of a lesson from being evaluated, processed, and sent to long-term memory.
In other words, effective videos should be precise, require active reflection, and embed themselves carefully within the context of a wider curriculum.
2) Student Engagement
Researches highlight the importance of real-time participation in educational videos—on-screen annotation, episodic assessment questions, and speak-along features are some of the possibilities they include. But the possibilities for activating students as they watch a lesson are endless. Imagine, for instance, developing lessons that match the leveling-up format of video games, in which mastering a lesson or concept accumulates points. This method taps into our brain’s natural tendency to seek reward for completion of tasks, and promises enhanced commitment to the material.
In the end, if students are bored they won’t learn. The goal of a good video is to keep students’ attentions activated without sacrificing the quality and complexity of a given subject. The worst kinds of videos are those that infantilize students by tarting up lessons with extraneous animations and soundtracks without honoring the importance of the learning at hand.
One of the most effective ways for a video to maintain a student’s interest is through intentional personalization. Rather than requiring high production values and fancy studio spaces, researchers agree that an intimate setting that includes the talking head of an actual teacher in combination with graphics, slides, and on-screen demonstrations, is the most memorable approach to video teaching. Scholars Guo, Kim, and Rubin surveyed teachers making use of educational videos and found them in widespread agreement: the best videos speak to students “on the same level” rather than talking at them in “lecturer mode”; have teachers “using direct eye contact;” and highlight the concept of the lesson over the glitz of the video.
Teachers are encouraged to speak at a normal, casual speed, to adopt a conversational tone, and to speak to the camera as if it were, in fact, a living, breathing student. This can be difficult for teachers to warm up to, and should be the bulk of a video producer’s focus.
Remember, the goal for a video is still the same as it is in the classroom: to reach across the gulf of uncertainty and inspire students with knowledge.
Perhaps the single most important factor in a successful educational video, and one that is proving to be instrumental across all formats of learning, is to keep them short. Videos longer than 6-9 minutes saw major drop-offs in student engagement. Teachers should break their material up into concise episodes to give students a deeper and more frequent sense of accomplishment, to keep up stamina in the acquirement of concepts, and to ensure memorability. In the same way that we speed through books with shorter chapters, lessons are more successful when they are succinct and self-contained.
Teachers should remember that shorter lessons do not have to—and indeed should not—sacrifice the complexity or breadth of a subject.
Educational videos offer an exciting opportunity for all educators to get creative in their approach to teaching students in small settings or, especially, at scale. As the format becomes increasingly popular and effective, it also becomes more specifically molded to what it does best: combine visual and auditory channels to maximize memorability and learning. Educational videos are accessible, portable, and re-watchable. They give students control over their own learning and tap into a habit of mind already strong in today’s youth.
At best, educational videos entertain and inform at once. This combination isn’t new: it’s what the best teachers have always brought to the classroom. Educational videos promise to project this tradition of pedagogical excellence into the world at large, a school without walls.
* Effective Educational Videos: Principles and Guidelines for Maximizing Student Learning from Video Content
**How Video Production Affects Student Engagement: An Empirical Study of MOOC Videos by Philip J. Guo, Juho Kim, and Rob Rubin