The Video Lesson

The Good Old Days?

A long time ago (2005) in a county far, far away (Essex) there was a trainee science teacher (me) who worked in a school with centralised schemes of work. You would submit your requests to the fabulous technician team, make sure your photocopying was done in time and have a flick through the boardworks slides that you would be using and your planning was done! Simpler times.

Sometimes, the lesson had a video to watch and that kicked of a magical series of events. First, the technician would consult a small paperback book which gave them the video number and timing of the programme (noted by whoever set their VCR to record BBC2 in the middle of the night) to be viewed. They would then wind the tape to the precise starting point ready for you to play. Finally they would delight the pupils by wheeling in the TV trolley to murmurs of “Yes! A video!”.

Usually, there would be a set of around 10 questions for pupils to answer while the video played that would be checked afterwards. Then there would be up to 40 minutes of peace and quiet and possibly, a small amount of learning!

What would Cognitive Science say?

Unless pupils had read through the questions first (not something I was told to get them to do) they wouldn’t know what they needed to know: an important factor in acquiring knowledge. Activating relevant schema prior to learning is vital in improving the chances of retention and helping pupils make sense of the new information. Making sure pupils read the questions before watching should help them filter out the interesting, but non-essential, hinterland and focus on the content to be learned.

Flicking their attention between watching the TV, reading the questions and writing the answers would lead to significant switching penalties and either, mistakes or missed information. In the end, they would just end up filling in the missing answers and get minimal benefit in terms of effective learning.

Lengthy videos would ultimately overwhelm pupils with information and not give them time to practise and process, again, reducing the chances of retention of information. Nowadays, we have the wisdom of teaching in manageable chunks with regular reviews. Having a power nap in the darkened room while pupils are engrossed in some Attenborough isn’t on the cards anymore! (Obviously, I never did this)

The Virtues of Videos

With all these problems, it makes you wonder why educational videos are still being made! However, if we use them wisely we can enhance our lessons due to a number of reasons.

Their main advantage is the dynamic presentation of information teamed with an explanation. This is something that a visualiser just cannot compete with, nor can a PowerPoint. Pupils can benefit from dual coding information via the auditory and visual pathways which should help develop schema more effectively. There is a caveat to this, however, which is if you could explain it better yourself, you probably should. If you still want to use the visuals you can always mute the audio!

Videos can also build cultural capital by showing times or places beyond the experience of the learners and can do so quickly and memorably. Seeing a video of a battlefield re-enactment, for example, will be more effective than having a static image presented or just a written description read out.

So, videos can offer much to the modern learning environment but how can we utilise them most effectively?

A New Hope

Here’s how I go about utilising videos in lessons.

  • Front the Qs. Make sure pupils know what they need to learn before watching.
  • Decide whether you or the video should do the key explanation to accompany the visuals.
  • Ensure pupils attend to the video while it plays. Don’t let them answer the Qs during.
  • Get pupils to answer the Qs after the video finishes so they benefit from retrieval.

On this last point, while there is only a few minutes of time between encountering the information and having to recall it, it will still be more beneficial in terms of retrieval practice/spacing effect than answering Qs immediately.

The Questions

Make sure they focus on the content you wish pupils to learn. e.g. How is the steam generated in the power station?

Avoid filling with non-essential knowledge e.g. Which is the biggest power station in the UK? If they remember these “fun facts” anyway, then happy days but you don’t need to test them on it.

Don’t just stick to simple recall. Add in some more challenging stuff: you may as well, seeing as they aren’t having to rush to write answers while the video plays!

Get the balance right

Finally, consider how much of a video needs to be shown. They can often provide interesting and engaging hinterland to add richness to your subject but you need to be wary of diluting the key learning with excess information.

A school I worked in previously had a rule where videos must last no longer than 8 minutes. At the time I thought this was authoritative nonsense but now I know better!

While videos shouldn’t be considered a replacement for expert teachers, they certainly do have some benefits which can enhance our classroom practice. So, do use them but do it wisely.

As always, I can be found on the twitter. For whatever. Thanks for reading!


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