How video can boost student learning
Five years ago, psychologist Michael Noetel was part of a team of researchers examining the potential of the “flipped classroom” — a novel learning model that swaps the traditional lecture with a more interactive classroom experience.
The researchers randomly assigned students to three groups: a flipped class, a traditional class and an online class, where participants received their lessons through pre-recorded videos. What they found surprised them.
“The students in the online video class did just as well as the other two, matching their peers in quizzes, exams and assessments,” says Dr Noetel, a senior lecturer at ACU’s School of Health and Behavioural Sciences.
“We were so perplexed by that finding that we wanted to see if it replicated across other studies.”
So, he and a team of ACU researchers embarked on a systematic review of studies that have explored the effect of video on learning in higher education.
They were picky with the research they reviewed, only including randomised control trials. Studies that relied solely on student opinions were excluded, as were those that didn’t objectively measure learning outcomes.
This left them with 105 studies and a pooled sample of almost 8,000 students.
Predictably, Dr Noetel and his team found that when videos were given in addition to existing content, students experienced “strong learning benefits”.
But the second finding was less predictable.
In the 83 studies where videos were given instead of lectures or tutorials, students experienced better learning outcomes most of the time.
“That blew us away,” Dr Noetel says. “To discover that videos did as well as face-to-face classes, if not better, in almost all of the studies we could find, it was indeed really surprising.”
The review was four years in the making, and its results could not have come at a better time. It was published online in May 2020, when universities around the world were scrambling to adapt to online learning in response to COVID-19.
The pandemic left academics with two options: they could stream their classes live using videoconferencing apps like Zoom or Microsoft Teams; or, they could pre-record videos and post them to YouTube, Vimeo and the like.
While Dr Noetel’s review looked specifically at the use of pre-recorded videos (or “asynchronous multimedia”), previous reviews have also backed videoconferencing as a useful substitute for classes.
In some circles, however, there is still unease about the effect videos have on student learning.
“In the past, a lot of the online learning we encountered wasn’t well designed, and when that’s the case, students really do get a poor learning experience through videos,” Dr Noetel says.
“What our review found is that if you design quality multimedia, the result is often better than a traditional lecture. Videos are consistently good for learning, and it seems it’s taken a pandemic to shake us out of our traditional ways.”
So, why are videos so effective? Dr Noetel and his colleagues have identified four main reasons.
1) Videos facilitate better learning
Our minds have distinct but connected neurological systems for processing what we see, and what we hear.
Cognitive learning theory suggests that video has the ability to connect to both of these systems — the visual and the auditory — at the same time.
This gives videos a clear advantage over things like textbooks, websites and podcasts, which only directly tap into one system.
Like videos, face-to-face classes can connect to both systems, but only if the teacher uses visual aids — videos, pictures and graphics — as part of their presentation.
“The best lecturers create visual content that complements what they’re saying, resulting in an effective and powerful multimedia presentation,” Dr Noetel says.
“In reality though, it’s quite hard to do that consistently in a live, face-to-face classroom. Videos allow the teacher to have more control over the presentation through editing, making their lessons more coherent, more concise and with better use of visuals than a traditional lecture.”
2) Video gives students control
Imagine you’re sitting in a packed lecture theatre with 200 other students while a professor reads out slides that are densely packed with text.
The classmate to your right is clearly bored; they look like they could do with a coffee or maybe a nap. The classmate to your left is madly taking notes, struggling to keep track of what the professor is saying.
Now imagine those two classmates are watching the same lecture on a pre-recorded video.
Suddenly, they’re in the driver’s seat. They can take control of their learning in a way that can’t be replicated in a face-to-face class.
“With videos, if the student is getting bored, they can fast-forward through easy sections, and if they’re struggling to understand something, they can go back to listen again or pause to take notes,” Dr Noetel says.
Giving students more autonomy can also help with motivation, and allow them to regulate their cognitive load.
“Psychologically, we tend not to like situations where we feel really pressured, instead preferring to feel like we’re in control and that we’re learning for our own reasons,” he adds.
“Having this control allows us to decide how much learning we can handle … we can put our foot on the accelerator if we’re feeling unchallenged, or hit the brake whenever we’re feeling overwhelmed.”
3) Videos can be interactive
One of the concerns expressed about video-based learning is that it doesn’t have the interactivity of a face-to-face class.
But Dr Noetel and his team found that videos were often more interactive than other types of classes.
“I think that’s partly because most lectures aren’t very interactive,” he says. “In some cases, the lecturer might engage students by asking a question or two, but the problem is that you get the two keen students answering every question.”
Academics can make videos more interactive by using websites like EdPuzzle or H5P to insert multiple-choice questions containing feedback, or open-ended questions where students can discuss the content afterwards.
“There’s no doubt that interactivity is really important,” Dr Noetel says, “but just because you move your lectures onto a video, that doesn’t mean you get any drop in interactivity, and a lot of the time you can actually make them more interactive than other classes.”
4) Video achieves authentic experiences
There’s one other thing video often does better than traditional teaching methods: it can provide more authentic perspective.
Nursing and medical students learning about clinical procedures, like wound care or knee surgery, will only see a contrived demonstration when taught in class.
In contrast, videos give students access to authentic demonstrations and unique perspectives, where they see the skill being performed through the eyes of the practitioner.
That’s not to say that lecturers can’t also achieve authenticity in class.
“Learning can be authentic in lectures through role-playing and simulation, and by bringing in guest speakers,” Dr Noetel says.
But videos can achieve even this kind of authenticity.
“Instead of burdening these experts every year, we can use video to pre-record expert interviews, so students can learn from them for years to come.”
The new normal
Dr Noetel’s research shows that videos can certainly pave the way for better student learning.
But what does that mean for the face-to-face class? Is there a risk that lectures and tutorials will eventually be replaced by a YouTube playlist?
The answer from Dr Noetel is a firm “no”. He points out that the social fabric of on-campus life is beneficial to students, as are face-to-face learning experiences.
What he expects to see more of is teachers using videos more effectively, and incorporating the skill into their teaching repertoire.
“We are all going to get better at creating stuff with video, and I think universities will spend more time investing in producers, in post-production, and in equipment that allows academics to produce better videos,” he says.
“I think that’s a great thing for both teachers and students, and the experience we’ve all gained during the pandemic with video learning will lead to a better, more interactive, and more engaging classroom experience in the years ahead.”
Dr Michael Noetel is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at ACU. He uses his expertise in meta-analyses and systematic reviews to help people choose the most effective ways of solving the problems they face, helping people change their own behaviour—and the behaviour of others—to live more effective, inspiring and high-performing lives.