Data on whether and how students watch screencasts

April 4, 2013, 4:48 pm

224445431_1602bfff1d_mScreencasting is an integral part of the inverted classroom movement, and you can find screencasting even among courses that aren’t truly flipped. Using cheap, accessible tools for making and sharing video to clear out time for more student-active work during class make screencasting very appealing. But does it work? Do screencasts actually help students learn?

We have lots of anecdotal evidence that suggests it does, but it turns out there are actually data as well that point in this direction. I’ve been reading an article by Katie Green, Tershia Pinder-Grover, and Joanna Mirecki Millunchick (of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan) from the October 2012 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education in which they studied 262 students enrolled in an engineering survey course that was augmented with screencasts. Here’s the PDF. This paper is full of interesting data and findings, so many that I originally sat down to write one blog post on what I got out of the paper, but quickly realized that such a post would be thousands of words long. So I’m going to visit this article in several installments. What I want to focus on first of all is what the authors found out about whether, and why, students watched the videos in the first place.

There were two kinds of screencasts used in this intro engineering course: homework solution screencasts (where instructors just went over solutions to homework problems) and “mini-lecture” screencasts that were created to supplement a traditional classroom setting (students would identify the “muddiest point” at the end of a class session and the instructor would make a mini-lecture screencast targeted at that topic). The authors tracked student access of the screencasts using the class’ course management system (a pretty good argument for using a CMS, I would add) and surveyed the students about their use of screencasts.

Notice: These screencasts weren’t mandatory, and this wasn’t a flipped classroom situation. As far as I can tell this was a traditional course design but with screencasts added on, and students were free to watch as many or as few of the screencasts as they wanted. This is important for several reasons I’ll touch on in a bit.

Of the 262 students for whom survey data was available, 209 of them watched at least one homework solution screencast, while 197 watched at least one minilecture screencast. When students were asked for their reasons for watching the screencasts, for the homework screencasts 89% of respondents said “exam study tool” and 76% said “study supplement”. The minilecture screencasts had the same top two reasons with roughly the same percentage of students giving them (81% and 83% respectively).

A note on these stats: Whenever I talk about the flipped classroom and screencasting, people always want to know how I make sure students watch the videos. This study is finding that, as long as the videos are useful for students, we need not worry. The sample the authors were working with was showing around 75% of students watching the screencasts even though they weren’t required at all! And they did so because they perceived that they added some value to their course experience, not because they were being coerced. (Add some measure of coercion, like a beginning-of-class quiz over the videos, and you might be looking at nearly 100% watching.)

But it’s not the case that students were sitting down and watching all the videos all the way through every time, either. Only 33% of survey respondents said they watched the homework solution screencasts all the way through; 26% said they re-watched certain segments based on their homework responses; and others (under 20%) said they targeted their viewing to specific points to review, watched large chunks of the video looking for information, or just browsed around. (The homework solution screencasts were 10-15 minutes in length and contained slutions to 5-8 homework problems.) In other words, students watched, but they did so strategically.

Switching to the minilecture screencasts reveals a different strategy: 66% of respondents watched the minilecture screencasts from start to finish and only 12% went to specific points to review. All other strategies for watching minilecture screencasts were under 10%. This is no big surprise, since I’d imagine most students would have only a few questions about homework and only target the portions of video that match their questions. If you cut the scope of each homework solution video to just one problem each, you’d probably have nearly 100% watching all the way through but much fewer watching all the videos that are posted.

This finding backs up my thoughts from this post. There’s no real way to police things to make sure everybody watched the videos, and even if there were, different people are going to approach the videos — just as they approach the readings and even the class meetings — with different agendas and needs. It’s much better (in my opinion; the authors of the article didn’t discuss this) to instead tell students exactly what they need to know how to do, set them up with good print and video resources to get themselves to that level of knowledge, and then let them access the materials when and how they need.

There’s a lot more I’ll get into from this paper in later posts, but let me end by emphasizing that we have data on the efficacy of screencasts in improving student learning. This is not just anecdotal evidence, or one professor’s experiences in one small class. For those who are waiting for the evidence to show that alternative instructional methods work, here you go. Screencasting is probably the least “alternative” of the alternatives since it’s basically just a recorded lecture, but I include it because it’s not lecture given in the class.


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