Does Video Improve Engagement and Learning?
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Engagement And Learning: Is The Role of The Video So Catalytic?

A Huffington Post article title tells us that Research Confirms Video Improves Learning Results. According to the article, the author asked 500 learning practitioners if they believed that video improves learning outcomes. He measured respondents’ opinions of video. No learning outcomes were measured.

A recent article about why we should use video explains that the brain prefers video because it retains visual content better than text content. We know this because people remember 95% of a video message. At least this has an element of (possible) truth based on the picture superiority effect, a researched phenomenon where pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words (but this effect is debated). But percentages like these have been debunked by many, including my friend Will Thalheimer and the percentage (95%!) was likely made up or based on made up information found elsewhere.

My point: We need to be skeptical about wild claims about video. Or simulations. Or ice cream. The devil is in the details.

Is Video Good For Learning?

Unsupported claims about video don’t help us understand if video is good for learning and when to use it. Donald Clark, in a recent blog post provides important insights about when video is good for learning.

Research… shows that video, in most cases, is rarely enough in learning. … Video is great at showing processes, procedures, real things moving in the real world, drama, even much-maligned talking heads, but it is poor on many other things, especially concepts, numbers, and abstract meaning.

In his blog post, Clark discusses how video training he created for nurses on how to perform allergy testing worked well for helping people remember the procedure – placing the pillow, handling used lancets, and stopping bleeding. But the video worked less well in helping people remember details such as the need for control testing. To make sure that viewers understood the details, he added open-ended questions and targeted feedback. Put into cognition language, video was better for episodic knowledge than semantic knowledge.

The knowledge that was not remembered in Clark’s allergy testing video tended to be semantic knowledge, which is general factual knowledge such as facts and concepts. This included numbers, such as the doses needed, and concepts, such as the need for control testing. Episodic knowledge includes an individual’s specific knowledge of their experiences and events.

Skills call on episodic and semantic knowledge. This is why video alone, says Clark, is rarely enough. His solution for this “gap” in knowledge was to use open-ended questions and specific feedback to increase retention and recall.

What Is Engagement?

Much of the hype about how video improves learning comes from the assumption that video is more engaging. There’s a lot of research interest in learning engagement, because learning engagement is needed for learning. But engagement is not simply interest. Bulger, Mayer, Almeroth, and Blau say learning engagement includes carrying out needed learning tasks and focusing on needed learning outcomes. These actions directly influence learning results. Learning researchers often view engagement as perseverance and effort.

Researchers in various fields explain that we use proxies to infer engagement. Since engagement (like attention) cannot be measured directly, proxies (something related that can be measured) are measured instead. For example, we may measure whether your child is engaged in learning at school via the proxy of assignments completed and grades. Imperfect, but it’s what we have to work with.

What proxies can we use to measure learning engagement? Bulger, Mayer, Almeroth, and Blau used software to record keystrokes, applications, and URLs while students were doing computer-based learning tasks. They used that data to calculate time on-task and off-task. Guo, Kim, & Rubin measured length of time people watched course videos and whether viewers answered the questions after each video. We’ll be discussing their research on engagement in video next as it helps us understand how to design instructional video in a way that improves learning outcomes.

Does Video Improve Engagement?

Donald Clark pointed me to Guo, Kim, & Rubin’s research, which measured watching and question-answering behavior from almost seven million video watching sessions with almost 128,000 students. Table 1 lists their major findings and recommendations.

Major Findings Recommendations
Shorter videos are more engaging than longer videos. Engagement drops sharply after 6 minutes. Chunk longer videos into video segments that are less than 6 minutes.
Videos that show the instructor's “talking head” along with the slides are more engaging than the slides alone. Show the instructor at appropriate times during the video. Picture-in-picture might work well. Be careful not to use jarring transitions.
Videos that have a more personal feel are more engaging than high-fidelity studio recordings. Record in an informal setting to simulate a one-on-one experience. More expensive studio productions may not be needed or helpful.
Recorded videos of live classroom sessions aren’t engaging, even when chunked into short videos. Record informal sessions that simulate a one-on-one experience.
Faster speech with a lot of enthusiasm is more engaging than slower speech or lack of enthusiasm. Help instructors to bring out their enthusiasm and passion.
Step-by-step tutorials that show what is occurring at each step are more engaging than recorded slides. In tutorials, show the process and have the instructor speak informally.
People engage differently with tutorial videos and need support for finding the pieces they need later. For step-by-step tutorials, add support for rewatching and skimming, such as inserting section/subsection labels in large fonts throughout the video.

Table 1. Major engagement findings from Guo, Kim, & Rubin’s video engagement research

These results certainly provide evidence for shorter instructional videos. They help us see that the typically criticized use of “talking heads” may actually be a good practice. The instructional videos in this research tended to be lecture (presentation of content) and tutorials (how-tos). These may be the main types of instructional video but they’re not all inclusive so these findings may not apply or apply as well to other types. Having an instructor’s face talking on top of a story, for example, would likely cause overload and less learning.

As I said in my previous article on engagement, engagement is multifaceted. But the bottom line when it comes to learning and performance is helping people put needed effort towards gaining needed skills.


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