How and Why Educators are Including Video Assignments in their Courses

Educators in all fields, from theatre to architecture to food science, and even math, are starting to see how students can use their phones to make video and engage more strongly with what they're learning. Students make creative or explanatory videos, or just film themselves practicing the skills they’re learning.

With the disruptions everyone has experienced during the COVID crisis of 2020, video assignments may be even more powerful tools for keeping students engaged and promoting the social aspect of learning, even remotely.

As the technology gets more accessible and easier to use, more and more instructors have been turning toward student video projects as rich new form of evaluation and some are event favoring it over more traditional written assignments. Even the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Council of Teachers of English have added standards emphasizing the need to foster creativity by going beyond text to have students use other media in their learning activities and assignments (Morgan, 2012). Students, too, are usually prouder of what they’ve accomplished and say their learning experience was deeper when they make a video rather than handing in text.

So with the combination of high-quality video cameras on smartphones and cloud video sharing, we’re set to see an explosion of video and audio assignments in every discipline. It’s suddenly practical - easy in fact - for students to record and edit video. And it's a whole lot easier to submit the video so that teachers can give feedback and grades. 

Kirkland (2006) offers a diverse list of video-making assignment project, including:

  1. Documentary
  2. Presentation
  3. Interviews
  4. Skills Demonstration
  5. Public Service Announcements
  6. News Reports
  7. Dramatization
  8. A Mashup of Clips

Videos can be much more than a student presenting or explaining the content they are supposed to master. They can be vehicles for creativity, for learning teamwork and project management, and the production will increasingly be an employment-relevant skill.

For example, here's the introduction to a video assignment from a course at the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health: "Do younger Canadians need a movement to promote their social determinants of health? Design a short creative video to answer this question."

In contrast to a typical in-class presentation that vanishes into thin air with little feedback, video assignments can be powerful learning tools for students as a persuasive visual argument requires deep, iterative conceptual and rhetorical thinking. Not only is it necessary for the student to synthesize various sources on the subject content, but she must also write it down as a script, read it, decide who to interview or record, and then create a video, requiring time spent filming and editing. All of those separate cognitive activities engage with the topic in different ways, stimulating creative and analytic work. Additionally, student created videos place students on display, and as such, students make a greater effort to master the subject content so as to avoid embarrassment in front of their peers. So students get to practice and demonstrate their grasp of key course concepts, but student-made video also promotes creativity and individuality, basically eliminating concerns about plagiarism.

A great deal of research reveals students themselves find video projects to be more beneficial to their own understanding and mastery of subject material. One study by Greene and Crespi (2012) looked at the perceived value of student-created videos as a tool for enhancing the student learning experience. Their data came from an accounting and a marketing course at a state university. 

Each course assigned its students a video project to assess their mastery of the material. The survey data gathered from the students who created the videos revealed that students found such projects “creative, unique and educational.” Moreover, the students who watched the creative projects said “the videos were extremely helpful, put a fun twist on learning experiences, a very good way to review material while helping others to understand the material, interesting to see the material learned in a video format, were a good learning experience, and a simple way to remember/learn the material.”

However, while these assignments are fun and provide academic benefits, they can also be frustrating for both students and instructors if students plan poorly, are not trained and supported with technology, or are confused about the purpose of the assignment. As noted by Kearney and Shuck (2006), a gap exists in assessing learning outcomes for student created videos. This new form of learning activity brings with it challenges for teachers: What sort of guidelines should you set for video assignments? How do you make sure they are implemented effectively?

Asessment of Video Assignments

One of the most challenging aspects of assigning student made video assignments is designing a fair grading rubric that simultaneously helps students know what steps to take but doesn't quash their creativity. Video presentations are by their nature individually unique and the feedback on and grading of each assignment could therefore be quite arbitrary. It's critical that instructors set proper expectations for students so that they have sufficient understanding of the key items to focus on. Teachers will also have to have structured, regular check-ins with students. Ideally, the assignment will be graded in stages, allowing rich feedback (possibly on draft videos themselves with a tool like WeVu). 

A basic video assignment rubric will contain some of the following elements:

  1. An 'elevator pitch' that can be delivered as text or as a 30 second video. This is a good place to start, and it can be continually refined as the project evolves. 
  2. Storyboard. A sketch of each scene or phase of the video. This can be done on slides (powerpoint, google slides, etc.) or just as an outline document. The storyboard should be the main planning document and it needs to be able to be shared with teachers for feedback.
  3. Script. The script must be suitable for the topic, the assumed audience, and for the time available. Script editing should be a major component of the project.
  4. Selection of content. Students must be encouraged to generate lots of ideas, ruthlessly abandon lots of them, and sequence the content in a persuasive or engaging way.
  5. Technical production value. Students need to be assured they don't need to make a perfect video. They should be warned not to spend hours on little transitions or super-precise editing. But they should be directed to consider some of the key elements of production value, including distance and depth of shots, variation in perspective and length of scenes, audio quality, voice-over video, captions or text, and so on. 
  6. Teamwork and Project Management. Assignments will often be group assignments. Give students a recommended or required structure for their collaboration, including what technologies they should use. Consider a part of the grade devoted to their project management, in which case the teacher needs visibility into the team digital space (Google Docs/Sheets/Slides, probably) and/or the students should journal or log their work, task by task, with task assignments, due dates, and task statuses.

The Open Thinking blog has a good set of ideas for educators wanting to start using video assignments. And here’s a simple example of one from a Cognitive Psychology class:

Feedback. Learning during production and learning from production of video assignments.

Teachers face another learning curve as they try to provide effective feedback helps students really learn and do better work next time.  One problem is that the videos usually sit outside a school's online learning platform or the feedback is given as a separate text commentary, just like students get on the papers they hand in. The technology is just starting to catch up to what educators are doing — platforms like WeVu.video give students and teachers a place to share video without making it public, get peer feedback if desired, and get all the feedback on the timeline of the video, just like we’ve always done with comments in the margins of what we write. The videos can then be made public, without the comments, when they're done.

Video assignments are increasingly common and pedagogically powerful, but they need preparation and technology to succeed.

P.S. Here’s a nice short guide from Wired on how to make a film with a phone.

Please share with colleagues who could use WeVu!