Student Engagement

How GIFs Can Invigorate Instruction

In the classroom, GIFs can help clarify complex processes—and students can easily create their own to share their understanding.

April 14, 2021
Bob Daemmrich / Alamy Stock Photo

A well-executed GIF can be life-changing. I discovered this firsthand when I learned how to parallel park. I practiced and carefully examined diagrams that promised to help me place my tires, but my car still routinely wound up at an angle and far more than a foot from the curb. Eventually, my deep research into the mysteries of parallel parking led me to a GIF that broke down what to look at and line up while parallel parking, with the animation demonstrating positioning. I watched the GIF carefully a few times, drove downtown, and pulled off a perfect parking job on my first try.

But the GIF didn’t just represent an aha moment that added to my life-skill toolbox—it also transformed aspects of my teaching practice.

It’s All About the Motion

When I thought about why the GIF was so transformative in terms of my learning, I realized that it was the combination of motion with images that made the difference. Neither diagrams nor videos worked alone, but when the two mediums were paired, the lesson clicked.

I asked myself how many times I’d presented my biology students with a static diagram and an explanation at different times... and immediately understood why neither sank in with some of my students. Traditional images, I reasoned, could help students learn the content I was presenting to a certain extent, but GIFs could lead to deeper learning.

My first experiment with GIFs in the classroom was with my environmental science section. I transformed a diagram that showed energy locations in an ecosystem into one that showcased how the energy flowed through it instead. Previously, in the same lesson I would have simply pointed at a series of static pictures and said, “This is where the energy is going,” but with a GIF, my students could actually see that flow.

I saw immediately that they enjoyed seeing movement and that it helped them to visualize the content I was teaching—so much so that they requested more. That was when I took the approach one step further and put the creation of GIFs into their own hands, using Keynote.

Soon, multiple static images, including their own drawings, were re-created to form moving masterpieces covering everything from food webs to the path that food takes to reach their homes to global weather patterns.

GIFs Work Across Content Areas

Nearly anything can be transformed into a GIF, no matter what the subject. Imagine, for example, seeing numbers move in a mathematical equation for the conversion of logarithmic function into its exponential form so that the students could visualize the translation of the numbers between forms; check out this Reddit for other cool ideas for math GIFs. Here are a few examples of how they can be used to demonstrate phenomena, but they can also be used to create writing prompts and in ELA classrooms.

Tools for Creating GIFs

Depending on the technology available to you and your students, GIFs can be made in a variety of ways. You can export either a Keynote or Slides presentation as a GIF; when you export it this way, all of the transitions, animations, and movements on your slides will flow in a short cycle, depending on the time interval you set to be between each item. Another option is a website like Giphy, where the GIF maker tool can be used to create an animation in one of two ways: organizing a set of pictures into an animation (similar to creating a flipbook on a loop) or trimming videos into short, chunked pieces of information. Storyboard That also has a GIF creator, and you can export Screencastify recordings as GIFs, too.

Tips for Making Effective GIFs

If you’re creating your own GIFs or asking your students to create their own, keep the following in mind:

Plan: Once you’ve got your topic in mind, storyboard the message. What are the key elements that the animation should have? How are they going to be displayed? What is the sequence going to look like? These questions should all be answered in the planning process.

Keep it short: An educational GIF animation should be around 10 to 20 seconds in length. Brevity provides an opportunity to chunk material that you are looking to present in the animation. For example, instead of focusing on the nitrogen cycle as a whole, create an animation that focuses on the transition of atmospheric nitrogen to the soil.

Also, keeping it short allows for the learner to rewatch it multiple times in a brief period.

Be creative: GIFs are fundamentally eye-catching, but they’re even more so if the graphics you use are, too. When you draw part of a diagram for a GIF, think about attractive colors and shapes that can demonstrate a concept. The more engaging and fun the animation is, the more those watching will develop a deeper and enduring connection to it.

Include humor: There’s a place for humor in instructional GIFs, just like there is in many pop culture GIFs. Students will appreciate humor in GIFs that you create and be more engaged if they have permission to infuse their own creations with humor. Also, if you can make students laugh with an instructional GIF, chances are they’ll remember it better. 

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  • Blended Learning
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  • 9-12 High School

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