After teaching high school math for years, Kareem Farah realized that lecturing in front of his students wasn’t working particularly well—he was a bottleneck, he had come to realize, a talking head who was reaching, at best, a handful of students at any given time. Worse, pacing was a problem that a simple change of speed wouldn’t solve: Slow it down and the lecture would bore most of the kids; go too fast and other students would fall behind.
Farah, a teacher at a Title I high school in Washington, D.C., also noticed that when his students missed a few classes, it set them up to fall behind for the rest of the year. In response, he began recording his lessons on video to give his students a way to access the material from anywhere.
Getting in front of the camera intimidated him at first, but Farah quickly realized that readily available tools made the process fairly painless and didn’t require much tech savvy. He created his first instructional videos by using a mic and a screen-casting program—such as Explain Everything—to record his lecture over informative slides. He then uploaded his video to Edpuzzle, which allowed him to embed questions to check for understanding.
The strategy was so effective that he taught whole units this way. “Once the lecture bottleneck is removed,” Farah says, teachers can “rethink many of the other rigid constraints that have defined most instructional delivery models.” His students could even watch his lectures at home and proceed to the next lesson once they mastered a concept, allowing them to move at their own pace while freeing him up to roam the classroom and tailor instruction to students’ individual needs.
In the end, is it worth the time investment? You can keep it simple at first, according to Farah: Start with a key lesson, break it down into segments, and create short videos to ease students into the activity. Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggests that using instructional videos to supplement or replace class lectures is a powerful approach, largely because it allows students to pace their learning, can be chunked into easier-to-comprehend segments, inherently facilitates retrieval and review for students, and leverages visual cues to reinforce the material.
Here are six research-backed reasons why you should consider recording (at least some of) your lessons.
SHORT VIDEOS ALIGN WITH KNOWN ATTENTIONAL LIMITS
In school, and in life, we tend to overestimate attentional limits. In fact, studies suggest that young kids’ attention begins to lag after 10 minutes, and older students often struggle to remember material covered later in a lecture.
Instructional videos allow you to break up a longer lesson into several smaller ones—increasing the likelihood that students will be able to sustain attention and commit what they’re learning to memory. They also provide natural breaks during study time, which we’ve argued are dramatically underutilized in the classroom.
There is an optimal duration for an educational video, though you should think of it as general guidance. In 2014, a team of researchers from MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley analyzed millions of video sessions and concluded that “median [student] engagement time is at most 6 minutes,” with video length being “by far the most significant indicator of engagement,” outweighing other characteristics like instructor presence and production quality. In a related finding, when university professors simply split a 55-minute instructional video into several 8-minute ones, viewing time increased by 25 percent, and academic performance improved, a 2022 study found.
Think about where to break your lessons. “It is recommended that teachers should make the videos as short as possible, but one complete knowledge point should be contained in one video,” the researchers in the 2022 study suggest.
VIDEO LIBRARIES ENABLE SELF-PACED LEARNING
The asynchronous, always-on nature of video libraries solves many of the sequencing issues that plague teachers: how to reincorporate students after absences, what to do with kids who need to revisit a foundational concept, or how to differentiate between students.
Accessing a library at different entry points—skipping ahead or revisiting previous lessons—is a built-in advantage of video learning, and it allows students to self-pace while freeing the teacher to circulate and troubleshoot with individual students. In a 2019 study, researchers concluded that students “learn better when multimedia instructions are presented in (meaningful and coherent) learner-paced segments, rather than as continuous units.” That’s because the ability to control the pace of videos provides more time for processing or reviewing information, allowing students to “adapt the presentation pace to their individual needs.”
Being able to control a single video’s playback in real time, meanwhile—by pausing and rewinding—allows “students to regulate their cognitive load, leading to better learning,” researchers conclude in a 2021 study. “This ability to self-pace has been previously identified as a key feature contributing to the success of online learning, more generally.”
VIDEOS SUPPORT RICH FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT—ASYNCHRONOUSLY AND AT SCALE
Modern tools for video creation and distribution take advantage of built-in auditing systems that collect valuable data about what’s working for your students, and what’s not. Better, they can do it asynchronously, and they often provide ready-made charts and graphs that simplify formative assessment—like trying to determine a student’s on-task behavior.
Other tools allow you to test for specific knowledge. “Embedding questions in your instructional video using programs like Edpuzzle can improve student interaction and provide you with invaluable formative assessment data,” explain Farah and educational technology expert Robert Barnett.
College students who watched videos with embedded pop-up questions earned “significantly higher test results compared to the group without pop-up questions,” boosting their test performance by almost half a letter grade, according to a 2020 study. Research from 2015, meanwhile, concluded that college students who watched videos with embedded questions were more likely to take notes, experienced less anxiety about the final test, and felt as though watching the videos was less “mentally taxing.”
Meanwhile, classroom-friendly video-creation tools such as Edpuzzle and Screencastify provide usage-based auditing trails for teachers, which can inform feedback, instruction, and even grading. Which students watched your videos? Did they watch the entire video or just a part of it? Which lessons got little screen time and might be improved or discarded?
VIDEOS SUPPORT FLEXIBLE REVIEW (AND RE-REVIEW)
Decades of research support the power of review and retrieval practice to reinforce learning. Inherently, video learning provides “a cost-effective, location-free method of flexible study, one that is available at all hours” and allows students to “view material repeatedly if necessary,” researchers explain in a comprehensive 2018 analysis that encompassed 270 studies on instructional videos. Live lectures are linear, by contrast, and can’t be replayed, rewound, or paused to consider a point more deeply.
That last point is a significant one. A 2011 study found that even when students were encouraged to ask questions, they frequently avoided raising their hands and interrupting the teacher, largely out of politeness and a desire to keep the classroom running smoothly.
A video library gives students “the ability to access the content when it is needed, such as when they are reviewing and preparing for exams,” a time when the need for retrieval of information is particularly crucial, explains Nisha Malhotra, a professor of economics at the University of British Columbia. After creating a series of instructional videos based on his lectures, he surveyed his students and discovered that a majority of them watched the videos at least twice—a strong signal that a single lecture would not have sufficed.
VIDEOS ALLOW KIDS TO REPLAY ‘THE MUDDIEST POINT’
“Sometimes it’s helpful to see if students understand why something is incorrect or why a concept is hard,” writes educator Laura Thomas. Asking students to explain “the muddiest points” is a common way to address “where things got confusing or particularly difficult.”
In practice, though, students may not feel comfortable raising their hand to ask the teacher to go over the concept again during class time.
Failing to master a challenging but foundational concept, meanwhile, can wreak havoc on the rest of the quarter. When students watch videos at home, they can rewind as often as necessary, reviewing concepts they find confusing while jotting down questions to discuss with their peers or teacher. A 2022 study concluded that even a simple pause button helped students to “prevent cognitive overload,” significantly easing the task “of paying continuous attention to a steady stream of new information that has to be integrated with existing knowledge structures.”
VIDEOS DRAMATICALLY IMPROVE CONTENT CLARITY AND IMPACT
You think you’re giving a brilliant, off-the-cuff example that ties everything together, but when you see yourself on video, you realize that the connections you made aren’t as clear as you thought. Videos tend to improve lectures because they give you plenty of time to organize your thoughts and allow you to watch yourself and fix the inconsistencies and logical leaps that are often sprinkled through an in-person lecture.
While in-person lessons can be thrown off-track by digressions and distractions, videos are more time-efficient and allow teachers to “make content more coherent, and add design principles that they would not perfectly execute in class (e.g., timing key points with slides; highlighting important information),” researchers explain in a 2021 study. They discovered that teachers were more likely to “prioritize core content” when making videos, editing out irrelevant details that diverted students from the learning objectives.
But don’t aim for perfection, insists Farah, who said that making mistakes and letting your “authentic personality shine through” work best as you create videos, a point that the learning-video pioneer Sal Khan seconded when we interviewed him in 2020. “Research shows that videos in which the instructor speaks in a natural, conversational manner, with an enthusiastic tone, are the most engaging,” Farah and Barnett conclude. “In our experience, students really appreciate knowing that it’s their actual teacher behind the video.”