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Video-based learning: Why it works [Part 1]

In my previous blog post I discussed some of the initial steps teachers need to take in order to flip their classrooms. One of those steps is getting comfortable with video. Today I’m going to explore not so much the “what” and “how” of this powerful e-learning tool, but the “why”.

As an introduction: The basics of creating a good online video are quite straight forward:

  • Remember to always shoot horizontally
  • Create more bite-sized videos, than long chapter-length video-lessons
  • Focus more on sound quality than high-res imagery
  • Add pauses, and places where students can reflect on questions within the video
  • Keep within a 7-8 minute timeframe
  • Remember to film in a well-lit area
  • Work from a script, don’t try and free style your lesson
  • Use visual aids such as screencasting, animations and YouTube video references.

To find a good introduction to the technicalities of producing a good elearning video try here.

Today I’m going to explore some of the scientific reasons for why video, and complex visual content, works, and try and extract from that exploration sound tips and tricks you can employ to achieve maximum attention and retention.

The human brain processes images very, very quickly

In 2014 scientists at MIT discovered that test subjects could process and recall images seen for a mere 13 milliseconds, far quicker than previous studies where that number had flattened out at about 50 milliseconds. The researchers flashed a range of random images at test subjects, in rapid fire succession, and asked them to identify when they saw one aligned with a phrase the researchers had given them, such as “smiling face”, or “picnics” etc.

Without getting too technical, the results are significant because the brain cannot see, process and react (a feedback loop) in 13 milliseconds. This means that what is at play, cognitively speaking, is what scientists call a feedforward loop. This means that on a deep and fundamental level, our brains are training themselves, to cognize and recognize images and further associate concepts with them, all in one pass of information. As Mary Potter et al put it:

“One reason for using such short durations was to investigate the possibility that the visual system has been configured by experience to process scene stimuli directly to an abstract conceptual level such as "a picnic." In feedforward computational models of the visual system (Serre, Kreiman, Kouh, Cadieu, Knoblich, & Poggio, 2007; Serre, Oliva, & Poggio, 2007) the units that process a visual stimulus are hierarchically arranged: Units representing small regions of space (receptive fields) in the retina converge to represent larger and larger receptive fields and increasingly abstract information along a series of pathways from V1 to inferotemporal cortex (IT) and higher to the prefrontal cortex. A lifetime of visual experience is thought to tune this hierarchical structure, which acts as a filter that permits the categorization of objects and scenes with a single forward pass of processing. In this model, even a very brief, masked presentation might be sufficient for understanding a picture.”

So, without geeking out completely, let’s conclude that visual information is not only one of the quickest ways to impart information, because our brains are, in some sense, designed to rapidly assimilate visual content, but also taps powerful cognitive resources.

Score one for video-based learning.

One of the other key findings that this, and other, studies have made is that image detection improved when the command was given prior to the sequence.

So what does this all mean for the weary teacher crafting their online video, between assessments and lesson plans?

  1. The cognition of complex information is aided by visuals
  2. When creating an online video, try and challenge your students with what is about to be learned prior to the video starting. Set up concepts and challenges prior to the lesson beginning. It seems that “setting the command” at the outset increases the likelihood of the student registering the concept when it occurs during the lesson, as opposed to setting questions after the video has played.

Learning is maximized when learning content is multimedia

There is a long, long list of studies done specifically on how content design affects learning. Delve into the dense, and somewhat rewarding Theory of Cognitive Load, alternatively stick with me for a précis of interesting work done by veteran professor of psychology Richard E. Mayer.

One of Prof. Mayers’ key objectives is to uncover: How individuals can effectively design visual content (e.g., PowerPoint presentations) to accompany their verbal presentations and written text, a pertinent topic for teachers looking to craft exceptional and effective video-based learning.

For starters Dr. Mayers makes an important distinction between information acquisition and knowledge construction. As teachers, we are not, he says, in the business of inserting information into minds, that’s not how learning works: we are in the business of creating sets of circumstances that enable new information to be compared to a student’s prior knowledge and from there be analyzed, made sense of, and ultimately reconstructed as new knowledge.

New knowledge (as opposed to information retention) can be ascertained by doing what Prof. Mayer refers to as “transfer tests”, where students demonstrate they can apply the new knowledge in a different scenario e.g. Pythagoras’ Theorem is the information, working out a velocity vector is the transfer.

Now, Dr. Mayer’s research reveals that knowledge transfer rates are significantly increased when using multimedia, and were not just talking words combined with pictures, his research has shown for instance that transfer rates are even more greatly improved when using narration combined with animation i.e. video.

Score two for video-based learning.

There’s more

Dr. Mayer has a slew of very interesting insights into how his research impacts on visual presentations of learning material, and I’m excited about introducing you to those next week. My follow on blog from that will explore infographics, and define what is a good, and what is a bad infographic - based on the principles described by Dr. Mayer.

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