Science teaching, science learning
sharing evidence-based practices for undergraduate science faculty
Video has become an important part of higher education. It is integrated as part of traditional courses, serves as a cornerstone
of many blended courses, and is often the main information delivery mechanism in MOOCs. Several meta-analyses have shown
that technology can enhance learning (e.g., Schmid et al., 2014), and multiple studies have shown that video, specifically, can
be a highly effective educational tool (e.g., Kay, 2012; Allen and Smith, 2012; Lloyd and Robertson, 2012; Rackaway, 2012;
Hsin and Cigas, 2013). In order for video to serve as a productive part of a learning experience, however, it is important for the
instructor to consider three elements for video design and implementation:
Together, these considerations provide a solid base for the development and use of video as an effective educational tool.
One of the primary considerations when constructing educational materials, including video, is cognitive load.
Cognitive Load Theory, initially articulated by Sweller and colleagues (1988, 1989, 1994), suggests that
memory has several components (see the figure). Sensory memory is transient, collecting information from
the environment. Information from sensory memory may be selected for temporary storage and processing
in working memory, which has very limited capacity. This processing is a prerequisite for encoding into
long-term memory, which has virtually unlimited capacity. Because working memory is very limited, the
learner must be selective about what information from sensory memory to pay attention to during the
learning process, an observation that has important implications for creating educational materials.
Based on this model of memory, Cognitive Load Theory suggests that any learning experience has three
components (see the figure). The first of these is intrinsic load, which is inherent to the subject under study
and is determined in part by the degrees of connectivity within the subject. The common example given to
illustrate a subject with low intrinsic load is a word pair (e.g., blue = azul), whereas grammar is a subject with a high
intrinsic load due to its many levels of connectivity and conditional relationships. The second component of any learning
experience is germane load, which is the level of cognitive activity necessary to reach thedesired learning outcome—
e.g., to make the comparisons, do the analysis, elucidate the steps necessary to master the lesson. The ultimate goal of
these activities is for the learner to incorporate the subject under study into a schema of richly connected ideas. The third
component of a learning experience isextraneous load, which is cognitive effort that does not help the learner toward the
desired learning outcome. It is often characterized as load that arises from a poorly designed lesson (e.g., confusing
instructions, extra information), but may also be load that arises due to stereotype threat or imposter syndrome. These
concepts are more fully articulated and to some extent critiqued in an excellent review by de Jong (2010).
These definitions have implications for design of educational materials and experiences. Specifically, instructors should seek to minimize extraneous cognitive load and should consider the intrinsic cognitive load of the subject when constructing learning experiences, carefully structuring them when the material has high intrinsic load. Because working memory has a limited capacity, and information must be processed by working memory to be encoded in long term memory, it’s important to prompt working memory to accept, process, and send to long-term memory only the most crucial information (Ibrahim et al., 2012).
The Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning builds on the Cognitive Load Theory, noting that working memory has two channels for information acquisition and processing: a visual/pictorial channel and an auditory/verbal processing channel (Mayer and Moreno, 2003). Although each channel has limited capacity, the use of the two channels can facilitate the integration of new information into existing cognitive structures. By using both channels, working memory’s capacity is maximized—but either channel can be overwhelmed by high cognitive load. Thus design strategies that manage the cognitive load for both channels in multimedia learning materials promise to enhance learning. In addition to the two key assumptions of dual-channel processing and limited working memory capacity, the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning also articulates the goal of any learning as “meaningful learning,” which requires cognitive processing that includes paying attention to the presented material, mentally organizing the presented material into a coherent structure, and integrating the presented material with existing knowledge (Mayer and Moreno 2003).
These theories give rise to several recommendations about educational videos. Based on the premise that effective learning experiences minimize extraneous cognitive load, optimize germane cognitive load, and manage intrinsic cognitive lead, four effective practices emerge:
Signaling, which is also known as cueing (deKoning et al., 2009), is the use of on-screen text or symbols to highlight important information. For example, signaling may be provided by the appearance of two or three key words (e.g., Mayer and Johnson, 2008; Ibrahim et al., 2012), a change in color or contrast (e.g., deKoning et al., 2009), or a symbol that draws attention to a region of a screen (e.g., an arrow; deKoning et al., 2009). By highlighting the key information, it helps direct learner attention, thus targeting particular elements of the video for processing in the working memory. This can reduce extraneous load by helping novice learners with the task of determining which elements within a complex tool are important, and it can also increase germane load by emphasizing the organization of and connections within the information. Mayer and Moreno (2003) and deKoning et al. (2009) have shown that this approach improves students ability to retain and transfer new knowledge from animations, and Ibrahim et al. (2012) have shown that these effects extend to video.
Segmenting is the chunking of information to allow learners to engage with small pieces of new information as well as to give them control over the flow of new information. As such, it manages intrinsic load and can also increase germane load by emphasizing the structure of the information. Segmenting can be accomplished both by making shorter videos and by including “click forward” pauses within a video, such as using YouTube Annotate or HapYak to provide students with a question and prompting them to click forward after completion. Both types of segmenting have been shown to be important for student engagement with videos (Guo et al., 2014; Zhang et al., 2005), and learning from video (Ibrahim 2012; Zhang et al., 2006).
Weeding is the elimination of interesting but extraneous information from the video, that is, information that does not contribute to the learning goal. For example, music, complex backgrounds, or extra features within an animation require the learner to judge whether he should be paying attention to them, which increases extraneous load and can reduce learning. Importantly, information that increases extraneous load changes as the learner moves from novice toward expert status. That is, information that may be extraneous for a novice learner may actually be helpful for a more expert-like learner, while information that is essential for a novice may serve as an already-known distraction for an expert. Thus, it’s important that the instructor consider her learners when weeding educational videos, including information that is necessary for their processing but eliminating information that they don’t need to reach the learning goal and that may overload their working memory. Ibrahim (2012) has shown that this treatment can improve retention and transfer of new information from video.
Matching modality is the process of using both the audio/verbal channel and the visual/pictorial channel to convey new information, fitting the particular type of information to the most appropriate channel. For example, showing an animation of a process on screen while narrating it uses both channels to elucidate the process, thus giving the learner dual and complementary streams of information to highlight features that should be processed in working memory. In contrast, showing the animation while also showing printed text uses only the visual channel and thus overloads this channel and impedes learning (Mayer and Moreno, 2003). In another example, using a “talking head” video to explain a complex process makes productive use only of the verbal channel (because watching the speaker does not convey additional information), whereas a Khan-style tutorial that provides symbolic sketches to illustrate the verbal explanation uses both channels to give complementary information. Using both channels to convey appropriate and complementary information has been shown to increase students’ retention and ability to transfer information (Mayer and Moreno, 2003) and to increase student engagement with videos (Thomson et al., 2014; Guo et al., 2014).
The table below gives a brief summary of how and why to use these practices.
One of the most important aspects of creating educational videos is to include elements that help promote student engagement. If students don’t watch the videos, they can’t learn from them. Lessons on promoting student engagement derive from earlier research on multimedia instruction as well as more recent work on videos used within MOOCs.
To help students get the most out of an educational video, it’s important to provide tools to help them process the information and to monitor their own understanding. There are multiple ways to do this effectively.
The important thing to keep in mind is that watching a video can be a passive experience, much as reading can be. To make the most of our educational videos, we need to help students do the processing and self-evaluation that will lead to the learning we want to see. The particular way you do this should be guided by goals of the course and the norms of your discipline.
Videos can be an effective tool in your teaching tool kit. When incorporating videos into a lesson, it’s important to keep in mind the three key components of cognitive load, elements that impact engagement, and elements that promote active learning. Luckily, consideration of these elements converges on a few recommendations:
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First published on the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching website.