Professor Barbara Oakley
Professor Barbara Oakley

1. How does research, especially neuroscience, inform your strategies for making video? Why is video important?

Research has shown that video is a great way to engage and teach students—it can speed learning and help students to master the material in a more straightforward way. Why is this? Because video allows both the “hearing” and the “seeing” buffers of working memory to take in information at the same time. This allows you to take in the material more quickly and easily.

Quality videos add a lot to an online class. Yet instructors all too often create online classes by placing links and references online and telling students to have at it. When videos are made for such a class, they can be stultifyingly boring. But the advantages of learning through well-made video are obvious. Why should a student bother to become engaged if the professor can’t even be bothered to make worthwhile videos?

If an instructor or instructor team puts the effort into making great video, with carefully pre-planned explanations, well-done visuals, unexpected humour, and quirky editing, they are sending a signal to students that they themselves care about the material (Oakley & Sejnowski, in press, njp Science of Learning, 2019). As a consequence, students can’t help but become more engaged.

2. What is the importance of using humour in educational videos?

Students watching a video to learn a difficult topic can be a bit like caged rats, trapped an unable to escape the material they’re struggling with. And like rats, they can respond positively to hits of dopamine—that is, to occasional bits of unexpected humour. Instructors don’t always need to be funny. It’s just that having occasional humour can make a big difference in student engagement.

And, as TED talk innovator Chris Anderson has noted, humour is an important way of establishing trust with viewers. More than that, the online world is highly competitive. It’s a mixture of academia, with Silicon Valley, with a little bit of Hollywood. Ordinary professors who think they can be all “old school” and not care about making an online learning experience more engaging are going to find that their courses are simply not competitive.

Word of mouth about a well-made online course, incidentally, is a big deal. Our MOOC Learning How to Learn, for example, has gained its audience of 2.5 million registered students largely through simple word-of-mouth.

3. How can the use of motion in videos help learners?

Many educational videos are created using a template approach, with the professor on one side of the screen and an image or bullet points on the other. This bland, predictable sort of presentation can be a real turn off for students. Motion, especially looming or unexpected motion, attracts “bottom up” attention—a student just can’t help but look (as seen in Howard and Holcombe, 2010 De Koning, et al., 2009, Horstmann, 2015, Howard and Holcombe, 2010, Kim and Lakshmanan, 2015, Rossini, 2014). Relatively static scenes, on the other hand, encourage attention to wander, making learning more difficult.

The more video editors might take advantage of judicious use of motion, the more they can help keep students’ attention on the screen without students having to force themselves to keep their focus. Video editors can shift the instructor’s body from full body to half body, from left to right on the screen, and use other editing tricks to help maintain viewer interest.

Incidentally, instructor gesticulations are always helpful for students—the students’ own mirror neurons fire, leading them to internalize the ideas more easily. But gesticulations don’t provide for unexpected motion—good editing should help bring unexpected change in the overall scene that helps keep viewers’ interest.

Good video editing is an art, not a science, so there’s no one algorithm to use about how and when change should occur. If you start watching television, movies, and YouTube with a “video editing eye,” you’ll begin to get a feel for how quality video editing is done. You don’t have to just leave video editing to the experts, though—simple programs like Camtasia can allow you to create your own videos without much effort.

4. What are your tips for presenting for an educational video?

Good teaching online is similar to good face-to-face teaching. But with the eye of the camera staring unblinkingly at you, it can be easy to forget that. Here are some ideas to keep in mind.

  • People can tend to be a reserved and subdued when they first go on camera. Don’t do that—instead, be over-the-top with your passion for your material—amp up your personality and enthusiasm. You need to be bigger-than-life on video, because inevitably, some elements are lost in the translation to screen. It’s okay to have a more vibrant on-screen persona than your more ordinary self.
  • Enunciate clearly and be careful with slang and colloquialisms. Remember, some of your students will not be native speakers of English.
  • Use good visuals and introduce complex ideas gradually. Don’t just throw an entire complex image onscreen at once—that’s fine for a textbook, but is very poor practice for video.
  • Highlight the salient material by circling it, pointing towards it with an arrow, or using some other helpful indicator. What you’re talking about may seem obvious to you, but it’s not necessarily so obvious for the student.
  • Use plenty of visual metaphors. Incidentally, custom imagery indicates to students that you’ve taken both time and care with the development of the course materials.
  • Teach students memory tools and tricks to help them remember and store difficult concepts in long-term memory. The impact of mnemonics to enhance learning is very strong.
  • Avoid picture-in-picture—that is, having a talking head in one picture frame (usually this is placed in a corner) and the material being explained in a different picture frame. Having two different sets of visuals to process at once increases cognitive load and makes the material more difficult to understand.

5. How can green screen effects be used effectively?

Green screen is powerful because it allows students to focus only on what is directly relevant to their learning. It’s also easy to use yourself—that is, the instructor’s body—as a pointer or indicator. In other words, let’s say you want to show students that the diameter of a heat exchanger is an important part of the mathematical model you’re developing. With green screen, you could actually insert yourself, standing full body, on top of image of a heat exchanger—perhaps having your body span the diameter as you’re speaking. Teaching history? Insert yourself into a historical painting and ham it up. Neuroscience? “Walk” inside the brain. The possibilities are endless.

When using green screen, it’s very important to avoid just standing there like a fence post. Point, stoop, duck, gasp—whatever you need to do to help the viewer feel that you can see the same material they are seeing—even if that material is going to be added later, in post-production.

You can even film green screen at home—just buy an inexpensive green screen cloth with a frame, some lighting, and a camera, and use the simple video editing program Camtasia. You don’t always need to show yourself on camera, but a little bit here and there can add a lot to an otherwise bland video. Just Google “how to set up a green screen studio,” and you’ll be on your way!

Visit Professor Oakley’s website to find out more.


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Oakley, Barbara and Terrence Sejnowski. “What We Learned from Creating One of the World’s Most Popular Moocs.” npj Science of Learning in press, (2019).
Rossini, Joaquim Carlos. “Looming Motion and Visual Attention.” Psychol Neurosci 7, no. 3 (2014): 425-431.
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Feature image by Sam McGhee.

  • This is a great post, Katie and Barbara. I am actually watching a video of Barbara at Google now (I’m at home, Barbara is at Google!. Videos are a really good way of learning – I find that I can stop them, re-listen to the good bits, simply listen to them (while I do admin or cleaning), and share them easily.
    But it does take longer than simply writing to my students.

  • Great tips Barbara! I think I was doing most of these subconciously because I use techniques I see in videos that I learn from online and try to integrate them 🙂

    • Amanda – your blog is great. I like the way you put a reading time at the top of articles.

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