3 Keys to Effective Instructional Videos

by | 09.14.20

There are educators who can speak in front of a classroom and bring this great energy – this “wow” factor. That has never been me. In the past when I’ve given lectures to introduce math concepts to my students, they consistently rank my lectures as the least helpful mode of learning in my class in their end-of-year survey.

Last school year, I switched to a model that allows self-paced learning, with kids watching instructional videos and mastering each concept before they move on, at their own pace. (I went through training offered by The Modern Classrooms Project to learn about this approach.) 

I think we can make the mistake of thinking of an instructional video as just a pre-recorded lecture, but it’s a teaching tool with so much more potential than that. My whole experience with self-paced learning – both before and during spring distance learning – has turned me into an instructional video evangelist. 

I know that many of us will need to rely on videos this year: whether we’re teaching remotely or with a hybrid approach or using a flipped model in the school building, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned about making the videos effective. 

What does a high-quality instructional video look like?

  • For starters, keep videos six minutes or shorter, and super focused on the learning target. The Modern Classrooms Project offers a free series of webinars and tutorials on how to build an effective instructional video, including research-based best practices. One finding is that after six minutes, student engagement plummets exponentially, so you want to make sure you’re keeping to a six-minute maximum, and staying focused on one individual learning target at a time.
  • Take full advantage of tools that enable you to check whether students are still with you. Using the question feature of Edpuzzle is a really effective way to make sure students are still there, because they can’t continue the video until they’ve answered the questions.
  • Ask questions aloud in the video – questions that aren’t formatted in the “official” way of Edpuzzle questions – to help kids learn that they need to actually listen to you speak. I tell students, “If you just watch the video without listening, you are missing 50% of the value. It’s like sitting in class with your headphones in.” Posing questions in the video verbally, which they need to answer on their note sheets, is a way to support them in feeling accountable and engaged – and for me to notice when they aren’t engaging, so I can try to get them back on track. 

I’ve found that making instructional videos allows me to disseminate concepts super efficiently, and also to control the way they are presented. Unlike when I give live lectures, I can review and fix the videos so they flow the way I want them to. 

We need to teach students to use instructional videos 

In addition to the importance of making high-quality videos, my biggest lesson from last school year is that there is a skill set involved in learning from instructional videos – and I need to teach that skill set before I can use the videos to teach math. 

I see students watch YouTube videos all the time, and it can be easy to assume that they’ll know how to watch a math video, but I’ve learned that’s not the case. 

Some students don’t realize they can – and should – go back and rewatch parts of the video. They don’t make the connection that when I’m writing something down in the video, they should write notes. They sometimes forget that they can use the videos as a reference tool later if they need to. 

So I tell them in the first unit that we’re learning math, but we’re also learning how to watch math videos. And so I’ve literally built a video about watching videos, which you can see here, and excerpted in the screenshots below: 

After this video on watching videos, we transition – of course – to videos about math. At the beginning, I’m really intentional about building in prompts that are still focused on building good habits, like “Have you written down the objective on your note sheet?” 

I can pull back from these types of reminders as students get into the rhythm, and turn toward prompts that are purely focused on making sure students are learning the math concepts. 

Reflections and resources

Last year was my first time implementing this video-driven, self-paced approach, and my process is always evolving toward how to best support student learning. Some things work. A lot of things don’t. But, by the time we got to quarantine, I had a system that worked well for my students and easily translated to distance learning. 

When the year wrapped up, I gave the same survey that I have given in the past, but I replaced “lectures” with “instructional videos.” Students rated instructional videos the most helpful mode of learning in the class – from all our time, learning in-person or by distance. That felt really, really cool. By creating effective instructional videos, I basically took my worst form of teaching and turned it into my most useful form of teaching. 

I hope some of this will be valuable in your work this school year. Here are a couple resources that might support you:


About the Author

Ryan Steinbach
Ryan Steinbach

Ryan Steinbach is a teacher in Washington D.C. Follow him on Twitter @R_Steinbach.

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