Some insights on video-based teaching

Image from Wikipedia Commons

Last year I experimented with video-based lectures in my Stochastic Operations Research course for juniors.  The results were surprising.

At the beginning of the course, I told the students that each class would be taped and that they were free to attend the lecture, view it on live stream (and ask questions via chat to a TA, who would ask the question on the student’s behalf), or view the stream anytime later.  Complete freedom to consume the course material on your own terms—what could be better?

Enrollment was about 100 students, but attendance very quickly shrunk to fewer than 50, and eventually settled in around 30. Some “video students” said they preferred the video stream because they could stop to take notes or “rewind” to listen to something again.  Ability to view lectures via the stream was universally appreciated, though many students requested 10 minute lecturettes on specific topics, claiming that hunting through an hour of video to review a particular point was tedious (point well-taken).

I confess that reducing the class size from 100 to 30 was welcomed and intended. My thinking was that the video students would get what they preferred and the attending students would get a much better experience as well. Of course, I much preferred teaching 30 live students to teaching 100.


Our goal was to understand how the video-only students would fare versus their class-attending classmates. Is video as effective as class attendance? What follows is only anecdotal evidence, because we had limited data and (worse) no control group. Nevertheless, there are some interesting observations.

The video system at Auburn allowed us to document the date and time that a student “touched” a lecture video. There was no way to know whether the student viewed the entire lecture online, downloaded it to be watched later, or ignored it entirely. This is a serious limitation in the data. We also collected class attendance by passing out an attendance sheet. Students were told that attendance had no effect on their grades, and that signing in was strictly to help us understand how attendance and video watching affected class performance. We are confident that the class attendance sheets were close to accurate.

We compiled the results at the end of the course. The plots below show the “video ratio” versus “class attendance ratio” for students based on their final grades. A ratio reflects the fraction of offered classes consumed via that medium. For example, a video ratio of 0.5 means that a student touched one half of all videos leading up to a particular exam. Similarly, a class attendance ratio of 0.7 means that a student attended 70 percent of all offered classes leading up to that exam. The five data points correspond to averages for students who finished the course with a particular grade.

Video and Class Attendance for Exam 1
Video viewing versus class attendance for Exam 1. “A” students attended almost all classes and watched almost no videos.

The plot above is for the first exam. The x-axis is class attendance ratio; the y-axis is video-watching ratio. So, a student attending every class and watching every video would be at point (1,1). Data on the plot indicate average performance of students earning a certain grade at the end of the course.

Students who finished the course with an A attended more than 80 percent of the live lectures before the first exam on average, but viewed almost no video at all. B-students attended an even higher percentage of classes and viewed an average of one fourth of offered classes via video. C-, D-, and F-students relied more heavily on the video and attended fewer classes.

Data for Second Exam. D- and F-students went long on video, but still did not attend class.
Data for Second Exam. D- and F-students went long on video, but still did not attend class.

Data for the second exam shows similar results. A-students attended less class (it was football season and the class met on Friday afternoons, which also affected the results), and still viewed very little video. B-students both attended class and viewed many videos. C-, D-, and F-students bet heavily on the video, but still did not attend class.


Anecdotal evidence suggests that A-students prefer to attend class, and that having once seen the material, they have little need to review it on video. B-students appear to be the workhorses—attending most classes and watching videos to increase their knowledge. Students performing poorly attended significantly less class and seemed more prone to rely on videos to recover. Students who failed didn’t do much of either.

My suspicion is that although watching a video could be more effective than live lecture (due to the ability to stop and rewind), the reality is that it is just too easy to be distracted when viewing video. I wonder how many “video students” tried to multi-task while viewing lectures, and how many walked away to let the dog out or get a drink from the fridge, confident that they “wouldn’t miss anything.”

My conjecture is that attending class has the significant advantage that it captures a student’s complete attention, and that concentration and focus are what is really needed to master difficult material, not the ability to rewind and hear it again.

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