Helping Students Get the Most Out of Video Sources

I’ll never forget the first time I taught students to unpack the information in a video clip. It was in a classroom studying ecosystems. I found the perfect clip. Two minutes! The content answered our essential questions. It was fantastic!

Yeah, right 😦

When I sat down to plan, I realized how complicated this was going to be. We can say a lot in just a few seconds. This video clip is at In just the first 15 seconds of the video, there is a definition of the term ecosystem:

An ecosystem is a community of living things interacting with the non-living parts of their environment.

In the next 15 seconds, the narrator says this:

There are two primary parts of an ecosystem. The biotic part is made of all of the living things, like plants and animals, fungi, and bacteria and viruses. The abiotic part is made of non-living things, like rocks and minerals, water, and energy.

And while she’s saying this, a chart appears on the screen with the words “biotic” and “abiotic” and examples for each.

Geez. That’s a lot for students to grasp in just 30 seconds! The students would have to process what they were hearing and seeing–very quickly. I knew we had to do this because video has a become a regular source of information for students and it’s a critical component of national assessments.

Here are a few suggestions based on what I’ve tried and learned since then (with some thoughtful colleagues and patient students):

  • Students need a guiding question(s) to help them determine what is important in the video. Set a very clear purpose for gathering information from the video. Ask a question or a series a questions. Or ask the students to generate questions. Students can use this question or purpose to help them determine what information in the video is important. Examples of questions include: What are the essential components of an ecosystem? How did the social activists take risks? What was the effect of the Supreme Court decision?
  • First, watch/listen to the whole clip. The students need to get a feel for the clip as a whole and start thinking about how it answers their questions.
  • Then watch the clip again and ask students for a “thumbs up” when they hear content that helps them answer (one of) the guiding questions. With the first group I taught, this was about 12 seconds into the clip. What I found, though, was that they knew the question had been answered, but they didn’t process the content enough to paraphrase what they’d learned.
  • Make it okay to view/listen to that section of the clip again and again and again. Make it okay to “rewind” and listen to a chunk of the clip a few times to try to fully grasp what is being said and revealed.
    • The students may need to watch the clip and then repeat what they just heard.
    • Then they may need to watch it, think about it some more and turn and talk to a friend about what they learned.
    • Then they may need to watch it one more time and write notes about what they learned. 
  • Prompt students to listen AND watch the video; to glean info from the visual parts of the video as well as the auditory. The students I was working with in that first lesson were working so hard to listen that they completely missed the diagram in the video. They also needed to glean information from what they saw in the video.
  • Make it okay to just use a part of the clip. In the classroom studying ecosystems, we were exhausted by the time we processed the first twelve seconds of the video. I felt like they had used that section well and we needed to move on to other sources. Teach students to determine an important part that they are really going to focus on processing.

Okay. Hope this helps.


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