A wireless headset on yellow background.

Total Recall – Easy, Effective, Adaptable

In content-heavy courses, across all levels, lecture is still the main method of content delivery. And rightly so: good lectures provide guidance and structure to complex readings, clarify common misunderstandings, and emphasize and separate what is most important from everything else.

  • Students can play recordings any time – perhaps at a time when their kids are asleep, when one shared family computer is finally available, or when WiFi is a little faster than at movie-watching prime-time; it offers more flexibility and is much more equitable than live videoconference lectures.
  • Students can be in charge of timing their learning – rewind difficult parts (which may be different for different people); watch at increased (or decreased) speed, as needed; or can come back later and re-watch just the parts of content that were most challenging.
  • Recording PowerPoint narrated lectures is technologically simple, and requires no special additional software beyond PowerPoint and a mic (most laptops have an OK built-in one; a $25 USB headset with a mic can produce surprisingly good quality) –
  • If a good distribution platform is available/used, instructors can use viewing stats, to see what is challenging and what is ignored. And they can save time by being able to reuse good lectures more than once.

The challenge is: once you have a reasonably good lecture (say, 30 mins. long). What do you do? How do you transform your video lecture into a productive and effective learning activity? There are a few options, but this one is probably the easiest and best of them all. Below you will find copy-and-paste instructions for students you can re-use in your course. Research-based justification is included below student instructions. I recommend including it, along with the links, when you use this activity for the first time, or after a longer pause.

Instructions for the Instructor

  • Add a “Total Recall Time! – Pause and Write!” slide at about 10-20 minute points during your lecture. If you already have a video without such breaks, remind students to set a timer to 10-20 minutes (pick one consistent time) when they start watching (a kitchen timer works just fine!) and stop when it runs out. The exact time when you pause is less important, but try to make it at a logical transition point, and don’t go over 20 minutes without a pause (Why 20?), if possible.
  • As a matter of practicality (not a research-based recommendation) I recommend (1) having students write recalled info for each pause in a stand-alone MS Word doc, and saving after each addition / pause (CTRL+S will do it), and then selecting all (CRTL+A) and pasting it all (CTRL+V) to a discussion; (2) setting it as a discussion where students must post before seeing other people’s posts; and, (3) if you have a large class, limiting the discussion to groups of 4-6, where the manageable number of people they know by name (keep the same groups for several discussions or assignments) encourages them to glance at what others said… In a sea of 190 effectively-as-good-as-anonymous posts, they won’t even bother.
  • When students are done, ask them to comment on ONE summary of another student THE FOLLOWING DAY (not right after posting their own summaries). Ask them to find, and briefly (1-2 sentences) comment on a post which either missed something important that they recalled, or one that recalled something important they missed (or both).
  • Done. Don’t read and grade these – simply spot check if something with a semblance of good-faith effort has been posted, and verify there was a reply to another students. If so, you may give students a participation point (optionally, if you decided to do that).

Instructions for students

  • When the lecture reaches the “ Brain Drain / Total Recall – Pause and Write!” (instructor: choose either Brain Drain or Total Recall, it’s a matter of personal preference) slide, stop and in a new MS Word doc (or template, if you got one), write down everything you can remember from the lecture so far. Try to write in complete sentences, but don’t sweat the small stuff, such as style, grammar, or spelling. Just write all you can remember, for about 1 minute. Then, remember to save (CTRL+S) your file, andgo back to the recorded lecture, and continue until the next “pause” slide. Repeat for each Total Recall / Brain Drain slide, and one last time after the end of the lecture.

    Alternative opening until the comma, if you are using a video where inserting PAUSE slides is not feasible: When you start watching this lecture, set a timer to 15 minutes (instructor: edit your time interval, if you want to). A kitchen or smartphone timer will work. When it rings, stop, and

    TOMORROW (you MUST wait until the next day to get full credit), revisit the discussion, scan your classmates’ posts, and very briefly (3-6 sentences) comment on ONE POST which either missed something important that you had recalled yesterday, or recalled something important you had missed (or perhaps both).

    You do get a point for completing this Total Recall / Brain Drain activity (you must complete note for all Total Recall / Brain Drain stops during the lecture, plus post a short but complete reply to someone else’s post to get full credit). And, you will probably get more than a few extra points on the exam that you’d otherwise get without this activity!

The science behind this activity

Why are you being asked to do this? Is this just busy-work? Nope. As it turns out, this type of “brain drain” or “brain dump’ exercise, as it’s sometimes called, is – surprisingly – one of the most effective ways to remember and organize lecture content.

There is consistent, substantial research that shows it works remarkably well. In their recent book, Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning (2019) Agarwal and Bain point out “Yes, it’s that simple! Simply ask students to Brain Dump and write down what they remember individually, then move on. How do we know that Brain Dumps improve learning? Research, of course!” (55). Numerous studies have show this actually works for improving your retention and organization of knowledge (Zaromb and Roediger, 2010), and even improves inferential thinking (Karpicke and Blunt, 2011)! 

Alternative Version of Total Recall Activity

If you want to change things a little, here is a similar idea, based on the same science, but requires a little extra work on your part:

Create a list of true or false statements that restate important concepts or points from your lecture (avoid verbatim quotes from your lecture). Set this up as a discussion, and post all T/F statements in the instructions part of the discussion. Ask students to copy all statements, and paste them to discussion, adding T or F after each; for statements that are FALSE, ask students to also restate them in a way that – with minimal changes – would make them TRUE.

After the submission deadline passes, post the answer key as your discussion post, so everyone can see how they did. I’d recommend giving a participation point for the activity.

Hope this first post in a series will help transform recorded lectures into purposeful, evidence-based learning activities. More soon… 

Other similar “activity” posts: