An unexamined video is not worth the time spent watching…

So you’ve recorded a video: your lecture, or narrated PowerPoint, or your guest colleague, or you found online some interesting videos that nicely complement your module content (a TED Talk, an interview, or a short documentary). Great! Now, what? Assignment: Watch the video… Really? Socrates once famously said “ὁ … ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ,” (The unexamined life is not worth living) but the situation is similar with course videos: an unexamined video is not worth the time spent watching. There are many ways in which you can turn videos in your course into worthwhile learning activities. Here are just seven, easy-to-implement ideas that do not take a lot of extra time to create, will make your videos memorable, and – yes! – all all are based on learning principles supported by research. I have no doubt that there are at least another 7, 14, or 21 more possibilities, many very good, of video-based activities that remain unexplored here. But I hope this is a starting point, a springboard for other ideas.

TECHNICAL DETAILS: All the video activities are planned so as to be doable in 2 class days – this way you can mix-and-match (like same-sized lego bricks), whenever you need a video activity, without disrupting your regular micro-rhythm of the course.

(use run time of your video, plus 1 minute per question asked to calculate the time needed for this)

Yes, just don’t officially call it a quiz, and everyone will remain calm. This is really the easiest way to make sure the most important take-aways from your videos are noticed and remembered. The best news is that you can easily apply this technique to videos that you do NOT own, and are just “borrowing” (legally) for class use (TED Talks are among the favorites here). And there are tons (quite literally!) of research that extols the virtues of using old-fashioned, low stakes multiple-choice (MC) “quizzes” (no, don’t call them that! a video check; a video review; a video question-game… you get the idea!) to help students not only recall key information later on, but also to transfer it to new contexts and situations. Plan to write a few reasonably good MC questions that cover the main points from the video. I usually just focus on asking about important, relevant things, and do not worry about how many questions I have. It may be just me, and you may have a different, preferred approach that works better for you, but I always find it easiest to write questions and the correct answers first, and then to add all the “distractors” on the second pass. On the average, I wind up with about 1 question per 1-10 minutes of video run-time, aiming for a total around 10-15 questions. This is intended to be a low stakes exercise: perhaps grading it as “credit if you get to a certain threshold” (say, 70-85%), with multiple attempts allowed, and only the highest score kept is a choice worth considering here. Because this is low-stakes, and really more of an activity than a quiz, it gives you an excuse to use the highly unpopular “select ALL that apply” approach, which requires more careful strategizing, and deeper thinking on part of the students, and that’s what we’re after here, more than the correct answer. You can even occasionally get away with the even more hated “All of the following are true, EXCEPT.” I try not to use them on graded exams (students hate them, and will make it oh-so-clear on their evals), but they are OK here. Remind students this is a VIDEO ACTIVITY / EXERCISE, not a quiz, and they’ll let you get away with it, and it makes writing complex questions much easier/faster. One thing worth taking the time to do here is providing the after-answer feedback: this is about learning, not about a grade, so for anyone who got it right, reinforcing it is helpful and validating; for those who got it wrong, correcting and explaining why makes them more likely to remember. This is a clear winner.
Last but not least: give students access to the quiz, and ask them to read the questions BEFORE they watch the video; this is shown to increase recall, and “can be effective regardless of whether they are multiple choice, open ended, fill-in-the-blank or short-answer questions.” (Busch, Bradley. The Science of Learning [amazon link], p143 – more… [blog link]). To many people this sounds very counter-intuitive: because, how can seeing questions about things you can’t yet answer / haven’t yet studied, help you? In fact, it was shown that with simple readings, having questions in advance may lower your recall of information that was not focused by questions in advance. But as Carpenter and Toftness (2017) have shown, it does work really well with video!

(use 1.5x multiplier – if your video is 20 minutes long, students need to reserve at least 30 minutes to complete this)

At different points in your video, ask students to pause, and – in a separate MS Word doc – to write down everything they remember, taking no more than ONE minute to write it down. Then, they submit the complete list of comments to a discussion, and – on the next day, after everyone else had posted – identify ONE post on which to comment, specifically identifying one thing this other person did not mention that they did, or one thing the other person mentioned and they didn’t (or both, if possible). I dedicated a separate, much more detailed blog post on this type of activity, with ready-to-copy instructions for students, here.

(use 1.5x multiplier – if your video is 20 minutes long, students need to reserve at least 30 minutes to complete this)

This is very easy to set up, and seems somewhat crude by comparison to other activities here, but it works, and is just as useful / effective: give students a list of time-stamped, chronologically arranged questions about the lecture / video. If possible, try to write questions with a direct reference to the video, so that it’s difficult, or impossible to answer, or even understand the questions fully without going back to the video’s specific point. For example, something like: “3:10 – What three symptoms of what serious illness are mentioned here? How are they related to other co-occurring health problems, according to the lecture?” You don’t know how to answer this based only on the question. You must have access to the video, and actually go to that time spot and watch it, in order to answer (or perhaps you watched it carefully and can answer without any problems). Two, important points are to (1) ask students to pre-read the questions before they watch the video – see bullet point 1, re: “pre-questions effect“; and (2) if your video-distribution platform allows, add numbered markers to the points on the video to streamline the process if someone needs to re-view a spot or two. Finally, ask students to post your questions, along with their answers to a discussion (if so, post before seeing posts of others’) or to an assignment.

(use 1.5x multiplier – if your video is 20 minutes long, students need to reserve at least 30 minutes to complete this)

This activity is practical, if you happen to have access to a video platform that allows students to add notes (in this case, questions) directly on videos. If you don’t, it’s still useable but you will have to tweak it, and I’m not sure if the complex logistics still makes it worth everyone’s time… your call. Ask students to watch the video and pause and ask a question, whenever they have one! Each student is required to post a minimum of ONE question, and if they want to post more, they can, but only if they are real questions… (not questions being asked for the sake of getting an activity point!). Students should post questions directly on the video. They should note other questions around the same area / time and avoid doubling (asking the same question that had been asked already). If you have a large class you can ask for a minimum of one question per GROUP (rather than per individual student).
Next day, by specific, agreed-upon time, you need to commit to reviewing and answering all the questions. That’s why the software is quite important here: it’s much easier for you to understand and answer the questions quickly, and for students to avoid asking about the same thing twice, or having to over-explain the context, if their questions and your answers exist on the same video timeline, in real time. After the designated time, students are asked to go back, and (copy and paste) and post both, their own question(s), and your answers, to a class discussion (no groups – all class in one discussion, but in large classes one person can do this on behalf of a group); no need to limit to post before you see others in this case. Motivate your students to take a serious look at their classmates’ questions and your answers by making it clear that some of these will be on a graded quiz or exam (and keep your promise: pick the best 5-10 questions and incorporate into your assessment later in the semester).

(use 2x multiplier – if your video is 20 minutes long, students need to reserve at least 40 minutes to complete this)


This is a slightly different activity from these above, in that it uses a video and an additional source, and compares the two. For example, if the focus video in my module on Ethics were the TedEd video on driverless cars, I could pair it with a reading on the same topic, for example this (deliberately very short) article from Reuter’s on the same topic. It works well with not very highly produced media (for example, simple instructor-recorded narrated PowerPoint or “talking head” style lecture video), and not just more “produced” videos (for example, the animated TedEd videos with moving graphics and music).

You would ask students to identify the overlap of ideas between the video and the other source (usually a text; see diagram A > above): what topics are addressed in both, and how are they addressed differently or similarly in both sources. Where do the two sources agree (green dots on the diagram), in areas of overlap and where they differ (red dots).

In a large course you could find 3-5 longer articles (see diagram B > , above) that would address, perhaps in more depth, some of the issues signaled in the video, and divide students into groups: within a group each person makes a comparison between the video and one other source identifying similarities (green dots) and differences (red dots) and posts it to shared (group) discussion. This could be the end of such activity, or one could then ask students to write a brief “State of… Today” (Driverless Driving ) as a report. In either case, everyone reads content that relates to the same shared topic, but each group member adds information that others did not have (jigsaw structure, but much simpler here than the one I described in an earlier post).

(use video runtime, plus 4-8 hours of intensive, focused work)

This is an advanced activity that lends itself particularly well to highly produced media (TedEd videos, with music, animation, and custom graphics), rather than self-produced narrated PowerPoints, guest lectures, lecture captures, etc. It relies more than others in this series on invention and originality, and on being mindful of narrative voice and visual style. It is probably best used in advanced courses (upper-level and graduate) where communication is, to at least some degree, the primary focus (communication, language, lit, film, history, design, and education majors).

Its dynamic differs greatly from previous assignments: it is set up as the only openly highly competitive activity, and although you’d be wise to grade it as a pass/fail, it has clear (anonymously peer-selected) winners and losers. In a way it is similar to #5 above, in that it requires completion of almost the same steps as in #5 in its initial phase, but it advances beyond these, to a higher level that requires well-reasoned, and clearly-articulated critical judgment, ability to present complex ideas accessibly, and good writing skills; it does NOT require any art/drawing skills – drawings, while needed for the storyboards, are in fact required to be stick figures and simple geometric shapes in order not to distract from the core content focus. It is also the most time-consuming of the activities here, and is more appropriate as one of major projects or assignments than as an equivalent of much faster, and more direct activities 1-5.


Find 3-5 or articles or other sources related to the video (could use the same sources as in #5, above). Divide students into groups of 3-5 (matching the number of sources you have found). Each student compares the two sources (video and article), identifies what information from source 2 could be added to the video, and at what point (specific time-code is needed); then the student writes the text and draws 2-4 shot storyboard for a sequence that must be between 15-30 seconds in duration, and that would be added to the video at that specific point (timecode); other students in the group do the same with their texts.

All students post their storyboards and text for each to the assignment that is reviewed through an in-group anonymous (blind) peer review process; peers in each group reflect on other submissions, comment, and vote (by distributing “production funds” to other contributors) based on common, shared criteria: do the storyboards fit their specific placement on the timeline? do they provide / add useful info (to what degree is it useful?)? is the copy written in a style that seamlessly flows with the original? are the envisioned visuals effective in conveying the key ideas? And finally: if you had two separate funding sources, offering $20K and 30K, with the restriction that all provided funding from a single source must be used to fund ONE proposed addition, which 2 proposals / storyboards would you fund to production (you can’t vote for yourself, and you can’t give both funding streams to one project)?

(allow video run-time x2, and 4-8 focused work hours, plus group presentation time)

In a way, open elaborate activity demands the same level of high cognitive skill as #6, above, but it strips the verbal-visual communication layer, and remains safely within the bounds of academic writing. While more appropriate for advanced undergrads, or graduate students, this would be best used in situations where there is enough time, but spending any time and effort on hashing out the details of verbal-visual communication design does not align with the priorities of the discipline or with course objectives. Because it offers the most autonomy and requires more self-direction than any other activity described here, it is NOT appropriate for entry-level courses, where activities 1-4 are likely to produce much more consistent and predictable results.

The instructions are simple: ask students to identify and prioritize the 2-3 gaps where the video leaves certain areas unexplored sufficiently (a dynamic-logical gap); next, ask students to conduct research identifying potential resources that could be brought to fill each of the gaps (students produce annotated bibliography with abstracts, of all collected resources). Based on these results, each student articulates their rationale for selecting the area with the most promise (where the gap can be filled most effectively and productively), and proceeds to write a narrative that would be used as a voiceover for the added / expanded video section, only marginally including visual aspect of the presentation in very general terms (a chart of… would be used; an animation of this process would be shown; etc., without visual specifics included). The narrative has to fit proportionally within reasonable boundaries of the video (you can’t add 20 new minutes to a 20 minute video, without totally changing its dynamic; this addition is supposed to expand and elaborate, not take the content into an entirely different direction altogether). The new content is then shared with the class or group as an oral presentation (lecture, or reading, or audio recording).

The great “question-mark island” photo on top of this page generously shared by Jules Bss on Unsplash – thank you!