Videos in Teaching – full article

Today video is among the most popular media formats on the internet. Companies and organisations of all types deploy it to provide information and entertainment. On YouTube there are 4 billion video hits daily, and 300 hours of new video material is uploaded every minute (May 2015). In the education sector, where video has been deployed for some time, the advent of the Khan Academy (free online-learning videos: triggered a deluge of YouTube learning videos on every conceivable theme and played a role in the fact that increasing numbers of people now use mobile devices to access videos. The popularity of video-based MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has now firmly enshrined video in the further and continuing education sectors, at all levels. The specific advantages of video over other media formats, however, are not always exploited fully. Frequently simple, traditional teaching formats such as presentations or book chapters are simply recast in video format, inspiring little enthusiasm. A meta-study in 2014 analysed the instructional design quality of 76 randomly selected MOOCs. The results indicate that although most MOOCs are well-packaged, their instructional design quality is low [1].

In discussions of video in education the following two critical arguments crop up repeatedly:

  • Producing videos is time-consuming and expensive. Specialists must be brought in (pedagogical experts, scriptwriters, camera crews etc.); long preparation times and complicated technical setups are required.
  • At the end of many video projects it is questionable whether the investment was worth it. Whatever value their video-specific possibilities have brought is not visible.

Both arguments fall short. In terms of production outlay, it may be pointed out that today there are numerous examples of successful learning videos which were produced quickly using inexpensive technical equipment – often by a single instructor via do-it-yourself procedures. A simple approach can in itself awaken sympathy and create a friendly impression. [2].

As to the question of investment it is true that many videos do not differ much in essence from classical documentation forms. In this sense a PDF presentation or lecture notes would actually be equivalent in value, and require less effort. However, these formats do not feature video’s specific potentials, which when cleverly deployed can make material much more memorable and clearer than either text, image or audio. [2].

This second argument leads us to the vital question of which key factors really influence effective learning and how video can promote them better than other media formats such as text or audio. Countless studies and feedback from practice report that the following factors play a role in successful learning: emotions, relevance, repetition, participant activity, personal responsibility and reflection, checks, motivation, and attention to how the cognitive system functions (think limited short-term memory and ‘cognitive load’). [3].

The table below illustrates how the specific strengths of video make it suitable for promoting these key factors for successful learning. [3], [4].

Key factors for successful learning How can videos promote these key factors?
Emotions People can inspire positive emotions via body language, voice and choice of content. This will awaken interest and motivate, e.g. through short descriptions of successful projects or inexplicable errors. Showing authentic events or distance locations can also be very compelling. Learning experiences with an emotional component are more effective and will be remembered better (long-term memory).
Relevance Relevance can be credibly communicated by showing suitable and authentic examples from practice (combining image, audio and text).
Repetition Repetition can be intentionally built into the video itself or made available on demand (repeat button).
Participant activity Videos can be configured to stop at certain points, where viewers become active by having to answer a question or select a theme. This inspires reflection on the theme.
Personal responsibility (reflection) The video stops at each sub-chapter. Viewers must decide whether they have understood and can move on, or whether they will review something or read about it.
Checks and control Videos can be designed to give viewers wide-ranging control over what happens on the screen, e.g. using interactive menus, different routes to choose, slow-motion mode and repetition. Checks foster situative, personal learning.
Motivation In videos the instructor can demonstrate enthusiasm for a subject using image and audio – this is infectious, and motivating.
Attention to how the cognitive system functions Depending on the complexity of the theme, the teaching material can be portioned out. Short sequences and stops (pauses for reflection) respect the limited uptake of short-term memory. Authenticity, repetition and emotional stimulation foster memorability and retention in the long-term memory.


For the concrete planning of a learning video project, the 10 “ideal scenarios for video” listed below are recommended. (They are also found in the Appendix, with examples and further information.) These scenarios deploy the above-mentioned key factors, and may be combined at will. The general recommendation is not to exceed 6 minutes per video: various statistics from MOOC platforms and YouTube have shown that this is the maximum duration of videos which viewers will watch to the end.

  1. Building of relationships and rapport. Establish an emotional connection between presenter and viewer. Create interest.
  2. Access to persons and places (virtual field trips): Access (special) people and places via video.
  3. Manipulation of time and space: Micro and macro view and slow motion for better understanding.
  4. Telling of stories: Captivate viewers, take them on a journey and activate them. Create interest.
  5. Motivation of learners: Show enthusiasm and thereby stimulate an appetite to learn.
  6. Historical footage: Bring the past to life. Meaningful comparisons with today’s situations.
  7. Demonstrations: Show experiments and unmask misconceptions. Show psychomotor skills. Promote the possibility or repeating experiments endlessly.
  8. Contrasting concepts: Create meaning through contrasting concepts. Resolve misconceptions.
  9. Multimedia presentation: Combine audio-visual elements to make certain aspects stand out.
  10. Direct interaction with the video image: Immediate feedback for reflection. Viewers become highly active.


In sum, what is certain about learning videos is that the decisive factor is not whether production takes place with great outlay in a studio or simply in a do-it-yourself setting. Success depends much more on combining the strengths particular to the video medium with the key factors for effective learning.


Projects at ETH

Video is already being successfully deployed by various ETH departments. At D-PHYS, sample solutions to tasks relating to basic concepts and phenomena are imparted step by step via video (themes include the Otto engine and air bubbles). The video’s method, whereby the instructor develops the solution by hand and simultaneously explains it orally, is attractive, and students enjoy it. Being able to review the thought processes which lead to the solution at any time helps to internalise concepts. The fading in and out of annotations steers the attention towards relevant places in text, to formulas or to sketches. The classical demonstration videos mentioned, where physical phenomena and experiments are captured on film, are already in wide use.

Since 2014 D-ARCH has offered an ETH MOOC on the theme of ‘Future Cities’ at Here a global audience can learn online at the time and pace of their choice from a well-known group of faculty. The goal of this 10-week course is to understand the people, components, functions, scales and dynamics of cities, as a precondition for sustainable urban design and management. The faculty communicate to students all over the world (in 168 countries) and address current global city planning themes via attractive videos. They also react to events in the MOOC context itself with ad-hoc feedback videos, where they intervene directly where issues of understanding arise or explain a theme again if the results of the corresponding quiz indicates gaps. The MOOC’s mix of modern communication tools such as videos, quizzes, forums and game-like labs make the learning experience attractive and effective.

D-MATH has created an online independent study course on statistics software R to meet the high demand for this software course. Using short, authentic videos, participants learn to transcribe knowledge from the introductory lecture in Statistics via R software. The video shows and explains screencasts from the software itself, mixing in examples with practical relevance and issues from various ETH departments.

D-HEST is conducting preliminary trials of interactive videos which illustrate dangers in the laboratory in an effective manner.

Most departments offer their videos via the learning management system Moodle. Naturally it is also possible to distribute a link to a specific video.


Conclusion & Outlook

The ETH Executive Board supports the idea of increased deployment of video in teaching, in response to the medium’s popularity and educational potential. Many universities also use videos in their courses which were not produced in-house but have been released for use in education. This approach seems expedient and efficient.

The following guiding ideas are proposed for production of videos at ETH.

  1. Video or not? Video should, if possible, only be deployed if its educational effectiveness in the sense of the learning objective clearly exceeds that of other formats such as text or images. Even very short videos or video clips (under 3 minutes) can be very useful if they explain something better than do other mediums. Good example scenarios for video are where learning proceeds from models, and where participants will profit from intentional display and deliberated correction of mistakes. In any case it is essential that videos be skilfully designed and that they create a good learning atmosphere, thus motivating viewers to invest mental effort. [5], [6]
  2. A thorough and well-thought-out concept is decisive. Very careful preparation of content is essential to achieving optimal results. To realise the great potential of video-specific aspects (see points 1-10) enough time must be allocated to create a well-thought-out film script.
  3. Production: Various variations are available for production. Do-it-yourself procedures may be the best choice. But even this production method presupposes certain technical standards if videos are to be taken seriously (especially good audio quality and lighting conditions).


LET, the Educational Developers and ID MMS have extensive experience in the area of learning videos and are happy to provide assistance with video projects in teaching.



[1] Anoush Margaryan, A. Bianco, M., Littlejohn, A. (2015). Instructional quality of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Computers & Education, Volume 80, January 2015, Pages 77–83

[2] Guo, P., Kim, J., Rubin, R., (2014) How video production affects student engagement: An empirical study of mooc videos.

[3] Schneider, M., & Stern, E. (2010). The cognitive perspective on learning: Ten cornerstone findings. In Organisation for Economic Coperation and Development (OECD) (Ed.),The nature of learning: Using research to inspire practice (pp. 69-90). Paris: OECD

[4] Ambrose, S. Michael W. Bridges, M., Marsha C. Lovett, M., & Normann, M. (2010). How learning works. Seven research based principles for smart teaching.

[5] Dror, I. E. (2011). A novel approach to minimize error in the medical domain: Cognitive neuroscientific insights into training. Medical Teacher, 33 (1), 34-38.

[6] Dror, I., Schmidt, P. ,O’Connor, L. (2011). A cognitive perspective on technology enhanced learning in medical training: Great opportunities, pitfalls and challenges


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