How Video Length Affects Student Learning – The Shorter, The Better!
In-Person Lectures vs. Online Instruction
Actively engaging students in the learning process is important for both in-person lectures and for online instruction. The ways in which students engage with the instructor, their peers, and the course materials will vary based on the setting. In-person courses are often confined by the fact that instruction needs to be squeezed into a specific time period, which can result in there being a limited amount of time for students to perform group work or to actively think about the concepts they are learning. Alternatively, with online instruction, there is often more freedom (especially for an asynchronous course) on how you can present materials and structure the learning environment.
Currently, many instructors are faced with the challenge of adapting their in-person courses into an online format. How course materials are adapted into an online format are going to differ from course to course – however, a common practice shared across courses is to create lecture recordings or videos for students to watch. The format and length of these videos play an important role in the learning experience students have within a course. The ways in which students engage with a longer video recording is going to be much different than how students engage with multiple shorter videos. Below are some of the important reasons why shorter videos can enhance student learning when compared to longer videos.
More Opportunities for Students to Actively Engage with the Material
Decades of research on how people learn has shown that active learning (in comparison to more passive approaches, such as direct instruction or a traditional lecture) enhances student performance (Freeman et. al., 2014). While “active learning” can often be a nebulous phrase that has different meanings, active learning can be broadly thought of as any activity in which a learner is metacognitively thinking about and applying knowledge to accomplish some goal or task. Providing multiple opportunities for students to engage in these types of activities can help foster a more meaningful and inclusive learning environment for students. This is especially important for online instruction as students may feel isolated or have a difficult time navigating their learning within a virtual environment.
One of the biggest benefits of creating a series of shorter videos compared to creating one long video is that active learning techniques and activities can be more easily utilized and interspersed throughout a lesson. For example, if you were to record a video of a traditional lecture period, your video would be nearly an hour in length, and it would likely cover multiple important topics within that time period. Creating opportunities to actively engage students throughout an hour-long video is difficult and can result in students feeling overwhelmed.
Conversely, one of the affordances of online instruction is that lectures can be broken down into a series of smaller video lessons and activities. By having shorter videos with corresponding activities, students are going to spend more time actively thinking about and applying their understanding of concepts throughout a lesson. This in turn can promote metacognition by getting students to think about their thinking after each short video rather than at the end of a long video that covers multiple topics.
Additionally, concepts often build upon one another, and it is critical that students develop a solid foundation of prior knowledge before moving onto more complex topics. When you create multiple short videos and activities, it can be easier to get a snapshot of how students conceptualize different topics as they are learning it. This information can help both you as an instructor and your students become better aware of when they are having difficulties so that issues can be addressed before moving onto more complex topics. With longer videos, students may be confused on concepts discussed at the beginning of the video, which can then make it difficult for them to understand subsequent concepts.
Overall, chunking a longer video into multiple shorter videos is a simple technique you can use to create more meaningful learning opportunities in a virtual setting. Short videos, coupled with corresponding activities, is a powerful pedagogical approach to enhance student learning.
Reducing Cognitive Load
Another major benefit of having multiple shorter videos instead of one longer video is that it can reduce the cognitive load that students experience when engaging with the content. Learning is a process that requires the brain to adapt, develop, and ultimately form new neural connections in response to stimuli (National Academies of Sciences, 2018). If a video is long and packed with content, developing a meaningful understanding of concepts can be quite difficult. Even if the content is explained in detail (which many people think of as “good instruction”), students simply do not have enough time to process and critically think about the content they are learning. When taking in various stimuli and trying to comprehend multiple concepts, this can result in students feeling anxious and overwhelmed. Having time to self-reflect is one of the most important factors to promoting a deeper, more meaningful learning experience. Unfortunately, long video lectures provide few opportunities (even when done well!) for students to engage in these types of thinking and doing.
Additionally, an unintended drawback of long videos is that the listener can be lulled into a false sense of understanding. For example, have you ever watched a live lecture or an educational video where you followed along and felt like you understood the material, but then after when you went to apply this knowledge, you realized that you forgot or did not understand the content as well as you thought? Everyone has experienced this phenomenon in some form or another. As students watch long video lectures, especially lectures that have clear explanations of the content, they may get a false sense of how well they understand the material. This can result in students overestimating their ability and grasp of foundational ideas, which in turn, can make future learning more difficult as subsequent knowledge will be built upon a faulty base.
Long lecture videos are also more prone to having extraneous information or tangential discussions throughout. This additional information may cause students to shift their cognitive resources away from the core course content, resulting in a less meaningful learning experience (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). Breaking a long video into multiple shorter videos can reduce the cognitive load students may experience and it can create more opportunities for them to self-reflect on what they are learning.
More Engaging for Students
Another important factor to think about is how video length affects student engagement. A study by Guo, Kim, and Rubin (2014) looked at how different forms of video production affected student engagement when watching videos. Two of their main findings were that (1) shorter videos improve student engagement, and that (2) recordings of traditional lectures are less engaging compared to digital tablet drawing or PowerPoint slide presentations. These findings show how it is not only important to record shorter videos, but that simply recording a traditional lecture and splicing it into smaller videos will not result in the most engaging experience for students.
When distilling a traditional lecture into a series of shorter videos, it is important to think about the pedagogical techniques you would normally use in the classroom and how these approaches might translate to an online setting. Identifying how these approaches might be adapted into a video recording can help create a more engaging experience for students in your course.
Overall, the length of lecture videos and the ways in which they are structured directly impacts how students learn in a virtual setting. Recording short, interactive videos, as opposed to long lecture videos, is a powerful technique you can use to enhance student learning and engagement.
Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.
Guo, P. J., Kim, J., & Rubin, R. (2014, March). How video production affects student engagement: An empirical study of MOOC videos. In Proceedings of the first ACM conference on Learning@ scale conference (pp. 41-50).
Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational psychologist, 38(1), 43-52.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). How people learn II: Learners, contexts, and cultures. National Academies Press.
Christopher J. Minter