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'Watch-Think-Write' and Other Proven Strategies for Using Video in the Classroom

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Photo by Jan Bengten via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

One of the first things I added to my teacher tool kit during my first few years of teaching was video. As a science middle school teacher, I saw using documentaries as an effective strategy. After all, the interviewees and talking heads presented in videos are experts in their field, often working with cutting-edge tools that I could only dream of using. They also often had animations and visualizations that helped clarify ideas. Not only that, but by showing those documentaries, my students and I could  journey to places we’d never be able to go. In those early days, my planning time was often spent finding that “perfect” video that I could simply plug in, play and be done with the lesson.

I soon realized, however, that there was a problem with this approach. First, my students would often see this time as simply a form of entertainment. They would enter what I started calling “TV mode,” and instead of focusing on the content that I was so excited to show them, they would focus on the expert’s accent or on the cuteness of the animals showcased. Second, the plug and play approach limited my sources of video to documentaries and educational shows. Although these are rich source of information, I also saw opportunities in YouTube videos and commercial films. I remember watching Spiderman and thinking how great it would be to show the movie and discuss the different chase scenes in terms of Newton’s Laws of Motion. Although the idea sounded great, I also knew that I would not be able to explain to my administration and parents the use of this commercial movie as an educational experience. Never mind that it would, for sure, be seen as mere entertainment by my students. I needed ways to be able to circumvent these problems and use videos effectively.

As I continued on my journey, I finally understood that the key to using video effectively in the classroom is preparation. I could maximize the learning opportunities videos offer by encouraging students to become active viewers using a few simple tools and strategies.

Preparing the video:

  • Preview the video. It goes without saying, but you do have to watch the full clip that you’re interested in showing and make sure that, as you watch it, you are thinking about your specific students. Whether your selection comes from YouTube or PBS, you do not want to be surprised by inappropriate content or material that is way above the students’ maturity level. I learned this one the hard way while showing National Geographic’s “The Human Footprint.” As I was previewing I had my “teacher hat” on and failed to recognize that the section on Cleansing and Beauty Products would get my students tittering about the girl in the shower. Nothing is actually shown or inappropriate, but just the idea was enough to derail my middle schoolers!
  • Edit the video. Cut the video into smaller sections, showing only what you need. Vibby allows you to break up a video into highlighted sections. Once you click play, the “vib” will play the highlights and skip over whatever was not highlighted. You can also add comments, which makes it easy to provide students with specific focus points. (I have used Vibby to show clips of commercial action films to explain motion and forces concepts to my 8th graders, engaging them immediately because they recognize the scenes, often leading to discussions of how these films misrepresent the laws of physics.)
  • Insert pointed questions, comments and commentaries. I often insert the questions I want to pose to the class, using either Edpuzzle and PlayPosIt. Both tools work similarly, allowing you to add different question types (multiple choice, short answer, etc.) as well as comments and audio commentaries. The video automatically stops at question points, allowing for a more seamless discussion. Here is an example I use when discussing biogeochemical cycles in my 7th grade class.
  • Prepare guided notes. As you are previewing the video, think about  the key points and concepts you want your students to learn. Create your guided notes, leaving blanks for the information you want the students to write down.

One thing I’ve discovered is that it is also relatively easy to create your own videos using tools like screencast-o-matic or screencastify. In fact, a couple of years ago, as I was working with Better Lesson (a lesson plan and curriculum resource site), I did just that. I started by creating a screencast of myself teaching the concept. Then I Edpuzzled it and prepared my guided notes. I invite you to see the lesson in action at Better Lesson – Cladistics.

Before viewing:

  • Activate prior knowledge. To do this, I usually use a simple quick write, a chain note or a turn and talk. I want my students to start thinking about what they already know about the subject, which helps them make connections between the video and the content already explored.
  • Give a purpose for watching. State it clearly: “As you watch, pay attention to….” “You are looking for …” or “After watching you will ….” In my experience, this is the most important part of using videos effectively. Giving a purpose for watching almost guarantees that the students will not enter the “TV mode” I mentioned earlier, and, instead, will focus their attention on what you want them to learn from the video.

During viewing:

  • Pause often. Even when I decide not to embed questions or comments during the preparation phase, I find that it is important to pause the video to allow processing of the information,to address questions and facilitate discussions prompted by the video. I came upon this practice quite by accident one day after presenting a two-hour documentary on DNA (Cracking the Code). Some of the content was a little too much for my 7th graders, so I found myself pausing often to explain the finer details. Eventually, the students themselves started asking me to stop because they did not understand something. As I reflected on the day, I and chastising myself for “all the time wasted” that kept me  from moving  to  my next plan, I  realized that we had, in fact, covered what I wanted, and more! Not only that, but the kids had not even entered “TV mode.” The simple act of pausing had made the use of this video a more engaging and effective tool.
  • Watch-think-write. In tandem with the pausing, I find that I have to keep in mind that the students are completing the guided notes while watching the video. Most of my students instinctively try to write down the answers to the guided notes word for word as they are watching, afraid that they will not remember or have time later to complete them. In the writing flurry, key points are missed. Once I started pausing, it was easy to see the need for a specific protocol to follow while watching a video. I dubbed it the “watch-think-write” strategy. By using this protocol, my students are able to focus on the video, knowing they will have time to process and discuss what they watched.
    • Watch: Students watch the segment. No writing allowed.
    • Think: The whole class or table group discuss the segment. No writing allowed. (The time given for this is adjusted depending of the class and content.)
    • Write: Students are able to include the new information in their guided notes, and even summarize or pose new questions to address.

After viewing:

Once I had all the previous elements more or less in place, I found there were still times that “TV mode” reared its ugly head. That’s when I understood that even with all the video preparation, I still needed to provide a way for my students to  go beyond the guided notes they took. Here are some of the things that have worked for me:

  • Turn and talk. Students can discuss key points in partnerships, using their guided notes as a way to explain the content to each other.
  • Learning event. Using a “Did you know…?” format, students can create short sound bites to share with the class or with other classes.
  • Concept maps. Students can create concept maps based on prior knowledge and new ideas gleaned from the video segments.
  • Problem solvers. Students use information from the video to answer a question or solve a problem.
  • Video curators. Students find a video clip that explains a specific key point not clearly discussed in the original video presented, and share it with the class.
  • Video creators. Using the segment presented as a model, students develop their own educational videos or documentaries.

I still believe that using videos is a great way to engage students, and I continue to find myself looking for “perfect” videos. However, now that I have understood that there is a big difference between playing a movie and using videos as a teaching tool, I am a lot more strategic when including them. It does take some work, but your students and classroom will reap the benefits. Do you have other tools or tips to share? I would love to know about them.



Editor’s Note:


If you want to learn more about how to use media effectively in your classroom, take our free, online course Using Media as Core Text on KQED Teach.

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