Teaching tip: Start lectures with a short video

“Okay. Let’s get started… Okay everyone. It’s time to start. Okay…Alright. Time to start. Okay…..” If you’ve ever taught a large lecture, you may have found yourself standing in front of the room saying things along those lines for the first minute or two of class. It’s really awkward and such an unsatisfying way to start class. So, when I started teaching Intro Bio with Trisha Wittkopp back in 2014, I loved her idea: start class with a short (1-2 min long) video clip that relates to that day’s lecture. (Perhaps it’s not surprising that I loved this idea, given that I maintain a list of videos for teaching ecology.)

Following Trisha’s lead, I’ve started every lecture I’ve taught since then with a video. Most are in the 1-2 minute range, though the occasional one runs longer. Some of the videos give a short introduction to a system we’ll discuss that day (e.g., I showed a clip from this TED talk on malaria at the start of my population ecology lecture, since I talked about population dynamics of malaria within hosts.) Some of the videos provide an example that introduces the topic of that day’s lecture (e.g., I use this video about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone to start the food web lecture – starting class with wolves howling is lots of fun! And, yes, I am aware of the controversy related to whether the wolves really are responsible for the changes.) Or sometimes it’s a news report that relates to the day’s materials (e.g., I show a clip from a Toledo news station from when the city’s water supply was shut down by a Microcystis bloom a few years ago, setting up a lecture where we talk about factors that influence productivity; that class includes how one reason we care about this is that sometimes productivity is higher than we’d like).

Students love the videos – it’s a common response on teaching evaluations when students are asked to name something they liked about the course. It helps set up the material for the day. And it gives a clear signal to the class that the class is starting and they need to settle down, without the awkwardness of me saying “Okay, let’s get started” a dozen times.

If you use this tip, make sure that all the videos are captioned. Some of the videos we showed were captioned by the university captioning service; others were captioned by me (the university captioning service paid for me to get a license after we overwhelmed them with our captioning needs). Having the captions helps students who are hearing impaired, students with a noisy neighbor, students who are English language learners, and surely other students, too.

I knew I liked starting lectures with videos, but I remembered just how frustrating the old way was when I did a review session before our final exam and didn’t have a video to start. The review session was optional (and was recorded so students didn’t have to attend in person), so the students who were there were presumably pretty motivated; still, it still took me 1-2 minutes to get them quiet enough to get started. (Hundreds of students chit-chatting is a lot of noise!)

So, my tip (which I learned from Trisha who learned it from someone else): start class with a video! If you teach ecology and need some ideas, this post should get you started.

8 thoughts on “Teaching tip: Start lectures with a short video

  1. Nice tip, thanks! I usually played the video about the Yellowstone wolves at the end of a class, I think I’ll try playing it in the beginning this year.

    I was also thinking of playing videos while waiting for students who are late – in some places it’s cultural, I once taught a class where half the students arrived 30-40 minutes after the class began and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

    …The problem is finding good videos to teach statistics… Any suggestions?

  2. Thanks for this idea! I think it would work well for the non-majors classes I am teaching. I use the wolves video you linked to in a class activity about being critical of how information is presented (while that video is cool they don’t cite any sources or give specific data). I show a couple other videos about the same subject and have them assess how credible each one is along with how much they liked or enjoyed each one, to see how they can balance looking for reliable information and good science communication.

  3. This is a great idea! In my medium- large class (100 students), I always start with a clicker question. (We use clickers all the time so the students know what to do). It’s always a review from last time, and it’s up on the screen as they walk in, so some answer right away and others start discussing it. I usually give them a 30 second warning to finish, then we discuss & move on to one or two more. I’ve found they really quickly settle in when they have some responsibility and it gets everyone in the right mind frame for class. (I do it before announcements, introducing guest speakers etc. )

    I think in either case, one thing that really helps here is the rhythm/ signalling. Once students know the signal for class is really starting, they are pretty good at responding!

    • Agreed; I have used Plickers at the beginning of most classes also, as I believe it helps set up the class, gets the brains engaged, and initiates discussions. I like the idea of adding a brief video to launch a discussion, too – perhaps as a follow-up. I think I’ll try it.

  4. Via Twitter:

    I suspect readers will split between “what a great idea!” and “it is ridiculous that a college instructor would need to resort to this”. 🙂

  5. This is an interesting idea.
    I’ve also seen instructors solve this problem by playing music (I haven’t had the opportunity to try this because I’m a graduate student and we do not teach lectures at my university.) When you get to the lecture rooom, start playing music (not too loud to stop conversations but loud enough that everyone can hear it). Then, when you’re ready to start, turn the music off. This change signals to students that class is starting and usually results in everyone stopping their conversations. One of my colleagues swears by this technique, and has repeatedly told me how nice it is not to have to spend the first few minutes calling students to attention.

  6. Good note on the subtitles. I tried to always get subtitles after a couple students asked for that. Now I am finding out all the BBC/Attenburgh videos do not have subtitles! Argh!!!

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