Recording lectures is good for students, good for instructors, and good for public health

I’ve been thinking of writing a post about my experiences with recording lectures in Intro Bio for a while, and, with coronavirus spreading, now seems like a good time to finally write it up. Overall, I think there have been a lot of different benefits — well beyond what I initially anticipated. And, at a time when we really don’t want sick students showing up in lecture halls, there’s a strong public health argument for recording lectures and setting up class structures so that sick students aren’t penalized for staying home.

Recording lectures doesn’t seem to have impacted attendance noticeably.
Before shifting to recording lectures, our main concern was that students might stop coming to class. But, as far as we can tell, this mostly hasn’t happened, probably because we use clickers in class. The clickers are optional (we calculate the grade two ways, with and without clickers, and use whichever is higher), and students can miss up to five classes without it impacting their clicker score. (We have two lectures a week, so that’s 2.5 weeks of class.) But, even with those allowances, students are pretty highly motivated to come to class, hopefully because they find the in class exercises and discussion useful, but I know a lot of it is because of clicker points. I think adding in the clickers had a big positive impact on attendance, which much more than offset any dropoff in attendance from recording the lectures. (In a twitter discussion of this, it seems that some share my experience of not noticing an impact on lecture attendance, while others report that it has impacted it. Please share your experiences in the comments!)

Recording lectures means that students who are ill (or have a death in the family or some other life event) can miss class and still catch up later.
While recording lectures hasn’t had a noticeable impact on class attendance, students attending class isn’t always a good thing! I want my students to learn about infectious diseases, not spread them. Recording lectures helps with that. Students sometimes write me worried about what to do since they’re sick but don’t want to fall behind. I encourage them not to come to class, remind them that all the lectures are recorded, and remind them that they can miss five classes without their (optional) clicker points being impacted. 

In the context of coronavirus, I think there are a few key things for instructors:

  • Record lectures and make them available to all students. (This is straightforward for many classes at Michigan, thanks to Lecture Capture integrating with Canvas.)
  • If you have a component of the grade that relates to attendance, make it optional and/or make it so that students can miss several classes without it impacting their grade. Otherwise, you are encouraging sick people to come to your classroom. Given where we’re at now in terms of public health recommendations, I think “miss several classes without it impacting their grade” should probably be “miss many classes without it impacting their grade”. 
  • MAKE SURE STUDENTS KNOW ABOUT THE PREVIOUS TWO POINTS! This is important because, even near the end of the semester, I still talk with students who are surprised to learn that they can miss several classes without it impacting their clicker points. That always makes me wonder how many students are coming to class when they are sick just for those points.

Students who attend every lecture still use the lecture recordings.
Lots of students tell me that they use the lecture recordings to review — either rewatching the whole lecture or reviewing particular portions of it. Sometimes they do this at higher (1.5-2X) speed — one weird part of recording lectures is walking into a room and hearing yourself sounding like a chipmunk! If they are just passively rewatching the lecture, I’m not sure this would be a very effective study strategy, based on what we know about how people learn. But I can see how rewatching parts of it could be very helpful.

Recording lectures helps make your class more inclusive.
Our lectures are 80 minutes long, which is a long time! One student with ADHD told me that she would watch the lecture again later in chunks, which allowed her to get much more out of it — after the first 20 minutes or so of lecture, she isn’t really able to focus well enough. I suspect there are a lot of students like her, given the number of students we have with accommodations. Lecture recordings can also help students who are not native English speakers, for whom reviewing the material or going through it more slowly might help. I try not to move at warp speed, but I’m sure I talk faster than is ideal sometimes. And there are other groups of students who likely particularly benefit, including those with family responsibilities like caring for a child or parent. Overall, while I think a lot of different students benefit from the recordings, I suspect that particular groups of students especially benefit.

The recordings have also been helpful to me!
This is not something I anticipated when making the shift, so it’s been a pleasant surprise. There have been a few times where, after class, I was unsure if I’d been confusing about something or was worried I’d said something that was wrong. The recordings meant that I could review exactly what I said. In one case, I did a quick check just before an exam, because I was worried I’d said something wrong in a review session. I hadn’t. (Phew!) In another case, a student challenged a question on an exam. I reviewed my notes and thought things seemed fine. But then I watched the lecture, and realized how a student could have come away thinking that other answer was correct, so I regraded (for everyone) to accept that second answer. I’m glad I had a way of reviewing what I’d said in both of those cases!

The recordings also help new instructors.
When new people rotate into Intro Bio — or, in my case last semester, begin teaching a new section of it — it’s incredibly helpful to have the recordings. First, this helped me see how other instructors teach the material. I had the great privilege of watching recordings by two excellent instructors and could learn from how they explained challenging concepts. Second, it helped me anticipate what sorts of things students would ask questions about. That was also really helpful. I really strongly encourage students to ask questions, and they do, which is great — but which also can be a little scary when teaching material that I’m less familiar with. (Hello, meiosis!) So, it was great to have the opportunity to review what questions came up in earlier classes and how the instructors responded to them. I’m very grateful that my colleagues were willing to share those recordings!

Intro Bio is a really challenging course to teach, in part because it covers a whole lot of ground. No one knows all of it well before teaching it. Recordings make it easier for new instructors to rotate into the course, which is a really good thing.

Overall, I’m a fan of recording lectures. It hasn’t had a noticeable impact on attendance, it definitely helps students, and, to my surprise, it’s helped me, too. And, especially at a time when we really don’t want sick students to feel compelled to attend class, it’s a public health issue.

(Some folks might also be interested in my recent experiences with recording office hours, which was a bit more logistically complicated.)

I’m curious to hear from other instructors, especially because I realize my experiences are not universal! If you’re an instructor and have recorded classes, what has your experience been like? If you haven’t recorded classes (especially lectures) before, what are your thoughts about lecture recordings?

I’d also love to hear from students about their experiences — have you had classes that were recorded? Do you think it changed how you engaged with course material? If so, how? Are there things that you think would have been an improvement?

14 thoughts on “Recording lectures is good for students, good for instructors, and good for public health

  1. I had an interesting experience last semester in a course very different from Intro Bio. I teach a small-enrolment Entomology course (typically about a dozen students) at the 3rd/4th year level. (At UNB, there’s not a lot of distinction between 3rd and 4th year courses; my Entomology attracts mostly 4th years). This year, half way through the semester I got a panicked phone call from colleagues at another university in my region – their Entomology professor had gone on sudden medical leave, and they didn’t have a backup. 55 students with no plan B!

    Turns out our syllabi were fairly close, just in a different order. So I began recording my lectures – audio only, but I quickly revised my Powerpoints to have a slide-transition “BONG” just like those old books-on-tape-for-toddlers. I could then upload my Powerpoints and my audiofiles to the course D2L at the other university, and students could watch at their leisure. (Some of them arranged to watch together, during the scheduled course time, which I think was brilliant active strategizing on their parts). I did have to go back and record versions of about 10 lectures I’d already given – those one didn’t include student qustions. I also had my students give mini-lectures of their own as part of their course grade. All were willing to be recorded, so the students at the other university got those too.

    Was this as good as the live-action prof I replace? Of course not! Was it better than cancelling a course half-way through? I think we vaulted that very low bar.

    Of course, since I was recording lectures anyway, I uploaded them to my OWN course D2L too – even the ones I hadn’t actually recorded “live” in class. Some of my students used these a lot. It didn’t affect attendance at all – but I had the weird experience of having a dozen extremely keen students, and for the first time in many years I had virtually 100% attendance. I don’t know how it would have impacted attendance in a more “normal” course. But: I actually don’t care about attendance. I care about how the students learn – so my worry with recording is that *because the lectures are available*, the students won’t come, and that trying to learn from recording-only will hurt their grade. That’s a tough thing to measure, empirically.

    Gosh, long comment. Probably should have just made this a blog post!

    • Oh, that’s a very interesting experience! And that’s so great that you stepped in to help.

      I totally agree that my primary concern is whether students are learning. For some students, coming to lecture and sitting in them is not the best way for them to learn. For example, one student came up to me around halfway through the semester. She was doing really well in the course, and felt that attending lecture wasn’t helping her. So, I reminded her that the clicker points are optional (and added the info that, for students doing very well in the course, they tend not to have a big impact on the grade anyway) and agreed with her that coming to class might not be useful for her. But, for many students, I think it’s really hard to have the discipline to stay on top of the material, and to do the problems that we do in class, rather than just skipping forward in the video to the explanation. I suspect you agree, given that you mentioned that the students gathering to watch the lectures during their normal class time was a good strategy. I think that was a great solution for staying on top of lecture materials! And then there’s the peer-to-peer learning that occurs during the discussions with neighbors during clicker questions. Not all students engage in that part of the course, but I think the students who do gain a lot.

      • Yes, definitely, some students will learn better from recordings than in-person attendance! I do worry, though – because I know my own behaviour well – about students who don’t come to class because they COULD listen to the recordings, but actually don’t. And in my case, with the remote learning, the recordings were all they had and it was on them to schedule listening. I’m not sure I would have done a good job of that scheduling, if I were in their shoes…

  2. Rather than no impact on attendance, I have experienced sometimes dramatic drops in attendance particularly when other assignments are due in a time of lecture recording. I am not sure that this is a causal relationship, but students in recent years, particularly last semester seem to have a different attitude towards their studies. They seem to be very passive about it. Students seem to feel that they don’t need to go to lectures because that information will be provided in other ways, isn’t relevant for the specific assignment they have been given or conflicts with their otherwise busy schedules.

    I have the impression that lecture recording is creating a culture that learning should be passive – you turn on a video on your computer screen and the information flows directly at you. But for me, this is not how university education should be, it should be an interactive two-way discussion, even in very large lecture-based classes. It is very hard to create interaction with lecture recording as the primary mode of communication between staff and students and we might be shifting academic culture for many of our students away from how many of them might learn best.

    In the smaller classes that I teach, I have been moving away from lectures all together towards more interactive sessions where the learning really does happen in the classroom. The only issue is that if the larger academic culture is that students don’t feel they need to attend classes to learn, the students who don’t attend in these much more interactive course environments will really struggle in the course. I have watched the shift where student realize that they do have to attend and engage to do well. That shift can be quite transformational too. I have watched students really take ownership over their learning and go from obtaining average grades to doing really well!

    From my experiences, although I do believe there are many great reasons to record lectures, I think there are also reasons to be cautious about completely adopting this approach in all learning environments. Since lecture recording has been introduced at my university a few years ago, I think I am observing a cultural shift occurring towards passive student engagement that could be detrimental to the interactive learning environment that I think is most valuable and enjoyable for students and lecturers alike.

    • I definitely agree that students shouldn’t be passively receiving information, even in large lectures! We try to intersperse different problems/activities throughout lecture (though definitely could do a better job of this). Many of those are in the form of clicker questions, and I think it’s the combination of clicker questions + the potential for that to help their grade that keeps most of them coming to class. And the reason we set it up so that clickers can only help their grades is because we want to really encourage attendance, since we think it’s helpful. (“We” indicates the instructors who were involved in overhauling the course back in 2014. I taught alone last semester and will again next fall, but maybe of the structures were settled on by a small group of us.) But I still think the recordings are helpful for the inevitable cases where a student can’t make it. So, I guess the tension lies in finding a balance between making it possible for a student to catch up on what went on in class even if they couldn’t make it, without making it so tempting that they skip class to the detriment of their learning.

  3. Meg I am interested to hear that you calculate your final grade with and without clicker scores. Do you think that having this option has affected attendance among the less motivated students? Introducing clicker quizzes in every lecture is the one thing that has boosted attendance in my 8am E&E class. I also drop the five lowest but had not thought of making it optional. By the way, I have never recorded my lectures because of the concern that students would stop turning up. It’s a thorny question, but obviously very timely.

    • Teaching at 8AM is definitely a challenge! In my class (which has two back-to-back sections, both in the afternoon), I don’t think we’d see substantially higher attendance if the clicker points weren’t optional, but that’s just a guess. That’s mainly on a sense that most students really want to try to get all available points — especially pretty easy ones. There are still some students who never show up — some of those do very well, some do not. Would some of those students who aren’t currently doing well in the class and aren’t currently attending lecture show up if the clicker points weren’t optional? I guess probably some, but I also know for some of them it’s life events that are keeping them from engaging more. That said, it definitely might play out differently for an 8 AM course! At that time, it being optional might make it easier to decide to sleep in that day!

      One thing I worry about with the clickers is some students, such as the one I described in the post with ADHD, are kind of wasting their time in class just to get the clicker points. But one aspect of teaching, especially these big courses, is that there will always be tradeoffs! I think they really help a lot of students, so I plan on keeping them.

      Another thing I like about the system we use is that, by keeping it low stakes, I hope that it makes students less likely to be tempted to cheat (e.g., by asking a friend to click in for them in class).

  4. Re: the effects of recording lectures on attendance, I’ll just leave this here. It’s from Real Genius. Make sure to watch to the very end:


    Re: clickers and attendance, here at Calgary (large public research uni), in my large-ish intro biostats course (~130 students), I use clicker questions to encourage attendance, and to find out if students are grasping what I’m teaching. I ask at least one clicker question in most class sessions, sometimes as many as 3-4. I generally have the students talk to their neighbor about the answer for 30-60 seconds before answering. Students are *not* marked on correctness, so there’s zero stakes in terms of getting the questions right. They *are* marked on how many questions they answer: they have to answer 75% of the clicker questions asked during the term to get the participation mark, which is 5% of the course mark. It’s roughly the difference between, say, a B and a B+, or a B+ and an A-, etc. If they don’t answer 75% of the clicker questions they get a 0 for participation, so it’s an all-or-nothing thing. Making the threshold 75% gives them a buffer if they have to miss the occasional class due to illness or whatever; it’s my announced policy that they can’t make up or get excused from clicker questions. And having a sharp threshold of 75% obliges them to attend most of the classes, which on the margins probably encourages a few students to attend appreciably more than they otherwise would have. If the participation mark was just “the percentage of clicker questions that you answered”, a few students would only bother to attend half the classes or whatever. What ends up happening in practice is that the vast majority of students attend most or all classes, and a few students attend few or none (the latter group probably wouldn’t attend no matter what the attendance policy was; how to get those students to attend is a different and much more challenging issue). Attendance is appreciably higher compared to what it was before I adopted this clicker system. Used to be that about 90/130 students attended most/all classes. Now it’s more like 120/130.

    I haven’t seen any downsides to not marking the students on the accuracy of their clicker question answers. My clicker questions are all multiple choice, and the vast majority of students try to answer the questions correctly. Very few just immediately answer “A” purely to get the participation mark.

    Just sharing what I do. I don’t have any strong blanket opinions about whether clicker questions should be marked for correctness, or different ways of using clickers to encourage attendance, or etc. What I do works for me and my students, but YMMV.

    • Sometimes, there’s a student clicking in for an answer option that isn’t there (say, clicking “D” on a question with only three answer choices). For students who are not paying attention and just randomly guessing, I’m not sure why they wouldn’t always go with A!

      As for points: we say they can get up to 2 clicker points per class. One is for getting at least half of the questions correct. One is for answering at least 75%. But, for a variety of reasons (including the logistics of running the clickers in back-to-back classes & then grading them), I might change the way we grade them next year. It doesn’t really matter, though — almost everyone gets either 0 or 2 points in a given class session.

  5. Great post thanks! I’ve only ever taught at regional Australian unis that focus on mixed online/on-campus learning, so recorded lectures is the norm. All of your points are spot on. The first point about attendance may likely become reality, as we find here too. It is definitely frustrating to have to deliver a lecture to 2 students occasionally, but I think the benefits outlined in your other points outweigh that

    • One thing your comment reminds me of is that it really helps for class the day before Thanksgiving. I feel bad canceling a class entirely (and am not sure what the official university rules would be about doing so), but also understand that many students want to travel that day. So, I remind them that it will be recorded, and then just accept that, especially in the second lecture, it will be me and about 15 students. (Normally it’s hundreds per section!)

  6. I recorded most of my lectures for 6 years prior to my University deciding to record all lectures – none of my colleagues did – and I was able to check on who was downloading the recordings….they were rarely if ever accessed by serial non-attenders, but mainly by those who were most interested in the topic and wanting to revisit aspects useful for their assessments. Of course I have no idea if downloads were passed on but in those first six year there was little difference in attendance and drop-off rates between my classses and those of my colleagues, and that pattern continued in the years when all lectures were recorded.

  7. Sorry if I missed it, but recorded how? I’ve toyed with recording for one of my larger classes (~100 students) and was pleased with the effort. I provided audio from each lecture plus written notes with definitions, key illustrations, etc. (The latter I do for all my classes.)

    Method: Start talking, set up voice recorder on my phone, place phone on the chalk rack of the blackboard, upload audio file to course website later that day.

    Your method… video? If so, did you do this yourself or have IT set it up, etc? And thanks!

  8. Pingback: Recording lectures is good for students, good for instructors, and good for public health — Dynamic Ecology | The Waterthrush Blog

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