Could Video Feedback Replace the Red Pen?

Screenshot 2015-01-24 08.12.56

Stills from a video critique by Monash U.’s Michael Henderson.

Writing useful comments on students’ work can be a fine art. And for instructors who put a lot of effort into crafting a critique, there’s always a substantial risk students will skip the written feedback and go right to the grade.

When Michael Henderson is grading his students’ final assignments, he likes to skip the written comments for them. Instead of a red pen, Mr. Henderson, a senior lecturer in education at Monash University, in Australia, takes out a video camera. He records a five-minute, unscripted critique for each student. He doesn’t bother editing the videos, even if he says “um” a lot or has to rephrase a sentence or two.

Mr. Henderson and Michael Phillips, a colleague on the education faculty, have been doing it this way for about five years. They say their students prefer video feedback, finding it clearer and seemingly more sincere than written notes, notwithstanding the lack of polish. And making the videos takes the instructors less time, on average, than would writing out comments longhand.

The two Monash instructors recently wrote about their video-feedback method, in a paper that analyzes survey responses and unsolicited notes from 126 of their students. “A surprising theme in the data was that students reported that they felt the feedback to be ‘real,’ ‘honest,’ and ‘authentic,’” they wrote in the paper, which will appear in a coming issue of the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, a peer-reviewed journal.

Short-form, do-it-yourself videos are having a moment in higher education. In September, Goucher College said its admissions office would allow applicants to submit two-minute videos about themselves in lieu of grades, test scores, and recommendations. The former hedge-fund manager Salman Khan has created a miniature empire with videos he originally recorded to teach mathematics to his 12-year-old cousin; the succinct tutorials on his website, Khan Academy, have greatly influenced how universities are now designing their digital content. The vogue of the “flipped classroom” has prompted professors everywhere to rework their lectures into video segments that students can watch before class.

Instructor feedback seems like a natural fit for video, especially because short videos have become easy for anyone to make and distribute. The Monash instructors, for example, recorded theirs with webcams and iPhones. And yet they found few documented cases of similar experiments in the research literature. Most studies have focused on videos directed at an entire class, they said, rather than ones tailored to individual students.

The video method has some drawbacks. Students said it can be more difficult to match specific parts of a video to relevant passages in their papers; printed notes in the papers’ margins might have made the connection easier. Some also said that looking their professors in the eye during the recorded assessments made them anxious—a possible downside of the intimacy that others seemed to appreciate.

I told Mr. Henderson about a philosophy professor at my alma mater who used to make his students come to his office, one by one, and read their papers aloud. Immediately after we finished reading, he would explain what we had gotten right and wrong, then tell us our grades. Mr. Henderson said that is a common practice in some university traditions. He said video-based feedback, while not as interactive, can capture a similar intimacy in a less-ephemeral way.

“That kind of feedback can be incredibly rich and meaningful,” he said. “However, there is a limit to what you can process and take away with you, and there can be a degree of performance anxiety where you are worrying so much about what you need to say next or how to respond that you are not paying as much attention to the meaning and implications of the feedback itself.”

In other words, face-to-face reckonings can be great, but they don’t have a rewind button.

Even with Mr. Henderson and Mr. Phillips’s paper, the body of research on video-based feedback remains small. It appears that some students like receiving critiques in that way. Whether the videos make it more likely that students will take the feedback to heart is a different question.

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