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November 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 3

Show Me the Way

Watching their own learning on video leads students to powerful self-assessment.

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Imagine an assessment that could show teachers clearly how students are learning as well as what they have learned. What if teachers could check to see whether all students have mastered a learning task and observe each individual student's performance at the same time? What if students could objectively witness and assess their own learning process—and explore with teachers how they could improve that learning process? Using digital video feedback can lead to such assessment.
The practice of digital video feedback is straightforward: I regularly videotape my students in class—and sometimes myself—engaging in various learning situations and lessons. I either show the resulting footage immediately to students to highlight a positive learning behavior or edit the video and include it as an element of a future lesson. By turning the camera on ourselves, we receive immediate feedback on teaching and learning behaviors in the classroom.
Quick feedback is key to unlocking student interest. Our current generation of students—what some researchers call the Game Generation—has grown up playing video games and using the Internet as a means of learning and entertainment. As a result, many students expect to receive feedback and some kind of gratification right after they expend effort on a task. This is why students who seem unable to focus in class can spend hours honing their video game skills. The instant response that a video game provides keeps children actively engaged. As Mark Prensky notes,Video games provide immediate feedback in scoring and in visual and auditory stimulus, which allows learners to more quickly modify their learning strategies before the ineffective ones become entrenched.
Digital video feedback capitalizes on the power of immediate feedback for students in this age group.

The Accidental Beginning

Last school year, I was preparing a workshop for educators in our district on managing writers workshops. I decided to videotape one of my own writers workshops—including peer conferences and my student-teacher conferences—to demonstrate the strategies that I would be explaining.
As I viewed the tape to prepare for the professional development workshop, strengths and weaknesses in my students' ability to guide other writers immediately became clear. For example, students' comments were in general helpful to writers, highlighting important aspects of a story, but students often did not present their comments in a sensitive or appealing way. They often opened their commentary with a negative remark and started with the phrase you should rather than the subtler you could.
I tried to explain to my students what watching the tape had shown me about their conferencing. One student asked, “Can you show us what you're talking about?” I thought, “Why not?” As students watched their own conferences, I could tell that the message was getting through. Murmurs of “Aha!” and whispers of “Sorry I sounded so mean” went around the room. It dawned on me that I had made more progress in improving student conferencing through 30 minutes of showing this videotape than I would have made through 30 minilessons. I began filming and editing peer conferences about once a week to show to students as part of my mini-lessons.
As I watched my students' peer conferences improve more rapidly than ever, I realized what a powerful tool I had stumbled on. I began expanding it into other aspects of the curriculum. Digital video feedback is now part of my writing, reading, and science instruction, as well as a means of improving student behavior.

Speeding Up the Learning Curve

Reading instruction. I routinely videotape student book talks (small-group discussions about a text) and book club meetings and show this footage to students, pointing out positive learning behaviors. Viewing reading strategies in action and discussing them speeds up the learning curve tremendously. Students have begun to better understand what topics they can initiate during a book talk, and their discussion has grown more lively and productive. Many reading strategies that I strive to teach students—including prediction, compare and contrast, identifying the author's purpose, and identifying the main idea—have made their way into book talks as a result of students watching their peers apply these strategies on tape.
The following conversation, taken from a video of a student book talk comparing Louis Sachar's book Holes with Jerry Spinelli's Loser, shows how bringing to mind a strategy that students had seen their peers use livened up a stalled discussion.John: I'm not sure what to talk about. I've said it all already. What should we do?Jane: Yeah, I know. But remember how in the video we watched Donna talk about how the last chapter made her think of Zinkoff from Loser? This chapter made me think of Zinkoff, too. He was happy, but no one around him liked him.James: But no one likes Caveman.Jane: Yeah, just like no one likes Zinkoff.John: Yeah, but Caveman knows no one likes him. He's smarter.James: Friend-smarter.John: Zinkoff is clueless. He doesn't know anything. That's why he's so happy.James: Maybe it's better to be—not dumb, but clueless. Then you don't know how sad you're supposed to be.
Science. My students also routinely videotape their own science experiments and use the footage to report and assess their work. By rewinding the tape to observe each step they performed in an experiment, students can determine where they adhered to or strayed from the scientific method. This practice has made my science instruction more experiment-oriented and dramatically improved students' understanding of the basic principles of experimentation.
One experiment that I have students conduct is designed to determine what factors influence the size and shape of moon craters. Students drop marbles of differing sizes from a variety of heights and measure the size of the holes the marbles create. In viewing the videotape of their experiments, students immediately noticed how the methods of dropping the marbles and measuring crater size differed among groups of students. This recognition helped them see why their results were often inconsistent from group to group.
Classroom management. Digital video feedback has made a remarkable difference in the behavior of a number of my students and holds vast potential for turning around poor classroom conduct. Students need to recognize and understand the problems others have with their behavior before they can change. A school psychologist working with a student who exhibits disruptive behaviors often observes that student over a period of time and then describes to the student what he or she has noticed.
Digital video feedback takes this strategy one step further. It enables students to watch their own behavior in a classroom situation and compare their actions with those of their peers. Having the chance to assess their own and others' behavior without relying on an adult's judgment is a powerful experience and a potent tool, especially for students who cannot pick up well on instructional and social cues.
Overall, I have witnessed a dramatic increase in student learning through the use of digital video feedback. By becoming catalysts in developing their own learning strategies, my students have grown more confident and competent in their communication skills. Students who tend to be less introspective or observant now have a powerful tool with which they can observe and modify their behavior. This has helped put them on more equal footing with their peers.

Turning the Camera on the Teacher

Digital video feedback also helps me assess my own instruction. As teachers, we often work without much adult interaction, and it becomes difficult to honestly assess our own teaching skills. When I regularly watch my own instructional techniques on tape, however, I quickly see areas in need of improvement.
For example, after videotaping and watching my student-teacher writing conferences, I discovered that the problems I had seen in my students' peer conferencing also existed in my own interactions with students. In essence, my students had learned their conferencing behaviors from me. I realized that as much as the students might improve on their own, the only way to change conferencing in my classroom was to provide a better role model. This realization has made an enormous difference in the way I speak to students about their writing.

A New Role for Video

During the last five years, I have seen more and more teachers use digital video in the classroom, but generally with the aim of having students create their own videos to present information in an entertaining way. Although I see a benefit to using video this way, as a book lover I question whether the time it takes to teach a student to shoot and edit a video could be better spent guiding them through a good book. But I hold no such reservations about practicing digital video feedback. Blending videotaped observation into such fundamental classroom activities as writers workshop, scientific experimentation, and book talks gives students and teachers access to information that is available in almost no other way. Tapping into this information improves the way in which students learn, which will undoubtedly broaden what they learn.
End Notes

1 Prensky, M. (2001). Digital game-based learning. New York: McGraw Hill.

2 All student names are pseudonyms.

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