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JEE SELECTS - Research in Practice

JEE Selects

Screen Savers

Short video tutorials and minilectures can boost student performance.


Michael, an undergraduate taking a technical elective outside of his major, has a common problem. Since he studies late at night, he can’t ask the professor to explain the homework problem he solved incorrectly. His professor created a series of supplemental screencasts—short videos in which she works through homework problems and explains difficult concepts. Will watching these videos help students like Michael?

In prior work, we reported that students who view screencasts are more likely to earn higher grades, even after controlling for such academic characteristics as prior grade-point averages. However, screencasts tend to help some groups more than others. Gender, race, ethnicity, academic level, and citizenship status were not significantly related to any benefits of screencast use. By contrast, incoming familiarity with course topics, which depends in part on a student’s major, was most salient. Among students with similar academic characteristics, those with less prior exposure to the course material had more to gain by viewing screencasts.

Given the tangible improvements in student performance, we sought to answer the following research questions: How do students use the screencasts and perceive their helpfulness? Do students’ perceptions of screencast helpfulness match the reality of student performance? Given the benefits of screencast use, why would students choose not to use them?

In an introductory course in materials science and engineering, we collected data for two semesters on how often students used screencasts. We surveyed 397 students before the end of each semester (262 respondents, 66 percent response rate) to learn why they used screencasts and whether they gained a deeper understanding by viewing them.

Most students felt screencasts were helpful; nearly 80 percent used them to study for exams. Students tended to use minilectures that explained specific concepts to fill in gaps in their notes. The majority of students watched screencasts from start to finish—approximately 20 minutes for homework explanations and seven minutes for minilectures. Those who reported doing so were also significantly more likely to report understanding those concepts more deeply. This finding has the potential to support self-efficacy and the related “expectancy value” theory by exploring whether students value screencasts and whether they are motivated to use these resources to perform well in a given course.

We explored the relationship between this deeper understanding and perform-ance on one specific exam question. For students like Michael with less prior exposure to course concepts, we found that those who reported a deeper understanding tended to perform better on this exam problem. They also received higher final course grades; final letter grades improved by up to one third, rising to an A minus from a B plus, for example. These students with less prior exposure had a more significant positive correlation between screencast use and final course grade when compared with students who entered the course more familiar with these concepts.

Some students chose not to use the screencasts. Those who said they didn’t need extra help correctly assessed their situation and received higher grades than students who expressed any other reason for not using screencasts. In contrast, students who forgot or ran out of time received lower course grades. The forgetful students included a subset who also reported they did not need the additional assistance. It is unclear whether these trends demonstrate the value of screencasting or simply reflect the students’ own poor time management.

Our research affirms the benefits of screencasting for particular students. These tools offer additional exposure to important concepts, and because they are brief, easy to use, and optional, they are manageable for busy students who may feel overwhelmed. Screencasts have the potential to level the playing field for those who enter a course at a disadvantage because of less prior exposure to the material.


Tershia Pinder-Grover is an assistant director at University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) and CRLT in Engineering (CRLT-Engin). Joanna Mirecki Millunchick is a professor of materials science and engineering and a faculty associate at CRLT-Engin. Katie R. Green is currently a research associate at the University of Michigan. This article is based on “Impact of Screencast Technology: Connecting the Perceptions of Usefulness and the Reality of Performance” in the October 2012 Journal of Engineering Education. (Supported by the University of Michigan’s CRLT, Investigating Student Learning grants program, and the College of Engineering)

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