Scaffolding The Video Essay: An Alternative Research Assignment

Aaron Ettinger, Carleton University

I’d never laughed with joy at a student presentation before.

Usually, any amusement while grading arises from some malapropism or logical leap that only an undergraduate could construct. But this was different.

My delight came from an exquisitely selected YouTube clip that was embedded in online presentation, submitted as part of group project in a third-year political science class. (What was so funny? An exceptionally whimsical journalist in New Zealand, looking into the disposal of tampons in Wellington. More on that in a minute). Alone at my kitchen table, teaching from home, I had to hit pause to let myself cool down.

Once I settled down, I knew that I’d hit pedagogical gold: the video essay as preliminary step on the way to formal research paper. It was an answer to a pedagogical question I did not realize needed to be answered: how can I design a better scaffolded research assignment?

The scaffolded, or multi-stage research assignment, is a common feature of the undergraduate curriculum. Over the past decade, pedagogical research on the topic has swollen with how-to articles across many disciplines. Breaking up a complex project into smaller tasks is a useful way teach students how to manage large assignments. Theoretically, the “work-in-progress” approach should result in a better final product and sharpen academic skills along the way. But often it does not, and the result is wasted effort and wasted time.

Too often, professors treat undergrads as mini academics-in-training. They build assignments designed to prepare them, as Thomas Kuhn might say, “for membership in the particular scientific community with which [the student] will later practice.” In the political science classroom, the sequence typically runs like this: research proposal, first draft, professor comments and revisions, then a final draft. Maybe there is a classroom presentation squeezed in there too. I saw this as a teaching assistant and, as a faculty member, I still see it on my colleagues’ syllabi. The problem is that the academic research process does not transpose neatly into the undergraduate classroom. The proposal-to-paper pathway only engages students in a single, formal genre of knowledge development. It may work for students bound for grad school, but for most others, the multi-step revision process is a chore. Moreover, it overlooks better ways to engage students, develop non-academic presentation skills, and make online learning more collaborative.

The proposal-to-paper pathway only engages students in a single, formal genre of knowledge development. It may work for students bound for grad school, but for most others, the multi-step revision process is a chore. Moreover, it overlooks better ways to engage students, develop non-academic presentation skills, and make online learning more collaborative.

The Video Essay

In my classroom, the video essay was a necessary adaptation to the move online in the Fall 2020 semester. I often relied on the dreaded front-of-the classroom presentations, and, like many others, tried to replicate my face-to-face pedagogy in the online world. The video essay turned out to be a pedagogical revelation. It allowed me to develop a scaffolded assignment structure that was pedagogically sound and well suited to the online teaching environment.

The setting for my experiment was a third-year Global and Comparative Politics class at Carleton University on Ottawa, Canada. The centrepiece of the course is a student-led unit on global production networks in the twenty-first century. In small groups, students track the political and geographical story of a consumer product in the global economy, from raw materials extraction, to production, to disposal. I had run this assignment for years, both as individual research essays and group projects. But I never had greater success than when I ran it online, as a group project, with the video essay right in the middle.

There are four steps to this scaffolded assignment:

First, I had students assemble themselves into small groups of two or three and select any consumer product they find interesting. Perennial favourites include bananas or coffee or chocolate or the iPhone. But I can always count on something more unexpected like the Himalayan salt lamp and, yes, the tampon. I provide two pre-recorded demo lectures to give the students a sense of what I’m looking for.

Second, students produce a video essay that presents what they have learned so far. Three groups present in each week, for three weeks. Groups upload 30 to 40-minute videos two days before the scheduled online class meeting. By presentation day, I expect that groups be able to identify the broad trends associated with the political economy of that product and present that information in an engaging way. Everyone else views the video essays and comes to class with questions. This component is worth 15% of the overall term grade. Though I don’t grade on production quality, most students put considerable effort into making their videos look as polished as possible. Ultimately, members of each group share the same grade.

Third, during the synchronous meeting time, the groups field questions from the class. Students not presenting that day are then responsible for writing peer review comments. I read, grade, and anonymize the comments before passing them along to the relevant group. The peer review component is an individual score and is worth 10% of the term grade.

Fourth, groups submit a formal research paper two weeks after their presentation date. The research paper must contain a more mature version of the presentation material and must reflect new research, my advice, and peer review comments. This capstone is worth 30% of the term. Like the presentation, group members share the same mark.

But does it work?

That’s the key question and I cannot yet say for sure that it does. However, evidence from cognitive science suggests that the prospects are good. Converting preliminary research to video essay and again to a research paper involves well-established techniques for improving memory like visualization, elaborative rehearsal, reading aloud, and repetition. Anecdotally, I can say that most students are responsive to key revisions in that final conversion process, especially when it comes from their peers first.

There are at least three additional benefits to the video essay that are worth considering.

The most important is student engagement. Recognizing that not all students love the academic style and epistemology, the video essay engages multiple forms of knowledge production. Research for the video essay draws upon both popular and scholarly sources. What matters is how the material is curated and presented at this interim stage of the scaffolded assignment. Similarly, the video essay avoids the formalism of academic work. Students can break free of stilted academic language and talk normally about their chosen topic. All of this avoids treating students like graduate students-in-training and engages learning on a broader civic level. My hope is that by engaging more students in the production of knowledge in different ways, I can make the learning process more inclusive.

The second benefit is skills development. My students video essays were presented in various ways: through Zoom screen share filmed in a single take, through YouTube clips embedded in slides, through voice-overs on PowerPoint. By producing long-form videos, students develop useful presentation skills and competencies with new software. Moreover, the different technical aspects of video production allow students to deploy their own talents in creative ways. Some are more interested in the “back end” elements of video production (design/recording/engineering/editing etc.), while others are more interested in the forward-facing components. Hopefully, students will be sufficiently absorbed with the topic when it comes time to convert the video essay into a traditional academic research paper.

Third, the video essay is ideal for online course delivery. It uses the different modes of online teaching without wasting precious class time. Asynchronous viewing lets students (and the instructor) work at their own pace. The synchronous question and answer period in the live online classroom makes full use of scarce classroom hours. Moreover, the ease of remote video production and viewing allows students to work in safely-distanced settings, which at the time of writing should be the priority.

And when this pandemic ends and I return to the face-to-face classroom, I will keep the video essay as part of curriculum. Its benefits are simply too promising to give up.

Aaron Ettinger is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. In 2021 he received the Canadian Political Science Association Award for Teaching Excellence.

Aaron Ettinger is a guest contributor to APSA Educate. The views expressed in the articles featured on APSA Educate are those of the authors and do not represent APSA’s views.



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