Can Video Unlock the Mysteries of Journal Articles for Prospective Future Scientists?

To train the next generation of researchers, science educators at the university level need to help students achieve advanced scientific literacy. Accomplishing this requires teaching students to read the primary sources of their field, i.e. academic journal articles. These primary sources are, however, written for an audience of highly specialized experts, and as a consequence, learning to understand them requires a lot of time and effort from students and educators alike.

It makes sense then to start exposing students to these articles early in their university careers, which presents a longstanding conundrum: the material is frequently so difficult that many students fail to gain even a basic functional understanding of the articles during their first attempts. This experience can be demoralizing and stressful for students, leading to poor learning outcomes, which can push capable future scientists away from the field.

To solve this problem, Steve Joordens’ Advanced Learning Technologies Lab (ALT) at the University of Toronto Scarborough examined whether having scientists give accessible — but substantive — explanations of their research, via video as a potentially ideal way to bridge the gap between students’ ability and the expert-level knowledge they need to access. Done right, this should help students contextualize the information they need, while also humanizing research and researchers to help students connect with the field on a more personal level.

That said, to advance the practice of pedagogy, it is essential to differentiate between methods that seem good in theory and methods that are good in practice. So, with a shared commitment to giving students demonstrably effective educational experiences, the ALT Lab, where I am a postdoctoral researcher and was principal investigator for this particular effort, and SAGE Publishing [the parent of Social Science Space] partnering in a project to put theory to the test. This was done in a rigorously designed experiment conducted in the naturalistic context of an in-class writing assignment at a large (1,200 students) online psychology class at the University of Toronto Scarborough. We received support from Mitacs, a Canadian-based international not-for-profit organization that aims to solve business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.

In this study, learning outcomes were measured for students who have access to the video ‘primers’ and for a control group of students who receive the standard instruction and supports – i.e. no video — for the course. Learning outcomes we measured included a students’ ability to apply the information and their ability to remember core concepts from the research papers at a later date. Additionally, students provided feedback to the researchers throughout the writing assignment about their emotional and practical experiences.

This project draws from the library of case-study videos in the by SAGE Research Methods Video series. Videos in this library provide viewers with an accessible explanation of a study’s core concepts from the scientist who conducted the research, along with insights into their decision-making. By watching these videos, students get a first-hand account of how and why research is done.

Our preliminary analyses are already underway, and so far the results are promising. Drawing from data that is currently being written up as a research report that will be submitted to an international, peer-reviewed journal, five weeks after completing the writing assignment, students with access to the video explanations showed a 12 percent advantage on a knowledge and understanding quiz. This difference is both substantial and statistically significant, providing compelling evidence that the videos enhanced the learning experience in a meaningful way. And in keeping with the idea that video can unlock complex research ideas for the uninitiated, here’s a video discussion about our research between myself and Michael Carmichael, the director of visual media for SAGE:

In terms of video use and attitudes, 93 percent of students in the control group said they ‘would’ or ‘might’ use extra explanatory resources for understanding the research articles if they were available, and with students in the video group, this was mirrored by 91 percent reporting that they watched the video explanation for their article. Of the students who saw a video, 90 percent reported watching most or all of it, suggesting that they found it useful and/or engaging in the context of the assignment.

Further, 55 percent of students reported watching both the video for their topic article, as well as the video for the unused alternative article. In sum, these early results show that students overwhelmingly choose to engage with video explainers that assist their first forays into reading academic articles, and that this voluntary engagement allows them to get more out of the experience.

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Adam Frost

Adam Frost is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Toronto. His work focuses on cognitive neuroscience, where he runs experiments to understand how the brain controls the eyes and processes visual information. Beyond his core research, he is working on projects to communicate complex ideas in approachable ways to broaden the accessibility of expert knowledge.

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I teach research mehods to master level students in Russia. Your cite is a huge help. You discuss important research related issues. It helps me to adapt complicated ideas to the students understanding. Your site is one from very few that discusses how students perceive research and its practicality.
Thank you. Keep going!


Modern youngsyers are visuals, mainly. Videos do help them a lot in their studies in different subjects. Research articles are particularly hard for them – and, perhaps, here relevant videos can be especially significant.

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