Student responsibility for online learning, the prescriptive battles the descriptive

Like most of my colleagues, I spent dozens upon dozens of hours this summer converting my university courses to an online format.  I showed you the result, for my 3rd year Entomology course, in last week’s post – and to be honest, I think the result is pretty good.*  Of course, what I think about it doesn’t really matter – what matters is what my students think about it.  Or maybe that’s what matters.  I’m not sure, and a seemingly minor decision puts the question in sharp relief for me: one long video, or a bunch of short ones?

My university made an early decision to go online for fall (both going online, and calling it early, were very good decisions).  That meant that our Centre for Enhanced Teaching and Learning had time to put on a course in online pedagogy and logistics, and I had time to take it. (Well, by “had time”, I mean “made time”; anyone who thinks that the move to online made professors’ jobs easier is, shall we say politely, incompletely informed.)  One recommendation got a lot of stress in that course: for the presentation of content, chunking material into short videos.  Five minutes! Four minutes! Three minutes!

This was a bit startling.  Three minute videos? I’m rather hopeful that, by the time students get to third year university, little of what we’re teaching them is simple enough to be addressed meaningfully in three minutes.  And yet…. the case is a powerful one.  Big tasks are daunting; sets of small tasks are much less so (this is even a strategy I discuss, for writing, in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing). Our learning management system gamifies this, putting large green checkmarks against the items a student has completed; lots of short videos means lots of green checkmarks, accumulating quickly.  I’d make fun of this, except that I know perfectly well that my own behaviour is very susceptible to exactly this sort of gamification.  Just three more minutes and I can have another green checkmark?  Count me in!

But I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was all a bit infantilizing.  Surely, I thought, it was reasonable to expect a third-year university student to watch a 30 minute video?  (I’d even be OK with them pausing it halfway through.).  We like to assume that our students are adults, and that they’re finding ways to attack university courses as professional learners.  Watching a 30 minute lecture, whether in real life or on video, seems like a rather minor ask of an adult professional learner, doesn’t it?

Here’s the thing: watching a 30 minute lecture is a rather minor ask.  Of course my students should be willing to watch a 30 minute video, and of course they should be able to learn from it.  But this is a prescriptive view of student learning: it’s about what I think students should be able to do.  And even if I’m right (which I am!), I’ll admit that the fact that students should be able to display a particular behaviour may not be very relevant.  A descriptive view of student learning would, instead, observe that there’s plenty of evidence that real students, in the real world, learn better from more shorter videos.  I can ride my high horse about what I should be able to expect all I like, but it won’t change the fact that I’ll get better results from knowing what actually works best.

So did I chunk all my content into three-minute videos?  Since I just made that argument, you’d think so, wouldn’t you?  But I didn’t, for two reasons.  One is that some topics, I think, really do work better in larger chunks.  The other – more important in the longer run – is that I’d like to think I’m teaching more than content. I’d like to think I’m also helping students develop into more professional learners.  So yes, I’m providing extremely clear expectations for each week so students don’t procrastinate and fall behind; but I also try to be part of a long-term effort to teach time and task management so students won’t procrastinate even without those clear week-by-week expectations. And yes, I’m chunking my content into shorter units, but some are three minutes (OK, not many); some are five minutes; and a few are ten minutes or even a little more. The longest so far is fourteen. To be honest, I don’t know how to teach students to be professional learners; but I’m pretty sure that a 100% diet of easy three-minute videos isn’t the way.

So has prescriptive or descriptive won the battle?  You won’t be shocked to know that neither has.  The descriptive view has me providing chunked content, with more videos but shorter.  The prescriptive view has me challenging my students a little, asking them to find strategies to learn from varied material – not just what they like best.  Does this make me heedless of evidence, or supportive of longer-term student development?  I wish I knew.

© Stephen Heard  Sept 22, 2020

UPDATE: here’s Greg Crowther, from earlier this summer, agonizing over video length too; and he offers the sensible argument that looking for natural break points may be more important than obsessing over “three minutes”.

Image: Just kidding; that’s a mockup, not a real course page. Really, it would take me at least four minutes.

*^The online format has some significant advantages over the in-classroom format.  It has disadvantages too, and how they balance out is a pretty important question for higher education in general.  I don’t have the answer. I expect that online will be clearly better for some students, and worse for others, but I’d love to know what fraction of students fall into those two groups.

12 thoughts on “Student responsibility for online learning, the prescriptive battles the descriptive

  1. Pingback: What my online Entomology course look like | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  2. Philip Moriarty

    Thank you for both this very timely post and your previous writings on online teaching. They have certainly had a big influence on how I’ve thought about course design in this brave new online world.

    I’m teaching the first semester of our core Year 2 quantum mechanics module this semester and have opted for ~ 20 minute long videos. My rationale is that videos shorter than this 20 minute “quantum” tend to lose coherence (please excuse the pun); any longer, and concentration/focus is an issue.

    My strategy for the course is described here:


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks for this comment! The course post you link to is very interesting. And I see that you’ve effectively made your entire course public! (I’m learning a little quantum-mechanic philosophy from your right now as I type this…) It’s intriguing watching how we’re all doing this, sometimes with similarities, sometimes with differences.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Marco Mello

    Give short videos a try! 😉 They are the golden standard of the best MOOCs, which are quite engaging. The pedagogy of MOOCs if amazingly effective for students from the generations iGen (Z) and alpha (W) (I also love this format, despite being X generation myself).

    Regarding duration, if you see the stats on video visualization on YouTube and other platforms, you’ll notice that most people don’t watch long videos at once, but in small doses. The good thing is that even big, complex topics can be broken down into small, more palatable pieces. Short videos and readings are effective in normal times and even more in the strange times we are living.

    Consider that many students are psychologically broken, so a huge effort is required for them to pay attention to even short assignments. And there are many students with a complicated situation at home, who have to take care of children, elderly, or disabled people. So they cannot afford 30 minutes of straight focus. Finally, there are also poor students, who need to share a notebook, smartphone, or tablet with all other family members.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Philip Moriarty

      This is an interesting and thought-provoking comment. Along with a number of my colleagues at the University of Nottingham, I’ve spent quite a bit of time making short “edutainment” videos for a channel called Sixty Symbols (although I must stress that it’s the guy on the other side of the camera, Brady Haran, who is the driving force.) So I’m not entirely opposed to short(er) videos.


      Many academic subjects are intellectually challenging. The “heavy lifting” has to come from the student if any type of deep learning is going to happen. And that means learning to engage with material, concentrate, and bang their head against a problem (sometimes until their forehead bleeds…)

      I know that home/life circumstances can often make learning exceptionally difficult but it is important that we don’t sell the message that deep learning is possible without deep engagement with the material. As I said in a bit of a cri de coeur a few years back (,

      “Watching a five minute (or one minute) video is only the first step in the education process…
      what’s then required are the questions, debate, experiments, problems, and discussion that underpin deep learning. This may well bring on the yawns, but we need to expose students, at whatever level – and, more broadly, any fan of science – to the hard graft required to grasp difficult concepts.”

      Liked by 2 people

  4. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

    Marco, these are all good reasons why none of my videos are 30 min – or (gasp) – 80 min, which is what my face-to-face sessions would have been. So I’m onside there. But: what’s the evidence that 3 minutes is the optimum, and that 9 minutes is too long? If shorter is better, should I do 30 second videos? 🙂 Keep in mind, too, that if I halve the average length, I confront students with twice as many videos – which is ALSO intimidating, albeit in a different way. I guess nobody should be surprised that there isn’t a simple, obvious, unquestionable answer!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Marco Mello

      Sure, I totally agree, there is no universal solution to remote learning. That’s why we need to stay open. Now is a good moment for trying alternative formats and techniques that have been neglected in traditional courses. Let me explain my point in more detail.

      The evidence supporting the efficacy of short videos comes from the big data made available by those new platforms for videos and MOOCs. It also comes from studies on attention span across generations. There are even studies on student preferences for different formats, and the new generations seem to love autonomous, modular, asynchronous, multi-gadget learning. The idea is not to reduce the average and total length of video lectures. It’s to keep the total length planned for a given class, but divide it into short stretches. So, if an original video lecture in a course module was planned to last 30 min, it would be a good idea to transform it into six 5-min lectures.

      This gives the students the sensation of a finer “progress bar”, which helps keep them motivated. In addition, video learning can be consolidated with short quizzes, which help retain the content and also gamify learning with small rewards. Learning depth is reached mainly through readings, labs, projects, and other practical assignments. Videos and quizzes are included in the package mainly to facilitate and guide the learning process. And, most importantly, to retain attention, as humans like to watch and hear other humans.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. SolePublic

    I’m a bit of a professional learner. I grew up with TV but not internet, so am different from your students. I hate short segments and find them very disruptive. What I love is a long video with a table of contents/show notes/time stamps to quickly find content. I suggest green checks for grasping each major point (which would have been contained in a short segment) via a short test, not just for turning on a video. Short tests would be analogous to the call and response that Direct Learning has found to be so effective. Would love to take this course. P.S. Is there a decent key for North American caterpillars?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. SolePublic

        Thanks SSS! Perhaps your “Centre for Enhanced Teaching and Learning” folk could implement checkmarks for tests when they have some free bandwidth.

        Thanks for your suggestion on the caterpillar guide. Mine copy is well thumbed. Seems like twice a week I’m paging through every photo. Last night I found Orgyia leucostigma. I hope to develop taxon search images some day. Got the Spicebush Swallowtail 4-5th instars down pat 😉

        Good luck with your course!

        Liked by 1 person


      I have two concerns with splitting up an online course into bite-size chunks, particularly with the idea that this makes learning more accessible to students with other responsibilities like child- or senior care:

      1. Deep learning of complex material does not come in bite size chunks, it takes time to concentrate, mull over, work out, check against previous knowledge and generally think about. It is unreasonable to suppose that it will be easier to fit a university course around other full-time responsibilities because it comes in 3 minute chunks, if it carries the implication that you will never need to set aside periods of time of more than 3 min for studying. You can watch a chunk while waiting for the microwave to beep, another few while the child is in the bath, another while rocking the baby to sleep etc… In my experience, if you try to learn complex sophisticated material while keeping an eye on a child in a playground and preparing a mental shopping list for the supper ingredients you will buy on the way home, you won’t learn much of that sophisticated material. I’ve tried, and I can’t do it. I need multiple hours of responsibility free time, where I’m not only not doing anything else, but not feeling responsible about the other things that need to be done (i.e. not worrying about whether there is anything to give the kids to eat when they get home and whether that wet laundry is still sitting in the machine). Multitasking non-cognitively challenging tasks might work, but multitasking cognitively demanding ones is much less effective and we shouldn’t set up expectations for it.

      2. Setting up the expectation that people should be able to fit a university course in those 3-min free-time chunks they have in a day is extremely anxiogenic. It carries the implication that staring out the window for 3 min while stirring spaghetti sauce is a waste of time because you could be taking a class! Life increasingly contains more and more pressure to optimize every minute of one’s life – and the thought that you could be earning a science degree in those precious 3 min empty spaces of your time is an unreasonable pressure. Of course, subsequently doing poorly on that class you tried to fit in among other activities is even more anxiogenic if it comes across as a failing on your part, rather than as an unrealistic expectation!


  6. Pingback: Friday links: RIP Georgina Mace, is vs. ought (online learning edition), and more | Dynamic Ecology

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