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It’s Tuesday morning, and you’re teaching your 10th grade chemistry class. You’re lecturing on a tricky subject; perhaps it’s the chemical bond, ideal gas laws, or even the dreaded molecular orbitals.

As per usual, a chunk of the students are following along just fine, but others just can’t seem to grasp what you’re saying, despite your masterfully chosen words and analogies, refined over years of teaching. Some of the students are visual learners, who need some kind of colorful diagram or animation to remain engaged with the topic. But the textbook doesn’t cut it, nor do the VHS tapes from 1974 that are sitting in the filing cabinet. If only your students could see the concept the way you see it in your head!

Well, what if they could?

Launching something new

When I originally posted my “Professor Dave Explains” video on my YouTube tutorial channel, its true potential in the classroom was unbeknownst to me. At the time of its launch, it consisted only of my organic chemistry lectures from a now defunct post-baccalaureate program. I had a terrific set of lectures that I had honed over four years and didn’t want to waste them. In fact, I wanted to share them with the world.

So I got a white board, scribbled down some mechanisms, and filmed the whole thing. Thus, Professor Dave was born. But once I was finished, I was addicted. I wanted to document all of my chemistry knowledge in a way that was accessible, succinct, and compartmentalized. So I began working on a general chemistry series, hoping that it might be of use to high school and undergraduate students somewhere in the world.

I thought long and hard about how I wanted to organize my content. After all, this would be something like a virtual textbook, and I wanted a pacing and a difficulty level that would engage viewers of all abilities, as well as reflect the order in which I felt the topics should be taught. I also decided I would increase the production value, utilizing green screen and simple animations. I included a “checking comprehension” section at the end of each clip, consisting of a few simple short-answer problems with answers provided after some elapsed time, so that viewers could be sure that they had absorbed the most important information from the tutorial.

Pumping up the content

I wrote the content in a way that I thought would make it as engaging as possible, and I animated the finished clips with the same intention. I was careful not to pack them with gimmicks and superfluous fluff, like I’d seen in other YouTube content. Teaching the material as clearly and quickly as possible was the goal. Uploading them to my channel, I gave myself a pat on the back and assumed that was that.

But it wasn’t. When I finally decided to implement these tutorials in my 10th grade chemistry classroom, I was shocked at the result. Attention, engagement, comprehension, and participation all skyrocketed. On the surface, the kids were so amused and bewildered with the idea of seeing their teacher on the screen (as opposed to simply in the flesh), my bobble head swaying to the tune of the theme song and my digitized hands pointing to all manner of floating graphics I had created, that they were completely mesmerized.

The animations were precisely what I had seen in my head all these years while trying to explain abstract concepts. When the temperature rose on the thermometer, the ideal gas particles moved faster. When the electron went from n=4 to n=2, out popped a little photon. It merely required animating a couple of lines and circles with a bit of motion to present what was in my own mind on the screen, right next to my face and words.

Every concept in a high school chemistry course was now living and breathing, golden and shiny on the Internet for repeat viewing at a student’s whim. When we arrived at the “checking comprehension” section, students couldn’t wait to try out their fancy new knowledge. Every day, students would ask when they would watch the next clip in the series, offering that these videos were their favorite part of class. As far as experiments went, showing my content in a classroom setting was a massive success.

Get in touch with your inner director

If your mind is aflutter with all of the possibilities for your own class, here’s how to make your very own content. A good clip delivers deep, pervasive comprehension about a singular topic with little to no deviation, so this should be in the forefront of your mind throughout the process.

  1. First, decide what you want the content to be about. I decided to create an entire general chemistry course, which is a lot of work. You may decide on just a handful of topics that have always frustrated you due to a lack of quality resources to illustrate the concept. No rules here!

  2. Once you decide on the topics, write the script. During this part of the process, you want to be aware of two things: length and depth. An ideal running time for a clip is around 3-7 minutes. Almost nothing can be explained in less than 3 minutes; go any longer than 7, and you’ll see a drop-off in attention and retention. Because of this, in terms of depth, you probably want to cover only the main points of a concept in your content, leaving extraneous details to in-person explanation. In a clip about electron configurations, for example, I explain what they are and how to list them, but I leave out the elements that have configurations that are exceptions to the general rules. It’s more important that the students learn the basics in a way that is thorough and complete. Later, they can absorb other important tidbits in order to stack additional knowledge on top of a rock-solid base. Try to imagine how you want the finished clip to look during this part of the process.

  3. Next, you film, keeping your intended visuals in mind. The idea of animation might seem daunting, and perhaps you don’t need it. Film some lectures at the whiteboard. Perhaps demonstrations of various experiments seem more appealing to you, since these could save you setup time in the future.

But if you can utilize some graphics, they go a long way (and the more illustrative, the better). For ideal gases, the variables come alive. The balloon grows and shrinks. The particles move faster and slower. There are little yellow ping marks when particles hit the sides of the box. Anything that will help tell the story of the concept. The best way to achieve this is to film in front of a green screen. You don’t need a fancy Hollywood studio — in fact, a green screen can actually be just a green sheet or fabric covering a wall.

Depending on your vision, you may need some basic animation skills. Adobe After Effects is the program I use, though there are others like Camtasia or Screencast-o-matic that offer a more basic format. If you don’t have access to a camera, you can edit on tablets with Educreations or Explain Everything, whatever is easiest for you. It doesn’t have to be state of the art Pixar-quality brilliance — just show what you see in your head.

Get together with other teachers and decide where the green screen can be set up, and find out if anyone can animate a little. If no one knows how, I bet one of your students does! And there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube, if you have the courage to learn these skills from scratch . Remember, if you try to animate but end up overwhelmed, just record yourself speaking and using props in an interesting setting. Get creative! The more the video departs from a traditional classroom lecture, the more engaging it will be. Once you are ready to go, churn out that content, and make “love the process” your mantra. It’s a new kind of challenge.

Using your video in the classroom

Finally comes the time to utilize your finished content, which you have likely uploaded to a personal YouTube channel or school website. Certainly this content can be used to flip a classroom, as is becoming popular these days. However, a different, arguably more viable option is to use the videos in class as lecturing tools. I chose to do the latter, and the system that works well for me is as follows:

  1. Show the clip as the first introduction to a concept, stopping just before the “checking comprehension” section (if you’ve included one). The students will be engaged and absorb some of the material, and whatever they missed they will want to understand better. Whether it was a definition that eluded them, a phrase or a complicated graphic, they will want to understand that thing.
  2. After the first viewing, you may answer questions if you choose, and then show the clip again, this time pausing frequently, even every few seconds, to emphasize and elaborate on every spoken point. This is where questions are encouraged the most. This second viewing helps students maximize comprehension because it is a combination of content and instruction, allowing for complete absorption.
  3. After the second viewing, you may either show the clip a third and final time without pausing, to allow students to confirm the new understanding they gained during the second viewing, or progress to some kind of “checking comprehension” section, where they try a handful of problems relating to the content in the clip. You may also simply hand out a worksheet if you prefer — but whatever your technique, the key is for the students to immediately reflect the brand-new knowledge onto paper, quantitatively if possible, so that it is concretized. You may be surprised how eager they are to do it! They won’t want to let down the host of the clip, who somehow takes on a different identity than you, yourself.

You don’t have to make a theme song or come up with a fancy name like Professor Dave Explains … but the more you commit, the more engaged your students will be.

Happy Sciencing!

Professor Dave