Sarah Brown

Pay No Attention to the [Instructor] Behind the Curtain: How Including Your Face in Course Videos Impacts Student Engagement and Retention

During a recent research jaunt to update some FITS resources on online learning, I stumbled across an article about the value of including the instructor’s face in course videos. If you don’t have time for the entire piece, here’s my TL;DR:

Faculty often ask me “if it matters” to include their faces within course videos. My standard response is that they should try it in the introductory video. Start the video with your face on the screen, either in full-frame glory or in a small square in the corner (depending on the software you’re using), and then transition to the other typical intro video elements, like a tour of the course or syllabus. That way, you only have to think about being “on camera” for a minute or two.

But what faculty are really asking is this: does including my face in videos either (1) make students feel more engaged with the course materials, or (2) actually result in better learning?

The authors of this study, Jiahui Wang and Pavlo D. Antonenko, considered both in their research design. After taking a pre-test, learners watched four math instruction videos:

  • Easier topic, no instructor presence
  • Easier topic, instructor presence
  • Harder topic, no instructor presence
  • Harder topic, instructor presence

Eye-tracking software was used during the videos to monitor participants’ attention. After watching the videos, participants were given a post-test on the math concepts and a survey to gauge their perceptions of the experience.

With this design, Wang and Antonenko tried to determine the impact of instructor presence in videos through two related frameworks for learning:

  • Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning compartmentalizes memory into sensory, working, and long-term memory systems.  
  • Cognitive Load Theory anticipates how information moves from short-term memory to long-term memory.

Their query: “One one hand, the presence of instructor could elicit beneficial socio-emotional responses and support learners’ understanding by providing nonverbal modalities of interaction (Clark & Mayer, 2016).”

“On the other hand, the presence of a real instructor on the screen provides a group of complex visual stimuli that might unnecessarily distract learners and add to learners’ extraneous cognitive load…”

Key questions and findings:

Does instructor presence in the video impact student attention?

Yes: “The results indicate that learners contributed a considerable amount of visual attention to the instructor, especially when they viewed the video on an easy topic.”

Does including your face in videos lead students to feel more engaged with the course?

Yes: “Instructor presence significantly improved satisfaction and perceived learning for both easy and difficult topics. Moreover, instructor presence resulted in decreased self-reported mental effort in the context of learning from a video on a difficult topic.”

Does including your face in videos help with student learning?

Perhaps: “While recall performance was significantly better on the easy topic when the instructor was present instructor presence did not influence transfer of learning for either topic in a statistically significant way.”

I think my original advice, that faculty should try including their faces in introductory videos, still holds—students are reporting higher engagement and perception of learning when they’re able to see their instructor’s face. If the instructor is just providing some social cueing, like introducing him/herself and broadly describing the course, that information could be improved by providing nonverbal cueing.

But the other findings in this study, while interesting, aren’t yet conclusive. For the easier math topic, it seems that the instructor presence both made students feel more engaged and helped with retention. For the more challenging topic, though, it seems like there was no impact, which may mean that the instructor presence was adding an information channel for learners to process, rather than enhancing an existing channel.

Sarah Brown

About Sarah Brown

Sarah has worked in the College of Education and with FITS since 2010. She also teaches in the Writing, Rhetoric and Discourse department. She earned her undergraduate degrees in Secondary English Education and Writing at the University of Findlay in Ohio, and after teaching at Miami Valley Career Technology Center in Dayton, Ohio for two years, she moved to Chicago to earn her MA in Writing, Rhetoric and Discourse at DePaul. When she’s not teaching or testing out a new technology, Sarah runs, crochets, and cooks.

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