When pre-class readings left students ill-prepared for lab work, this physicist found a better way to show them what they need to know.
Instructor of Physics, University of Colorado at Boulder
PhD and MA in Physics, BS in Applied Math and Engineering Physics
When you only meet with students once a week, you may need to experiment with ways to make the most of that time. At least that was what Colin West, PhD, discovered to be true in his experimental physics course.
Before students could dive into the experiments that were meant to be the nucleus of the class, they were spending valuable lab time asking for explanations of theoretical concepts, lab procedures, and techniques.
“The fun of experimental science is that ability to get your hands dirty and explore all the little details,” West says. When students would come to class unprepared, it left little time for that. “In fact, it actually discouraged it,” he says.
The course’s previous instructors had taken an initial step to solve the issue by assigning pre-lab reading materials. However, West knew the gravity of the situation—and that step did not go far enough to remedy it.
“The problem [with this approach] is that students [still] can’t see the concepts being demonstrated,” West says. “They almost have to imagine that they’re performing the experiment, but without the materials. It wasn’t very effective.”
West realized that his predecessors’ move was a step in the right direction. To keep the momentum going, West decided to experiment with a skill he had acquired at a previous position.
Innovation: Creating short videos as pre-lab primers
Before starting at the University of Colorado at Boulder, West worked at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where his focus had been on redesigning a course around videos for students. Reflecting on that work sparked an idea that perfectly addressed the needs of his experimental physics course: He decided to create video introductions to prepare students for what they would later experience in the lab.
In fact, when West first arrived at Boulder, the experimental physics course was already in flux. Colleagues Heather Lewandowski and Daniel Bolton, noted experts on lab course design, were in the midst of radically restructuring the course to be more engaging and more student-centered. Since the weekly lab assignments were all about to change, it was a perfect opportunity to carefully consider what students would need to know in advance of their lab time.
During the first semester that the new course was being taught, West scripted and filmed a new video every week, one for each of the 12 lab assignments, using feedback from his colleagues, TAs, and students to determine what needed to be included. “That first semester kept me quite busy,” recalls West, “but the beauty of the system is that now, the videos are already there and ready for us to reuse over and over again.”
Now West directs students to one of these 5- to 10-minute videos every week, providing instructions and demonstrations related to their upcoming lab. The videos provide a basic run-through of everything they will be doing, as well as an overview of the related theories and equations—or what he refers to as “the boring technical things” they need to do before the lab.
“The idea was to make sure their time in the actual lab was as free as possible to focus on the lab itself,” West says.
It was a big-bang moment that changed the nature of the labs—for the students, and for West.
“This is about learning a little bit about measurement techniques used by experimental physicists, with a big focus on what’s called uncertainty analysis, which focuses on how precise your measurements actually are. We also focus on note-taking techniques and some of the computer systems that one uses in experimental physics.”— Colin G. West, PhD
Course: PHYS 1140 Experimental Physics 1
Frequency: One 1-hour lecture per week, with a 2-hour weekly lab
Class size: About 730, broken into groups of 32 for lab work
Course description: Introduces experimental physics through laboratory observation of a wide range of phenomena. Covers experiments on physical measurements, including mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and optics, with the mathematical analysis of physical errors associated with the experimental process.
See resources shared by Colin G. West, PhDSee materials
Lesson: Create student-friendly videos (no experience required)
The value of educator-created instructional videos is not limited to physics instruction, West points out. He adds that instructors should not feel overwhelmed by the thought of producing their own videos. “I don’t have any formal training in video production,” he admits. Creating these audiovisual aids does require a time investment, he notes, but the process is easier than it might seem. Here is how West approaches it.
Gather the equipment and resources
Along with a video camera for recording, West uses a tripod and a lavalier microphone (a small, hands-free microphone that clips to his shirt). Although at the moment he uses a DSLR camera for the recording, in the past he has produced similar videos using the cameras on his tablet—and once, just using the camera on his cell phone.
An external hard drive with a high storage capacity is also worth having on hand, he says, as raw footage can take up a lot of space on a computer’s hard drive very quickly. Having external storage allows West to archive a copy so it is easily accessible for future retrieval and viewing, sharing, or editing.
The final piece: video-editing software. West uses Final Cut Pro (“I’m a Mac person,” he says), but there are many user-friendly versions to choose from.
Seek help (or tutoring) from students and faculty
West notes that many schools have a communications or media production department whose equipment can be signed out by students and educators. But that is not the only resource you can find there, says West. The expertise of people in those majors can come in handy as well.
“A 20-minute lesson from a film student on the basics of using a film editing program, for example, can be beneficial,” West says. Those undergrads might also be able to help you set up, shoot, and edit your videos.
Even friends and family can play a role—either behind the camera or in front of it as your lab assistant. “My wife, who is more artistic than me, helps me shoot the video, but I am a control freak and like to edit the videos myself,” West says with a laugh.
Many educators can “wing it” in a lecture, just speaking off the top of their head, but West does not recommend that when creating videos. Even though West’s final product is only 5 to 10 minutes long, he always takes time to carefully plan what he will say before shooting. “Students are expecting videos that cut and move, not just one steady shot,” West says. “It helps to plan out where those breaks [will be].” This can also cut down on retakes: It can be difficult to “wing it” when your mind is also on things like lighting, sound, and wardrobe.
“I type out my scripts like old-fashioned lecture notes, just because that’s the easiest way to organize my thoughts,” says West. “And I always recommend reading the script out loud before you start to film. There doesn’t even need to be anyone else around to hear it—just saying it to myself alone in my office often helps me find sections that are clunky or hard to pronounce.”
However, West doesn’t try to memorize the script word-for-word, and he does not record all the narration at once. “I just read the paragraph from the script right before I turn the camera on, and then I say something similar to that once I’m recording,” he explains. “That saves me all kinds of time and also makes my delivery more natural and extemporaneous.”
Film it with one (wide) shot
Even though West’s final videos are not one steady shot, they start out that way, he says. West shoots the original video as one wide shot, then he breaks it up visually during editing. By filming the original footage in high resolution, one can digitally zoom in as needed to highlight different elements and create visual variety.
“I film myself in a large wide shot with the chalkboard in the background the entire time,” he says. “When I edit, I can use the wide shot or digitally zoom in and make it a tight shot without having to have filmed anything separately. [For example,] I can zoom in on the chalkboard and superimpose text with the voiceover. It’s not Ken Burns filmmaking, but there’s enough variety there [to keep students engaged].”
Set aside enough time
Proficiency with shooting and editing videos comes with practice, West says—and so does the ability to estimate the amount of time it will take to create each video. For him, this works out to roughly four hours.
“It takes one to two hours to [write the] script, 30 minutes to an hour to set up and film it, and an hour to edit,” he says. “It sounds like a lot, but once you have it, you have it for life.”
His recommendation: Set aside a large chunk of time up front—perhaps over the summer or at the start of a semester—to film all the videos at once. More can be added for the following semester, as the need arises.
West posts most of his videos on YouTube, which has rough automated closed-captioning capabilities. But he also has a disabilities service on campus clean up those auto-generated captions for accuracy for his hearing-impaired students. “When we first started doing the videos,” he says, “that’s one thing that caught us off guard.”
These captions serve another purpose, too: They mean that all of his students can watch the videos with the sound turned off, if need be. That can be helpful for a student who forgets to take their headphones to the library, for example.
Know you can revisit
West solicits feedback from students to help gauge the effectiveness of the videos he produces. If he gets a lot of similar feedback about a section that does not work as intended, he makes plans to go back and revisit that portion of the video. “If you store your raw video files, you can add or subtract as needed,” he says. “It’s good to have that footage available. And the editing software available today makes it easy to splice in a small addition without having to start from scratch.”
Anecdotally, West has evidence of the success of his methods. “Even when other instructors are using my video materials, I’ve had a lot of students stop me in the halls and say, ‘You’re the guy from the video!’” West says. “So obviously if they hated it, they would probably avoid me,” he jokes.
In more controlled conditions, the results are also promising: West conducts pre- and post-course surveys each semester, and he says that the scores are now higher than before the course was redesigned and the video primers were implemented.
On recent evaluations, students shared these specific observations about the videos:
“[The videos] remind me of Veritasium and other YouTube science channels that I sometimes watch. It makes it a lot more like something I would do for fun.”
“They’re great for me because I’m a visual learner. It’s also cool because I’m into film and stuff like that, and I might want to make like a physics movie someday, so I like seeing other people doing stuff like that.”