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How to Respond to Every Student Email—with a Video Tutorial

Online math professor Dan Gryboski, MS, has created hundreds of short instructional videos—and his tips explain how you can easily do the same.

Educator

Dan Gryboski, MS

Online professor of Mathematics, StraighterLine, and Front Range Community College, Westminster, CO

MS in Mechanical Engineering; BA in Mathematics, emphasis on Computer Science

Dan Gryboski, MS, estimates he teaches close to 500 students per semester in his asynchronous online math courses, with students around the country (Boise, Baltimore, Chicago, and more) and around the world (India and China). Yet he is committed to answering each question that students email to him—not just with a typed response but with a short video tutorial.

“I create about 10 a week—maybe more during the summer months, which are busier,” says Gryboski, who teaches online at StraighterLine and at Front Range Community College in Westminster, Colorado. To date, he has uploaded roughly 200 videos to his YouTube channel at Dan Gryboski Videos.

“Responding to emails with a video actually makes online classes feel more personalized,” he says. “I feel like I am doing something that really matters for students.”

These mad video skills did not happen overnight, he admits. An early adopter of online video tutorials, Gryboski got started in 2006 when an educational publishing company asked him to work on a few. He ended up producing 600 of them. After creating several hundred more for another client, he decided to start a YouTube channel of his own.

Gryboski says it took a while for him to nail down his friendly approach and sync his tablet drawings with his voiceover. To help other educators get up to speed more quickly, he shares the “why” and “how” of his video-making process below. “Everyone’s doing them these days, so there are plenty of ways to get started and experiment,” he adds encouragingly.

Context

“Responding to emails with a video actually makes online classes feel more personalized. I feel like I am doing something that really matters for students.”

— Dan Gryboski, MS

Course: MAT 101 College Algebra at StraighterLine

Course description: This course explores topics including intermediate algebra, equations and inequalities, functions and their graphs, exponential and logarithmic functions, linear and non-linear systems, selection of topics from among graphing of the conic sections, introduction to sequences and series permutations and combinations, the binomial theorem and theory of equations.

See resources shared by Dan Gryboski, MS

See materials

The value of replay

Gryboski’s courses can cover more than 20 topics in 15 weeks, including everything from equations and inequalities to the binomial theorem. The extra help students receive via video gives them the boost they need if they missed something in class or want to review. The goal is for online students to be able to interpret, represent, and perform calculations, as well as apply and analyze and solve problems.

On a typical day, Gryboski says he receives several emails that read like this: “On page 88, example 3, why do I take this step?” or “On page 92, I am stuck on simplifying a rational expression.” They land in his inbox at all hours of the day and night, and he makes it clear, early in the class, that he tries to answer all questions within 24 hours.

“Answering student emails equates to the office hours an off-line professor would hold,” he explains. He has worked out a system so that each video only takes him roughly 10 to 20 minutes to create, upload, and send to the student.

Gryboski now feels that the videos may be more efficient than an in-person meeting. His reasons: “Students can replay the videos several times, so they can watch how I solve a problem until they ‘get’ it. They can also look back at the video to refresh their memory before a test or share it with other classmates to help them get unstuck.” Gryboski says he cannot remember a time when a student saw a video and said, “I still don’t get it.”

All of the videos are available on his YouTube channel to all of his students, so whether a student is having trouble with classifying conic sections or solving absolute value equations and inequalities, they can find a video to help them.

How to make 5-minute videos in 20 minutes (or less)

 

Gryboski suggests that educators new to video making begin by answering a question on a topic that can be viewed by many classes, instead of trying to use his email-response approach right away.

Gryboski says there are no hard-and-fast rules to creating videos, though he applies one to his own creations: “I like to keep the style conversational so that I don’t appear too rigid,” he says. “I try to speak clearly in simple, plain English.”

Here, he offers additional tips for teachers interested in making quick and helpful videos—even if they have little to no experience in doing so.

Do not overthink the equipment

Most students just want help, Gryboski says—they will not be overly critical of their professor’s videos. He swears he is not furiously drawing equations, perfecting narration, fixing lighting, and editing tape into the wee hours of the night. Nor has he invested in any pricey software or tools. Here is his recommended list of gear:

  • The reference material of your choice. Gryboski uses the textbook College Algebra (8th ed.) by Barnett, Ziegler, and Byleen (McGraw Hill, 2008). For students who have not been in a math class for some time, he also recommends College Algebra DeMYSTiFied (2nd ed.) by Rhonda Huettenmueller (McGraw Hill, 2014).
  • A digital tablet with a stylus/digital pen. Gryboski uses the Wacom Bamboo Capture Pen and Touch Tablet. “Whatever I draw on the tablet shows up on the computer monitor,” he explains.
  • Freehand drawing software. Gryboski uses SmoothDraw for equations and graphs.
  • Video recording software. Gryboski subscribes to Screencast-O-Matic. “I use this to record the videos,” he says. “The videos are short enough that I generally do not edit them. I just start over if I make a mistake.”
  • A “recording studio.” This is really any quiet space with decent overhead lighting.
  • A dedicated YouTube channel. This is where you will post and share your videos. (To create a new one, check out this article or search the topic for helpful tutorials.)
Follow these video-creation steps:
  1. Plan your approach. Try to keep the videos to three to five minutes, including the intro. One trick Gryboski has for creating videos that are useful to the widest group of students: Be less specific than the textbook might be, so the student still needs to do some of the work. “The vast majority of people learn best by doing,” he says. “Working through the problems yourself reinforces the skill in your brain.”
  1. Focus on the visuals. Place your tablet in an area with a light background, such as a table or counter. Then begin by writing out the problem or doing any drawings on your tablet, using your stylus and drawing software (such as SmoothDraw).
  1. Record your voice. Start with a brief hello and introduction—for example, “Hello, I’m Professor ___, and today we will be talking about ____.” Then explain each drawing that the student will see on screen.
  1. Edit the video. Use your video-editing software (like Screencast-O-Matic) to trim parts that do not look or sound right. You may need to re-record the video a few times, Gryboski says.
  1. Upload the final cut—and add tags. To make videos easier to find on your YouTube channel, tag them with the topic name—for example, “rational equations” or “conic graphing.”

Send the link to the student

Once a video is up, email the student who sent the question. “I reply to a student’s email with a link to [the] video and a note of encouragement,” Gryboski explains. He also recommends providing the URL of your YouTube channel to your whole class, so that everyone can access your videos. Gryboski does this at the start of each semester—and he advises reminding students about the channel periodically throughout the course.

Keep working at it

Do not be too hard on yourself, says Gryboski. No one is terrific at speaking clearly and simply the first time around, or even the second or third. Allow yourself a learning curve, just as you do for students who are trying something new. You always have the opportunity to edit out any bloopers. As you create more videos, you will be able to do so more quickly.

Student feedback

Gryboski says students let him know that they appreciate the videos. Representative responses he has received include:

“Thank you! That was perfect!”

“This makes sense now.”

“Your videos really helped me throughout this class!”

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