Assessing Learning through Student Screencasts

Technology has transformed how education is delivered. Yet the digital revolution has not had a dramatic influence on how students are assessed. Most instructors are still using the standard exams, problem sets, or papers to assess student learning.The problem with these methods is that they show only the product; they do not demonstrate the process that was used to develop the product, and process is everything. Normally, a failure in product is produced by a failure in process.

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Technology has transformed how education is delivered. Yet the digital revolution has not had a dramatic influence on how students are assessed. Most instructors are still using the standard exams, problem sets, or papers to assess student learning.

The problem with these methods is that they show only the product; they do not demonstrate the process that was used to develop the product, and process is everything. Normally, a failure in product is produced by a failure in process. Was the work disorganized? Then the student does not know how to organize an assignment. Did the student misrepresent an idea from a reading? Then the student might not know how to read academic work.

The thinking that went into developing a work is probably the most important information that an instructor needs to help a student with performance problems. Illuminating that thinking is sometimes called “making thinking visible.” This can be harder to do in an online course, where the instructor does not have the face-to-face moments with students.  

But technology now allows instructors to view students' thinking online using screencasts—a simple video recording of what happens on the monitor, with voice narration. Students can use screencasts to describe the process that went into developing their work, thus cluing in their instructors to problems with process.

David Woods, assistant professor of computer and information technology at Miami University, uses student screencasts in his computer programming classes. Students write code to execute a particular program and hand it in for their assignment. But they also make screencasts that answer various questions about their thinking in writing the code.   

On the first assignment, they were required to make an observation about the C++ computer language that they used to make the code, since it was new to them. They could talk about how the language differs from those that they had previously worked with. They could also talk about parts of the language that they did not understand. This exercise forced the students to reflect on the course material and their struggles with it, and allowed the instructor to ascertain the student's true level of understanding.

On the next assignment, students were required to make a screencast that showed the code executing, as well as discuss their experience writing the code. For instance, they could discuss the hardest section for them to write.    

One nice outcome of the screencasts was that Dr. Woods was able to come up with questions for students to answer on future screencasts based on what he saw from past screencasts. If a student had a particular problem, Dr. Woods could ask the student to talk on the next screencast about how he or she addressed it. This ensured that the students were thinking about their performance and Dr. Woods' feedback on it. Dr. Woods might also ask students whether they considered alternate ways to code some parts of the program. Thus, the system allowed customized assessment and student reflection.   

Dr. Woods also used screencasts to move students beyond merely developing the program. Once they had become familiar with writing in the new language, they were asked to make a screencast that trained others to write code for a particular function. This forced them to consider not only how they write code, but also how they could explain the process in a way that someone else could understand. The result is a deeper understanding of the material.  

Finally, students were given the option at the end of class of presenting their work to others in a screencast. This gave them the experience of presenting their work to others as they would do in a face-to-face class or conference but doing it in an online environment.   

Dr. Woods discovered a number of unexpected benefits of the screencast system. First, it made grading easier because the screencasts provided information that was not obvious from the code itself. Much of grading involves making inferences about the student's level of understanding of the assignment, and the screencasts can fill in the missing information.

Second, the screencasts provided fodder for discussion questions. Most online courses have all discussion questions set up at the beginning of the course. But the screencasts gave Dr. Woods ideas for new or alternate questions to ask. In particular, he could ask the class questions related to areas in which the students reported struggles in their screencasts. The screencasts thus served as a formative assessment that allowed the instructor to make adjustments to the course format on the fly.  

Third, students treated the screencasts as a conversation with the instructor. While students usually view assignments as just a means of checking off a class requirement, the students genuinely communicated their thoughts and concerns to their instructor through the screencasts. The assignments became more than just attempts to impress for a grade. They became an opportunity for a meeting of the minds on course concepts.

Fourth, the screencasts led students to reevaluate and correct their work. This might be due to students' taking more ownership of the work when they had to present it in a screencast. It seemed also due to students' identifying issues with their work as they talked about it during the screencast. Some students would even pause the recording to fix an issue that cropped up during the screencast. It is well known that students do not review their work enough before handing it in, and the screencasts forced this review and subsequent improvements in performance.

Finally, students were proud enough of their screencasts that many shared them with friends and family. How often do students share regular assignments with others? This demonstrates how we tend to want to share our digital artifacts with others.

Interestingly, none of the students had any questions about how to make a screencast. Dr. Woods suggested Screencast-o-matic as an option, which allows users to create screencasts that are easily uploaded to the Screencast-o-matic website. Students can then simply send the instructor a link to the screen to view. Jing is another option that allows for screencasts up to five minutes long. But Dr. Woods found that many students loaded the videos to YouTube. Some used the free Google Hangouts on Air feature in Google+ to record their screencasts, which automatically uploads the result to their YouTube account.    

Dr. Woods also noted that some students submitted the actual video files through the LMS. However, these files can be quite large, and one was too large for the LMS to handle. Plus, the process can require long uploading and downloading times on the parts of student and instructor.

Screencasting assignments should work in nearly any field. Engineering students could describe their thinking in designing models, while students working on math or physics problems could be asked to describe how they analyzed and solved problems in an assignment.  

Consider incorporating screencasting assignments into your online courses. 

Woods, D. (2015). Student-Created Screencasts as an Aid to Grading and Tool for Student Reflection. EdMedia, Montreal, June 22-24.  

John Orlando is an associate director of faculty support at Northcentral University.