As a third-year faculty member, I’ve begun to cross over the bridge between teaching mostly new preps every semester to repeating some of my favorite classes. I’ve reached a point where I can focus on improving the experiences within the courses I teach, as opposed to being primarily concerned with having a lecture and activity ready for each day. One of the classes that I’ve been lucky to teach more than once and have begun to refine is SPST 270, Culture Through (Sport) Film. Per the course description, “This course uses sport films to examine relationships of power in society and the way those relationships are contested and reinforced.” This course provides a great medium for examining race, class, gender, and socioeconomic status through sport documentaries. For example, in past semesters we watched “Kicking It”, a documentary about the Homeless World Cup and discussed the use sport to stimulate social change. We analyzed power, support structures, and resources after we watched “Chiefs”, a documentary about high school basketball players on the Wind River Indian reservation in Wyoming.
I love teaching SPST 270 and have found that students really enjoy the experience. Many sign up for the course because there’s an assumption that the course is easy and that we’ll watch popular movies like Varsity Blues, so of course it’s going to be fun as well. After the initial shock of realizing that we primarily watch documentaries, and that many are in foreign languages with subtitles, the students typically respond in two ways: 1) a few students check out and refuse to become engaged, and 2) most students rise to the challenge and get excited to learn about sport and culture, beyond what they’ve seen on Sports Center.
For each class period, students are expected to come prepared having read journal articles related to the film’s dominant themes. The class period begins with a pre-lesson, and then we watch the movie and finish with a group discussion. In my first two semesters teaching the course, I utilized traditional papers as the primary means of assessment. Each week students were required to analyze the culture specifically portrayed in the movie and the themes from the reading and pre-lesson. The benefit of using the traditional paper assignment was that the format remained consistent throughout the semester. Students felt confident in the format of the papers, which aided them in focusing on developing their cultural commentary, as opposed to stressing out about the structure of the assignment. The detriment of such an assignment in this course is that it got very repetitious and by the fourth paper of the semester the analyses becomes somewhat rote. Over time I noticed that the quality of the commentary dropped off and students wrote generalized statements about culture instead of focused analyses on the particular social world we viewed in the film. In addition, in a class of 30-32, grading that many papers each week became quite tedious.
So what did I do? I started brainstorming (and Googling – why reinvent the wheel?) ideas to shake up the class. I wanted to get the students more actively participating in the cultural analyses and find a way to develop skills in addition to writing, like oral presentation skills and the digital literacies required to create and deliver a presentation using a technological solution. I recognized that the students would benefit from the practice of making an oral argument in a traditional class presentation activity. The problem with in-class presentations was that I had 30ish students each semester. To go through that many presentations would have eaten up a substantial amount of class time, and the chances of keeping the whole class engaged during that time was slim to none. So, I opted to assign video papers instead.
What is a video paper?
The idea behind my video paper assignment was that the assignment remained the same, the mode of delivery changed. It was a bit of a combination between writing a paper and presenting orally. Students were required to answer seven questions that were designed to build upon one another. This design allowed for a smooth transition between topics and created the sense of a naturally flowing conversation. The only thing I changed in adapting the assignment was to include technology requirements and clearly spell out the professionalism expectations for a video presentation, as you typically would do with an oral presentation assignment. I was particularly interested in getting students who would not dialogue in front of the rest of the class to be able to speak intelligently on the topic in a confident manner. Ultimately, I wanted them to be able to verbalize their analysis while speaking in a “normal” voice, speech pattern, and tone. I wanted students to recognize that they could give a formal presentation, but still be themselves, not a stuffy “official” version of them.
(Key Lesson Learned: One component that I added to the assignment after trying this the first semester was the requirement that students cannot read from a script. Some students resisted the change in modality, wrote the regular paper, and then read it in front of the camera. I added a clause in the assignment that stated that any student who appeared to read a script/paper was automatically assigned a zero. It seems harsh, but it prevented students from reading a paper verbatim and ignoring the intent of the assignment. I’ve never actually had to assign the zero once this rule was implemented.)
I worked with Katie (McDonald) Sabourin to prepare the assignment and make sure I had all the technical support the students would need. Katie sent me a list of technical requirements that I was easily able to copy and paste into the assignment. Students used SJFC computer lab computers, personal computers, tablets, and cell phones to record their videos. Some devices produced a better picture and provide for better audio than others (i.e., computer over cell phone), but the assignment was not about production value, so that did not impact my assessment of the students. Katie worked with me to set up server space using Ensemble for the videos and a link on Blackboard for submission. For a detailed look at the assignment and the technology details, you may access the assignment by clicking here: Final Movie Review.
The following is a summary list of the results I experienced over two semesters of assigning video papers as final assignments:
Introverted Students Embraced It
Students who didn’t participate much in class embraced the format and went at the assignment with gusto. Students who barely spoke in class were quite articulate and thoughtful in their commentary. It reminded me that there is a difference between students who check out/ zone out and students who aren’t comfortable with sharing in front of a large class. This is particularly relevant to this course because with a P5 Core designation there is typically substantial variance in the majors represented. The students don’t necessarily have the level of comfort with their peers as they do in a major course. Unfortunately, this difference in assignment did not seem to make a difference with the students who were truly checking out/ zoning out.
Do Overs Made a Difference
Overwhelmingly, students expressed an appreciation for being able to pause their recording, regroup, and then proceed. They were happy to be able to record one answer, review it, and then rerecord if they didn’t like it.
Students Had Fun
My impression was that students who wanted to have fun with their assignment were more likely to do so when they risked being “geeky/nerdy/dorky” in front of their professor only and not their peers. For example, one student who was generally reserved in class recorded his video paper in eight or nine different segments. He changed his tie every single segment. He never drew attention to it in the video, but commented to me later that he was hoping I’d notice and find it funny.
You can also see an example of a video paper that was turned in the second semester I assigned the video papers here.
This student put a little polish on her video by adding some graphics and music at the end. Students knew that this was not an expectation, nor would it directly relate to their grade, but some still put the extra effort into they assignment.
Technology Can Still Be an Issue
The biggest technical obstacle to the video papers was the uploading part of the submission process. Generally speaking 95% of the students had no problem. However, students off campus tended to have more difficulty in getting the videos to fully upload. My suspicion was that this problem was related to network speeds. Students had a much easier time uploading videos on the campus network. So, for commuters my recommendation was that the students uploaded their video while on campus and not from home.
At the end of approximately 25% of the videos submitted, the students gave me personal messages. Some were reflections on how much they enjoyed the assignment. Some were commentary on the course and me as their professor. While there is no guarantee of receiving such a message, it is quite touching to get a personalized “thanks for the semester” message. Each time it’s given me the warm, fuzzy feeling that we often need during finals week.
The video assignments did not lend themselves to giving detailed feedback. Unlike with a traditional paper, it is impossible to circle words, sentences, or phrases and write a comment about them in detail. However, they worked perfectly for giving overarching feedback on analyses and delivery. This is part of the reason why I felt the video paper was particularly appropriate as an end of the semester assignment. Although the videos felt more fun to grade because they got me out of my habits as well, they were not any faster to grade. Students recorded videos that varied in length from around five minutes to around 20 minutes. Instituting a cap on time may be beneficial for some assignments.
In terms of student performance, what seemed to change the most was the depth of the cultural analyses. I believe the assignment modality itself led to this, but I’m not exactly sure why. The content of the assignment was almost exactly the same as previous traditional papers assigned in the course, but with a different film. This was the eighth time in the semester that students answered this set of questions. There’s always a chance that the film was more accessible and they had a great degree of practice in answering the questions, so that resulted in a deeper cultural analyses. However, anecdotally the assignments seemed better than even the traditional papers turned in the week before that corresponded with a very engaging film.
The Biggest Take-Away
Ultimately, the biggest take-away for me was that the students were engaged and produced quality work, and the introduction of a video paper brought variety into the course. I didn’t need to know that it was more effective than a traditional assignment. Rather, I was pleased that it was different and effective.
If you would like to learn more about my experiences with assigning video papers, don’t hesitate to email me at email@example.com.