Teaching Concepts

Educational videos – Is the person on the screen a help or a hindrance when it comes to learning?

14. December 2023

When you create an educational video, your goal is presumably to design it so that it fosters learning as much as possible. There are a whole list of sound, evidence-based recommendations you can access for both the elements integrated in the video track and the language you use. But what does it look like when it comes to the decision about whether appear on the screen in person in the educational video or not? 

Recently, there seems to have been a basic trend where the instructor is visible on the screen (Henderson & Schroeder, 2021). From a technical standpoint, that is quite easy to do nowadays using a webcam and headset. Furthermore, the first AI assistants have already come onto the market (e.g. Captions, Descript), which promise to create “studio-grade” videos of people. 

That’s one reason for us to pursue the question of whether the person’s presence in an educational video makes learning easier or whether it hampers it. And we’ll tell you the result before we start: as of today, there is no clear answer to this question. The person on the screen is neither a significant help nor a significant hindrance.

Theoretical speaking, there are pros and cons

Pros: Being able to see the instructor leads to better learning outcomes

As a rule, the educational videos that students access online are embedded in a video platform or e-learning course, for example. The students generally watch the videos at home. That can give them a feeling of impersonality and a lack social relatedness. That, in turn, leads to them putting less effort into working on the educational video actively.  

According to social agency theory (Fiorella & Mayer, 2021), seeing the instructor can counteract this unfavourable situation: with the help of the social context cues sent out by an instructor who is visible on screen (e.g. gestures, facial expressions, eye contact), the learner can get the feeling of social presence and hence interpersonal interaction, even if the instructor is not physically present. This subsequently leads to the learners making an increased effort to contextualise and understand the content communicated correctly. This results in the increased active, cognitive processing of the information communicated, which subsequently leads to better learning outcomes.

Cons: The person detracts from the content

According to cognitive load theory (Sweller, van Merriënboer & Paas, 1998; 2019), the presence of the instructor on the screen can lead to a greater cognitive load for the students: the learners have to split their attention between the content presented in the educational video on the image level (e.g. presentation slides, diagrams, graphics, real objects) and the person presenting it (split-attention effect; Sweller & Ayres, 2021). 

Empirical research does not deliver any clear results either

This topic has been discussed in the research literature for years already, but it was not until recently that several reviews and meta-analyses of instructor‑present videos were published. 

Henderson and Schroeder (2021) analysed 12 studies (peer-reviewed; published between 2011 and 2021). The studies they investigated yielded different results. Overall, their descriptive analysis provides no evidence of the presence of the instructor on the screen having a positive effect on learning, nor is any negative impact on learning evident. However, they did find evidence that the students’ satisfaction increases when the person on the screen is visible.

Alemdag (2022) performed a meta-analysis of 20 experimental studies (date of publication: 1994–2021). He studied the effect of instructor presence on learning (knowledge and transfer), cognitive load, motivation and social presence. Alemdag came to the conclusion that although the presence of the instructor increases the cognitive load and motivation (and is therefore in alignment with the two theories mentioned above), it had no significant impact on learning or social presence. In summary, therefore, Alemdag also finds that the person on the screen neither improves nor hinders the students’ learning. It was solely in laboratory studies that instructor presence on the screen had a positive (small to medium) effect on learning. In studies conducted in online learning environments, no significant effect arose. 

Polat’s meta-study(2022) included the results of 41 empirical studies (peer-reviewed; date of publication: 2014 – 07/2022). Regarding the scope of the question and resources, this is the most comprehensive of the three studies. One of the aspects Polat investigates is the effect of instructor presence on cognitive, social and affective learning outcomes. With regard to aspects like attention, learning performance/learning success, transfer and cognitive load, the findings of the sources were generally mixed and ambiguous. Polat likewise finds that neither of the two alternatives (with/without the person on the screen) has a significant effect with regard to social presence or parasocial interaction. 

Effects are found, however, for the aspects of emotion, satisfaction and learning enjoyment: instructor presence on the screen has a positive effect on the students’ satisfaction. In addition, they have a more positive perception of educational videos where there is a person on the screen and perceive such videos as more entertaining than those where there is no instructor visible. Furthermore, that is independent of the age, sex and expertise of the person who is visible in each case.

What can we deduce from this for the practice of teaching?

There is no clear recommendation for or against including a person who can be seen on the screen in an educational video, whether from either a theoretical or an empirical standpoint. 

1. Decide from case to case

Aside from your personal preference, you should make this decision based on the context the educational video is being used in and on the technical resources and time available, for example. The inclusion of the instructor in parts of the educational video(s) at least particularly lends itself to courses that are exclusively held online: That contributes to fostering social relatedness

And, if in doubt, the students’ increased satisfaction as reported by both Henderson and Schroeder (2021) and Polat (2022) should tip the scales towards putting in the extra effort to have the instructor visible on the screen, at least in parts of the video.

2. Pay attention to your body language.

Use hand gestures expressly to indicate anything new or relevant and avoid hand movements that detract from the learning content. The same applies to where you look and how you look: as a rule, you should look into the camera with an open expression coupled with a smile. Friendly, inspiring facial expressions contribute to an increased sense of appeal. However, you should also use the opportunity to direct the student’s attention to new or relevant aspects by changing your line of vision (Polat, 2022).

3. It is the other elements of your educational video that make the difference

Focus on designing all the other elements embedded in the video track of your educational video in a way that fosters learning as well as on the design of your content. There are ample verified findings in this regard. For additional information, we recommend “The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning”, edited by Richard E. Mayer and Logan Fiorella (2021), where you can find detailed explanations of both the underlying theories and the principles of multimedia learning (including their points of reference). 

4. Have others help you.

The production of videos where the instructor is present on the screen generally takes more time and effort, as aspects like lighting, background and sound have to be considered. In the last few years, production studios that lecturers can use to create high-quality educational videos have been set up at many universities, including at the ZHW at the University of Regensburg.


References

Alemdag, E. (2022). Effects of instructor-present videos on learning, cognitive load, motivation, and social presence: A meta-analysis. Education and Information Technologies, 27(9), 12713–12742. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10639-022-11154-w 

Ayres, P., & Sweller, J. (2021). The Split-Attention Principle in Multimedia Learning. In R. Mayer & L. Fiorella (Hrsg.), The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 199-211). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108894333.020 

Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. (2021). Principles Based on Social Cues in Multimedia Learning: Personalization, Voice, Image, and Embodiment Principles. In R. Mayer & L. Fiorella (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 277-285). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108894333.029 

Henderson, M. L., & Schroeder, N. L. (2021). A Systematic review of instructor presence in instructional videos: Effects on learning and affect. Computers and Education Open, 2, 100059. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.caeo.2021.100059 

Mayer, R., & Fiorella, L. (Hrsg.). (2021). The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (3rd ed., Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108894333

Polat, H. (2022). Instructors’ presence in instructional videos: A systematic review. Education and Information Technologies. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10639-022-11532-4 

Sweller, J., van Merriënboer, J.J.G. & Paas, F. (2019). Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later. Educational Psychology Review 31, 261–292 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-019-09465-5


Suggestion for citation of this blog post: Bachmaier, R. (2023, December 14). Educational videos – Is the person on the screen a help or a hindrance when it comes to learning? Lehrblick – ZHW Uni Regensburg. https://doi.org/10.5283/ZHW.20231214.EN

Our authors introduce themselves:

Regine Bachmaier
Regine.Bachmaier@paedagogik.uni-regensburg.de | + posts

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