Five Tips for Using Video Clips in Class – For the Teachers

Video clips can be a fantastic addition or resource for a lesson. They can capture students’ attention, explain a point, and show students things and place and people they might not otherwise get to see.

Used well, video resources can make a good lesson even better. Used poorly, videos provide students with an in-class chance to nap. Here are some ideas for using videos well.

1) Use a Variety of Sources

I think there are ways that video clips can be used in pretty much any subject; there are so many resources available these days. I’ve used commercials and news reports to talk about content validity, student-created videos to demonstrate projects and to explain content to the next year’s class, and point-of-view videos of roller coaster rides in a science unit on physics. It seems like the possibilities are endless, which makes it even more important to choose the occasions and the video clips that will have the greatest impact.

One of my all-time favorites was a short movie that I was able to use in multiple grade levels teaching elements related to plot in reading. I stumbled across this particular video several years ago, but it’s one that has remained effective and that I’ve look forward to using year after year.

This video, called “Penguins,” was created by a high school student, Adam Harum, and won a contest for student-created videos through the Northwest Council for Computers in Education in 2005. I had the distinct pleasure of “meeting” Adam via email a few months ago and was thrilled to discover that his talent for video has extended into his adult career as part of an Emmy-winning video production company, making short films and commercials.

I’ve used “Penguins” to teach plot development and sequencing and fun stuff like that. The students think it’s funny and almost always ask to watch it again (and again). I love that there is no dialogue, so they can focus on the story. I often use this movie to introduce my favorite plot diagram. Students “practice” using the diagram based on the movie’s story before they use it again with text. (Not quite so boring that way.)

My favorite part about it is that every year, with every group of kids, there’s one particular part of the movie that makes the students gasp – and then burst out laughing. Every year, every class.

2) Have a Clear Purpose

For every video clip that you show, you should know exactly what you want students to get from it and how it fits in with what they are supposed to learn.

It seems that, especially around the holidays, videos end up being used for the purpose of filling time or babysitting.  But we have so little instructional time that it’s hard to justify wasting time on a movie, no matter how tempting.

Instead, consider how a video can add information to a lesson that makes the content easier to understand and/or more memorable:

  • Show students what daily life was/is like during a certain time period or in a particular culture or place
  • Demonstrate a scientific principles or characteristics
  • Provide a comparison to content in text
  • Provide a “hook” – like a song or phrase that can be used to remind students of a concept or skill
  • Catch attention

I love using videos at the start of a lesson to introduce a topic or give them some framework in their heads for what they’re about to learn. For example, in math I taught a unit on probability to my fifth graders. Quite a few years ago, at a time when one of the lottery jackpots was at a record high and people were buying tickets like crazy, a news show did a segment about the chances of winning the lottery – how long the odds really were. I was able to record the segment on a VHS tape (this was back in the olden days, obviously) and used it to introduce my unit on probability. The video was pretty funny – Did you know that you’re 3 times more likely to be killed by an airplane falling on you than to win the lottery jackpot? Students remembered it, and I was able to use examples from the video throughout the unit to help explain the skills/concepts we were learning.

3) Make Students Aware of the Purpose

The students need to know WHY they are being shown a video – what their reason should be for paying attention.

I’m not a big fan of giving kids a handout or worksheet to fill out while they watch; I want their eyes on the screen.

Instead, it seems to work well to simply present a question or two that could be answered within the video. Then allow time afterward to discuss and compare responses.

For example, I taught a middle school drama class one year. I used video constantly in that class; it was a fantastic way for me to show them examples of our vocabulary (like a “cold open,” “upstage,” and “suspended disbelief”). In these cases, I told them what to look for: “Raise your hand when you see one character upstage another” or “Tell your neighbor when you see an actor giving the scene.” During our unit on puppets, we watched the goatherd scene from “Sound of Music,” an incredibly well-done example of using shadow puppets (from a video I got in a random mass email from my dad), and a scene from the original Muppet movie. For that one, I asked to students to see if they could figure out where the puppeteers where during each part of the scene.

4) Maximum Time = 3 Minutes

We show a video to students to catch their attention, to inspire, to explain, to reinforce – NOT to give them time to zone out. Video clips should be short and to the point. Longer videos can be broken up into smaller chunks if needed, but be mindful about how much students really need to see to get the purpose you intend.

I taught the book The Outsiders in a 7th grade reading class. Instead of showing the movie at the end, which seems to be a common way to use movies based on novels, I used clips from within the movie to set up certain scenes – very strategically.

I intentionally timed to movie clips to stop right at a cliffhanger, which worked even better than I hoped.  Before reading the chapter about the church fire, I showed a two minute clip from that part of the movie that ended just as the church roof was starting to collapse – the screen went suddenly black. After a collective shriek from the class, the students scrambled to get their books out and open to the right page so they could find out what happened next.

I didn’t stop smiling that whole day.

5) Be Mindful of Potentially Questionable Content and Know Your Source

In our district, if we use video clips in class, we have to send home a permission slip at the beginning of the year notifying parents and giving them the opportunity to come in and preview any videos being used. There were several times when parents gave permission for only certain movies or movies with certain ratings. I intentionally tried to choose video clips from movies that would be hard for anyone to question (“The Outsiders” being a notable exception).

For example, some Disney movies are a great source of clips representing drama vocabulary, and PBS has been a great source for social studies and science content.

Be aware of copyrights. Using short clips for educational purposes is usually okay, but it might be worth verifying for each movie.

As much as possible, I either bought the movie I wanted to use, or – if it was an online video – I tried to find a way to download and save the actual movie, not just the link, so that I knew the content would be the same as I expected and available to me year after year.

Five Tips for Using Video Clips in Class

5 thoughts on “Five Tips for Using Video Clips in Class

  • August 1, 2017 at 6:19 am

    Hello. Thank you for this informative post. I always use movies offline to teach my students because movies are fun. May I ask your advice on this? I would like to sell a course online using a compilation of short video clips- around 10-20 seconds per movie. It would center on useful phrases/ idioms. I would definitely credit the movie title. Would there be a problem with this? Thanks so much for your reply.

    • August 1, 2017 at 8:01 pm

      I’m not sure what the rules for Fair Use are for something that you’ll be selling. If I was in that situation I would do some research to find out what the rules are around selling copyrighted content – even short clips for educational purposes – or chose video clips that are “public domain.”

  • October 3, 2017 at 2:43 pm
    Permalink provides a service that licenses movie clips for schools and other business. There clips are 1 to 3 minutes long and categorized by topics for easy search. Once you make a service available to others you need to get a license from the studios.

  • September 1, 2020 at 7:02 am

    Where is the Penguins video that is referenced in Part 1? I used that every year and my freshman LOVE it. It’s the most perfect thing for introducing plot, and the students always think it’s hilarious.


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