College Writers Become Youtube Gurus


Few academic assignments are as universally dreaded as the research paper. It is certainly the case that one of the most important skills that college students can acquire is the ability to express themselves effectively in long-form writing. At the same time, however, the genre of the research paper can intimidate and alienate students who might find it to be an unfamiliar or onerous medium for communicating what they know and what they think about a topic. One strategy I have found helpful in addressing this issue is to encourage students to develop their research papers into instructional videos. Students still do all the work of researching, organizing, drafting, and revising a research paper, but the added step of using their research paper as a script for a narrated video helps to make the final product more meaningful, encourages students to incorporate visual and auditory elements into their research projects, and enables students to share their writing with their classmates and with a global online community. At the same time, the video project allows students who do not self-identify as strong writers to demonstrate additional knowledge and skills.

This case study provides an overview of how students were supported in the process of developing their research papers into video lectures, as well as a description of the procedure students followed to arrive at this goal. While the most conspicuous element of this teaching strategy is the video itself, this case study also examines the scaffolded manner in which the video project developed through a sequence of stages. Students worked in groups to generate insights and observations, and they developed these notes into an oral presentation, scripted the presentation out into a written essay, and recorded the video as the final step in this sequence of assignments. While the steps students followed to create their videos closely follow the traditional steps of the writing process (Hairston, 1982), the inclusion of the video element led to several novel permutations on the writing process that enhanced students’ engagement with the material and allowed for more opportunities for student writers to receive and respond to feedback from their peers and from the class instructor.


After completing this case study, participants will be able to …

  1. Describe how developing research papers into video lectures can provide students with multiple means of expressing and communicating their ideas.
  2. Use this technique to provide students with multiple options for sustaining effort and persistence.
  3. Identify possibilities for incorporating student-produced video lectures in their own classes.
  4. Implement a sequence of assignments that guide students through the process of developing a research project into a video lecture.

UDL Alignment

This project is principally inspired by Principle II: Provide multiple means of action and expression. For obvious reasons, writing classes tend to focus on writing as the central form of expression. By embedding the writing assignment within the audio-visual context of a lecture video, however, this project encourages students to make connections between their writing and other media of self-expression. At the same time, the multimedia nature of the final product allows for multiple means of assessment to supplement the class’s focus on written composition.

This sequence of assignments was inspired by the priority of providing multiple means of action and expression for students in a writing class. One of the guidelines under this principle is guideline 5: provide multiple means for expression and communication, and this guideline is further divided into three subordinate strategies, each one of which is reflected in the design of this video lecture project.

5.1: Use multiple media for communication.

The video lecture project obviously takes advantage of video and auditory elements that are not represented in a traditional writing class, but the sequence of assignments leading up the production of the video also take advantage of a range of diverse activities, including independent work, small-group collaboration, and wholeclass discussion, as well as encompassing formal and informal presentations and different forms of writing (note-taking, reflection writing, outlining, and long-form academic writing).

5.2: Use multiple tools for construction and composition.

Whereas traditional writing classes emphasize the centrality of the word processing program as the predominant and often exclusive “tool” for composition, the sequence of assignments leading up to the video lecture requires students to articulate their ideas through a range of media tools, including oral reporting, structured discussion, visual imagery, and, of course, video. More importantly, the fluidity of the relationship among these different media of expression (the reflection essays inform the small-group discussions, which evolve into a PowerPoint presentation, which develops into an essay, which becomes a video, etc.) fosters an awareness of the interconnections among these different media and their relative strengths and weaknesses.

5.3: Build fluencies with graduated levels of support for practice and performance.

The multiple steps of the video lecture project are intended to support introductory-level writing students as they develop the sophistication and professionalism of their writing. First-year writing students come to college with a range of levels of preparedness, so it is necessary to develop assignments that are adaptable and flexible enough to meet the needs of individual learners at any level of proficiency. The lowstakes assignments toward the beginning of the sequence allow the students and the instructor to develop an awareness of their own strengths as writers and to identify specific areas for continued improvement. The progressive organization of the assignments steadily raises the degree of complexity with each stage, building new elements on previous stages in a way that exemplifies the principle of scaffolded instruction.

The project also aligns with Principle III: Provide multiple means of engagement. The interactive, multimodal process of developing their videos provides instructors with multiple opportunities for recruiting student interest, sustaining student effort, and encouraging students to monitor and regulate their own progress. The various media involved in the assignment sequence allows different students to capitalize on their diverse skillsets, and to develop connections between those forms of expression that come more naturally to them and those that prove more challenging. Additionally, the team-oriented structure of this assignment optimizes opportunities for collaborative engagement and community-based learning.

Instructional Practice

Why Videos?

Increasingly, the UDL model is influencing public policy and the pedagogical climate of educational institutions from elementary schools to colleges. The application of UDL principles to the teaching of composition occasions both opportunities and challenges. Prioritizing accessibility is always necessary for writing instructors, who routinely design their classroom practice in ways capable of accommodating students from a wide range of linguistic backgrounds. At the same time, writing instructors may struggle with what it means to provide “multiple means of assessment,” in a situation where the form of assessment, the student’s written work, is inalienable from the skill being assessed, the student’s ability to write effectively.

One of the most important elements to successful writing instruction is the elusive goal of making the writing situation a meaningful one for students. Eodice, Geller, and Lerner (2017) have found that “students find writing projects meaningful when they have opportunities to connect on a personal level, to find meaning beyond the specifics of the assignment itself, and to imagine future selves or future writing identities connected to their goals and interests” (p. 29). When students think of an academic paper as an end in itself, it may be difficult for them to think of writing assignments as “agentive, relevant, and consequential” (p.29). One way of restoring these important qualities to the writing situation is to frame the writing of a students’ essays as a step along the way to producing video lectures that allow them to communicate their research to an online community, to apply their findings to the concerns of a general audience, and to use their research as a way of asserting their own identities as authoritative online voices.

My own experience with this pedagogical technique has indicated that the production of these videos does indeed enhance the meaningfulness of students’ writing projects, an observation that corresponds with Strassman and O’Connell’s (2007) observation that students working with video “are more motivated to envision the effect of their work on a viewer. The process makes explicit the role of good writing and revision in weaving multiple visual images into an interesting presentation or persuasive point of view” (p. 331).

The production of video lectures is a low-cost, high-reward strategy for motivating students to write, an activity which, in the twenty-first century, relies more heavily on digital forms of communication. Traditionally, students write their research paper and, sometimes, they will also develop it into a PowerPoint presentation. The video element simply goes the extra step of combining the text of the paper with the images of the student’s presentation to create a video file that can be housed in perpetuity on YouTube or any other social media site.

The Writing Situation

In Fall of 2017, the college where I work hosted an academic conference to mark the 40th anniversary of the broadcast of the miniseries Roots. This event represented an extraordinary opportunity for my freshman writing students to communicate with professional writers and scholars from around the country, and I wanted to do whatever I could to create the conditions for them to participate meaningfully in the conference. This was a daunting prospect, however, given that my English 101 class was composed entirely of introductory writing students, most of whom had never heard of Roots. I had a little more than a month between the first day of class and the first day of the conference, and I wanted to use this time not only to familiarize them with Roots’s story and characters but also to make them feel as though they were experts on the subject, empowered to share the stage with people who study Roots for a living. The idea of working with them to create video lectures emerged from this exigency: if the students could convincingly convey an air of expertise via social media, they could realistically consider themselves bona fide authorities.

The Process

In order to facilitate students’ journeys from not knowing anything about their topic to presenting themselves as YouTube gurus, it was necessary to create a graduated sequence of assignments that would provide a series of stepping stones culminating toward the production of the video lecture.

1. Compiling notes: We began by viewing the movie and taking notes. As a way of structuring the students’ attention, I provided them with one of five randomly assigned themes to pay attention to as they watched the movie (nature, freedom, family, hope, and identity). As the students came into the auditorium for the viewing, I gave each student one of five note-taking worksheets with the theme on the top of the page and a few guiding questions related to each theme underneath. The students were asked to take note of any dialogue, imagery, or action that related to their theme. While most students used the note-taking worksheet, I also invited them to take notes on their digital devices and to take pictures or draw sketches of important scenes in the movie. In addition to providing students with material for developing observations from their viewing, these notes also served as an initial point of assessment for the project, providing an early opportunity to monitor students’ comprehension of the film and to provide feedback on their engagement with the movie’s themes.

2. Reflecting and making connections: We watched the movie over a series of three viewings. After each viewing, the students had time in class to convene with the four or five other students who were assigned the same theme in order to compare the notes they had taken about the theme during the movie. Their homework after each of these classes was to write a brief report on what notes they had taken during the movie and what they had discussed with their group. Moving back and forth between taking their own notes, discussing their responses with their fellow students, and writing up their thoughts into reflection essays allowed students to process information from the movie through a number of different cognitive channels. The more formal writing students did for their reflection essays was supported and informed by the free-form recording of data in their notes and the social interactivity of their “theme team” discussion sessions. The mutually reinforcing nature of these different forms of articulating their ideas about the movie allowed students to achieve a deep understanding of the content. Moreover, this iterative process of developing their impressions of the film allowed the instructor to monitor individual students’ engagement with the project, and to provide supplemental coaching and instruction as necessary.

3. Collaborating on a common thesis: Once the viewing was completed, the student teams read each other’s reflection essays in class and worked together to arrive at a consensus regarding how their theme was represented in the miniseries. In the interest of accommodating different points of view within a single discussion, students were encouraged to articulate a thesis statement that was broad enough to encompass a range of approaches. A thesis simply stating that “the theme of freedom,” for example, “plays an important role in Roots,” is not particularly earth-shattering, but it creates a rhetorical space in which different students can present their own impressions of how the value of freedom is represented in the story. Since students were working in teams of four or five students, different students’ suggestions of how their team’s thesis statement should sound provided opportunities for comparative evaluations of the strengths and weaknesses of different potential thesis statements. The collaborative aspect of this phase of the project provided a unique opportunity for students to “self-correct” each other’s thesis statements, working together to articulate a sentence capable of encompassing the various interpretations and emphases of the group’s members.

4. Crafting a structure: Once the students articulated a common thesis statement, the teams worked together to break down their collective impression of the theme so that each team member took ownership of a particular piece of the argument. For example, the theme of nature can be discussed in terms of:

  1. The way nature is represented in the part of the story that takes place in Africa
  2. The relationship between nature and the story’s enslaved characters
  3. The relationship between nature and the slave owners
  4. The manner in which the language of what is “natural” is used to justify and argue against the institution of slavery
  5. The relationship between the depiction of nature in the movie and the realities of our ecological situation in modern times.

Over the course of discussing and writing about their themes, it became the case that certain students would identify particular scenes, symbols, or characters that they were drawn to, and the teams were asked to organize their outlines around the insights and perspectives of their individual members. The students were provided with this simple grid to help them construct a rough outline for their team presentation that included the individual interpretations of the team’s members within a wider structure dominated by the team’s thesis.

Roots Presentation Outline

Member's Topic
Sub-Topic 1
Sub-Topic 2
Sub-Topic 2
Member 2's Topic
Sub-Topic 1
Sub-Topic 2
Sub-Topic 3
Member 3's Topic
Sub-Topic 1
Sub-Topic 2
Sub-Topic 3
Member 4's Topic
Sub-Topic 1
Sub-Topic 2
Sub-Topic 3
Member 5's Topic
Sub-Topic 1
Sub-Topic 2
Sub-Topic 3

The student groups used this worksheet to produce a rough outline of their lecture that divided their discussion up into main points and sub-points. The team’s development of the outline proved to be a recursive process, as thesis statements evolved to reflect a variety of main points, and as main points shaped themselves to fit into the incipient structure represented by the outline. Along the way, the instructor worked closely with the student teams to manage questions about how to sequence different ideas, how to avoid redundancy among different team members’ contributions, and how to ensure a sense of proportion and continuity among the different units of the outline. All of these considerations provided opportunities to reflect on organizational principles that inform the structure of academic writing. When a team reached a consensus on the shape of the project outline, the main points were assigned to individual members of the team, who became responsible for elaborating their main points with supporting examples relating to specific details of the film.

5. Running through the argument: Once the students compiled all of their pieces into a complete outline for their thematic analysis of Roots, they developed these outlines into PowerPoint presentations. The student teams used the points and sub-points of their outlines as the basis for a PowerPoint presentation, deciding where the natural breaks would come between slides, how to transition from one sub-point to the next, and how to illustrate the content of the slide with images from the movie or elsewhere. After each student team orally delivered their presentations to the class, the students and the instructor responded with questions, requests for further clarification on specific points, and suggestions about how to organize the presentation for maximum effectiveness. In the interest of optimizing student engagement, each student was asked to complete a response sheet for each of the presentations.


Presentation feedback response sheet

Introduction Not reallySort ofTotally
Identified the topic of discussion

Proposed a general thesis

Part 1

Was about:

Consisted of three paragraphs and three slides

Was easy to understand

Is ready to go

Part 2

Was about:

Consisted of three paragraphs and three slides

Was easy to understand

Is ready to go
Part 3

Was about:

Consisted of three paragraphs and three slides

Was easy to understand

Is ready to go

Part 4

Was about:
Consisted of three paragraphs and three slides
Was easy to understand
Is ready to go
Part 5
Was about:
Consisted of three paragraphs and three slides
Was easy to understand
Is ready to go
Summed up the main point

Provided a sense of closure

What was the best part of this presentation?

What about this presentation might be improved?

The experience of delivering their remarks before the class allowed students to identify awkward, repetitive, and underdeveloped elements in their own arguments.  At the same time, the opportunity to respond critically to their classmates’ presentations provided the class with an opportunity to discuss best practices related to oral presentations and to identify successful strategies and techniques related to this genre. In addition to the oral question-and-answer session, students received response sheets from their classmates and from the instructor detailing the strengths of their presentations as well as areas for potential improvements. The student teams then incorporated this feedback into revised versions of their PowerPoint presentation.

6. Scripting out the presentation: Once these presentations had been delivered and revised, the next step was simply to “script them out” into complete sentences and paragraphs. Drafting is typically the most challenging part of the writing process for most students, who often feel alone in their attempts to connect their ideas into a coherent piece of writing. By re-conceptualizing this stage of the process as a “scripting out” a presentation that they had already designed and delivered, however, the students were able to proceed much more confidently, having had the support of the class and the instructor in the development and organization of their arguments. Students were encouraged to think of the slides of their PowerPoint presentations as paragraphs of their essays, to translate their main bullet points into topic sentences, and to use the supporting details they had included on the individual slides as the content for each paragraph. Students went into the drafting process with a strong sense of what they wanted to write and why they were writing it, since they had already been putting their ideas together throughout the outlining and presentation stages of the project.

7. Revising and editing the script: Student teams had opportunities in class to work together to help their teammates whose drafts were incomplete or underdeveloped. Since the teams had gotten to know one another so well by this point in the project, they were well-equipped to help their classmates articulate the points of view that they had developed. While students were largely responsible for their “own” portions of the final presentation, the collaborative ethos of the project encouraged all of the team members to work together to ensure a consistently strong final product. Students whose writing skills were less developed than those of their peers, therefore, had a built-in network of peer mentors to help them revise and polish their writing.

Students were also given class time to read the drafts of their scripts aloud to their groups, listening for awkward and incomplete sentences. In addition to supplementing the visual aspect of written communication with the oral aspect of spoken communication, the process of reading one’s own writing aloud is a valuable editing strategy that this stage of the video project encourages students to practice. The looming prospect of recording their scripts into a video lecture focused students’ attention on the sound of their language. In addition to scanning for issues related to the organization and development of their ideas, students were also encouraged to reflect on how to make their sentences clearer and their meaning more accessible. The revision stage also provided a final point in the process for the instructor to provide feedback on grammatical and technical aspects of the students’ writing, both through editorial comments written on the students’ essays and through face-to-face conferencing At this stage in the process, the student teams also worked together to craft a collective introduction and conclusion to bookend their presentations, and to focus on techniques for indicating transitions between sections of their presentation. The process of writing and introduction and conclusion for their essay allowed the class to review best practices for these kinds of paragraphs, and, crucially, to reflect on the “big picture” suggested by their thesis statements. Student teams were encouraged to discuss with one another the kind of impact they wanted their video to have, and to develop a first and final paragraph that would communicate this message.

8. Recording and designing the video: Using the PowerPoint slides from Step 5 as a starting point, the students took turns recording their portions of their script to the corresponding slides. The process of doing so led to a number of impromptu mini-lessons on the art of elocution and timing. Commonly, students tended to read too fast, or to read through sentences without being clear about their meaning. Between “takes” of the recording session, the teams worked together to specify places where the reader should pause for breath or to mark specific words and phrases that merit emphasis. The opportunity to record multiple takes fostered a “low-stakes” environment where students were able to continue refining their oral delivery in ways that enhanced the clarity of their presentation and provided examples of strategies for reading and speaking clearly and effectively.

9. Posting, sharing, and commenting: Once the videos were recorded, I coordinated with the Communications Department at my school to obtain the students’ permission to post them on my personal YouTube channel. Once the videos were published on the Internet, I encouraged the students to share their work with one another, as well as with their social media communities. As an added bonus, the students were able to share their videos with some of the participants in the Roots conference, who expressed surprise and delight at the degree to which these students demonstrated their expertise in the miniseries.


The outcomes of the video lecture project were extremely positive. For one thing, the students all produced informative and thoughtful video essays on their respective themes:

Roots study guide: The theme of Family
Roots study guide: The theme of Identity
Roots study guide: The theme of Nature
Roots study guide: The theme of Freedom
Roots study guide: The theme of Hope

Although the students all came into the class with varying degrees of proficiency as writers, they worked together to define a common expectation of achievement and helped each other to reach the goal, resulting in a high level of consistency among the different speakers’ portions of the five video lectures.

An even more significant measure of the success of the assignment is reflected by the retention rates for this class. At the institution where I teach, introductory-level classes are plagued by retention problems, but the twenty students who originally enrolled in this class all remained engaged and involved throughout this activity, and all twenty passed the class at the end of the semester. The video project facilitated a sense of collegiality and shared purpose that encouraged students to keep coming back to class.


When I first pitched the idea for the video lecture project to my students, they immediately raised the question of how the videos would be graded. Since the genre of the student-produced video lecture is fluid and uncodified, I encouraged the students to articulate their own criteria for determining the success of their video projects. The students suggested all of the obvious elements that one would anticipate, and we collaboratively developed the following rubric for evaluating their video lectures.

Video Lecture Rubric

ArgumentLecture articulates a clear point of view and supports all significant claims with relevant evidence

Lecture articulates a clear point of view and supports most significant claims with relevant evidence

Lecture articulates a point of view, although some points might not be perfectly clear, and all claims are not supported by relevant evidence

Point of view is unclear throughout the lecture, and claims are not supported by relevant evidence

CompositionLecture is entirely written in an articulate, professional style that uses topic sentences and transition statements to organize claims into effective paragraphs

Lecture is mostly written in an articulate, professional style, and uses topic sentences and transition statements to organize claims into paragraphs

Lecture contains occasional awkward or incomplete sentences, but uses topic sentences and transition statements to organize claims into paragraphs

Lecture contains frequent awkward or incomplete sentences, and topic sentences and transition statements may be unclear or missing

ElocutionSpeaker is well-rehearsed and reads with perfect fluency

Speaker is well-rehearsed and reads with general fluency

Speaker has rehearsed, but occasional mistakes mar the speaker’s fluency

Speaker has clearly not rehearsed

Visual element

Visual images enhance the content of the presentation

Visual images supplement the content of the presentation

Visual images accompany the presentation, but their relationship to the content may be difficult to discern

Visual images distract from the content of the presentation, or are missing altogether

Textual element

Textual elements enhance the content of the presentation

Textual elements supplement the content of the presentation

Textual elements accompany the presentation, but their relationship to the content may be difficult to discern

Textual elements distract from the content of the presentation, or are missing altogether

Overall coherence

The team members have worked together to articulate a thesis that encompasses their individual perspectives and to establish a strong sense of continuity throughout the presentation

The team members have worked together to articulate a thesis that encompasses their individual perspectives and to establish a general sense of continuity throughout the presentation

The team members have worked together to articulate a thesis that encompasses their individual perspectives, but portions of the lecture are disconnected or redundant

The team members have not successfully articulated a thesis statement that encompasses their individual perspectives, resulting in an overall sense of discontinuity

This rubric proved to be a useful reference point throughout the project, but the assessment of the final project was only one part of a larger series of assignments, each of which provided students with feedback on their progress. In the early stages of the project, students received feedback on the notes they had taken and on their reflection essays from both their peers and their instructor. As the project moved along, students received both written and oral feedback from their teammates, their classmates on other teams, and their instructor on their thesis statements, their outlines, and their PowerPoint presentations. The students’ drafting of their scripts provided opportunities for them to receive detailed feedback on their writing at both a structural level and at the sentencelevel and to incorporate these observations into revised versions of their scripts. By the time the students were producing the actual videos, they had already been involved in an intensive loop of soliciting and responding to feedback that guided and supported their progress throughout the writing process.

Future Development

Although this particular assignment was organized around a literary/filmic analysis, the video lecture project can easily be adapted to other kinds of writing classes, and could also provide a model for teaching composition in other disciplines. I have recently begun adapting this assignment sequence for use in a 300-level advanced writing class. One of the major changes I have made for these more advanced students has been to replace the team-based structure of the assignment with individual projects. Students still work collaboratively to provide one another with feedback on their projects at multiple points of the writing process, but the higher levels of independence and self-directed learning that characterizes students at the advanced level necessitates an arrangement that provides them with more autonomy in their writing process and greater ownership of their final product. The importance in the upper-level context of conducting research and citing sources has also led me to revise the assignment sequence to incorporate a stronger emphasis on these important elements of academic writing. At every level, however, student writers want to feel that they are writing for a reason, that there is an audience out there that is interested in what they have to say, and that the effort they are putting into their assignments is shaping them into credible and authoritative experts. With sufficient preparation and support, college writing students can transform themselves into YouTube gurus.

Learn More

One of the most comprehensive resources regarding the impact of digital media, and especially YouTube, on writing instruction, is certainly Sarah J. Arroyo’s Participatory Composition: Video Culture, Writing, and Electracy (2013).  Arroyo’s work builds on the groundbreaking scholarship of Gregory Ulmer and Victor Vitanza, supplying a useful range of both theoretical principles and practical classroom strategies that chart out the possibilities of incorporating online video into composition pedagogy.  The videos produced by the Khan Academy are an enduring source of inspiration regarding the potential of digital videos to convey information, and students also respond positively to other varieties of short online video lectures, including TED Talks and video lectures posted by colleges and universities such as MIT and the University of Oxford.

References & Resources

Arroyo, S. (2013). Participatory composition: Video culture, writing, and electracy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Edoice, M., Geller, A. E., & Lerner, N. (2017). What meaningful writing means for students. Peer Review19(1), 25.

Hairston, M. (1982). The Winds of change: Thomas Kuhn and the revolution in the teaching of writing. College Composition and Communication, 33(1), 76-88.

Strassman, B. K., & O’Connell, T. (2007). Authoring with video. Reading Teacher61(4), 330-333. doi:10.1598/RT.61.4.5

About the Author

Randy Laist

Randy Laist

Randy Laist is a faculty member at Goodwin College in East Hartford, Connecticut, where he teaches classes in writing, literature, and digital media. He is the author of Technology and Postmodern Subjectivity in Don DeLillo’s Novels and Cinema of Simulation: Hyperreal Hollywood in the Long 1990s, and he is the editor of the multiauthor volumes Looking for Lost: Critical Essays on the Enigmatic Series and Plants and Literature: Essays in Critical Plant Studies. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education.