A Netflix for research? Project to turn academic papers into videos could boost academic performance

Man watching a video on his computer
A U of T Scarborough postdoc is using video to turn dense academic papers into short, easy to understand videos
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Don Campbell

A U of T Scarborough researcher is looking at turning academic research papers into short streaming videos as a way to enhance learning and boost scientific literacy.

Adam Frost, a postdoc in the department of psychology, came up with the idea to use video because so many students struggle to decipher research papers.   

He says university students in the sciences are expected to learn how to read and comprehend primary scientific sources such as academic journal articles, but often struggle when first introduced to those materials.

“I wouldn’t say students are set up to fail, but they’re definitely thrown into the deep end,” says Frost.

“The ability gap is so large that many students fail to gain a basic functional understanding of the research in those papers, and that can be a demoralizing and stressful experience.”

On the other hand, he’s been to academic conferences where he’s been able to immediately grasp the core concepts of a study from a 10-minute talk, which could take hours to accomplish when reading a research paper about an unfamiliar topic. The solution, he says, is translating that conference talk experience into videos that present the core concepts in a form that’s accessible to novices, yet substantive enough for scientists.

To test the effectiveness of these videos, a class of about 1,800 students doing an academic reading and writing assignment was split into two groups — one with access to video summaries and another without. Early results found that the group with access to the video summaries had a 14 per cent advantage on a knowledge and understanding quiz.  

“This is a substantial difference and demonstrates that video can enhance learning outcomes in a meaningful way,” says Frost.

Adam Frost

Adam Frost is a postdoc in the department of psychology at U of T Scarborough. He came up with the idea of condensing academic journal articles into short summary videos to help boost scientific literacy among students (submitted photo)

Each summary video is about 5 minutes long and includes a conversational talk about the study directly from the researcher with a few graphics overlaid throughout the video. As for content difficulty, Frost wants to make them easier to comprehend than an abstract (the brief summary at the beginning of an academic paper). He likens it to a slightly more sophisticated version of a TED Talk.

“We’re targeting viewers who have some knowledge or interest in the research material and giving them a first-hand account of the study using language most can understand” he says.

Professor Steve Joordens, director of the Advanced Learning Technologies Lab at U of T Scarborough, says an important aspect of the project is to enhance scientific literacy.

“This will help the ability of students to consume science,” says Joordens, whose lab is dedicated to creating and testing educational technologies.

“This has always been an important learning outcome for universities, but in this post-truth world it’s more critical now than ever. That’s why research like this is so important.”  

The project is being supported by Mitacs, a Canadian-based international not-for-profit organization that helps fund research and development, and SAGE Publishing. SAGE has created a library of videos serving a similar purpose, including one that Frost used in his study.

Frost hopes researchers are motivated to eventually adopt this approach if it helps improve learning outcomes. They may also be incentivized because it could increase the number of citations their papers achieve. He says a fellow scientist might be more likely to watch a good video summary of a paper on social media, and that work might come to mind when that scientist is doing their own research.

“My dream is that making these videos can become standard practice,” says Frost, whose research looks at how visual attention and working memory interact with each other.

“Who knows, maybe one day researchers can catch up on the advances related to their field by watching videos like these with their morning coffee.”