Video Assignments: an Alternative to a Traditional Paper?


When Larry Evans teaches a course, he generally has three assignments. A midterm “sanction[s] the people who aren’t doing the work.” A final forces students to “synthesize” and bring the topics of the course together. And a third assignment that does “something else.”

“When I came here the ‘something else’ was the ‘something else’ that I experienced as a liberal arts student back in seventies, and what I experienced as TA in grad school, and that was a term paper. So it would be 15-20 pages. In my course about the Congress, they would write a 15-20 page paper about how a bill became a law, or some other feature of the legislative process.” The value to students of writing papers like this diminishes over time: “Once you have done three or four of these 15-20 page term papers, you kind of have it down and you are just churning and completing assignments just for the purpose of completing assignments. So beginning in the early 1990s, I started looking for ways to change that middle assignment and make it more useful, more applied….A few years ago I started incorporating media in that third assignment.”

After a few years of experimenting with assignments like mock committee meetings, Larry deployed his new third assignment in a large class—a course with two sections of forty students each. Larry asks students to place themselves on a spectrum ranging from liberal to conservative, and then depending on their politics, and their experience with, or interest in, video production he assigns them into groups of three or four. The assignment: “go out, pick somebody who is a viable candidate for congress, study that person’s race, study their district or their state, study their party, study them, and their opponent and craft a campaign message. Tell me why this is your message and then cut a thirty second campaign commercial that gets this across.” Students get assigned rolls, one does background research, one writes a script, one is the videographer, and one serves as an editor to bring it all together. “Then my role basically stops. I am kind of out of the process and I just do nothing for the next six weeks or so and in comes these campaign commercials. So it is the ideal assignment.[laughs]”

When the students bring their finished campaign commercials back to Larry, he is usually impressed with quality of the production. “In part it is because they are media savvy, but it’s also because a lot of the software is pretty straight forward if you don’t get into it in too much depth.” At first, with the help of the Swem Media Center, students used iMovie to produce their commercials. They quickly found that the more high-powered Final Cut Pro was easy enough to use at a basic level that they could move on this more advanced software. With the help of the Media Center staff and the help documents they produce for students, students are usually able to use the software with out any further help from faculty members. “I’ve not had a single student in two years—160 students—ever ask me for help on the software side, which is a good thing. But I assumed the first time I did this assignment that I would have a line outside my door the night before it was due, but it never happened.”

Larry believes that this video assignment “provides hands-on exposure to thinking about campaign strategy and representation that they wouldn’t get in a normal paper assignment and it’s fun for them.” He plans to keep doing this assignment for the foreseeable future until he decides to do something else.

The success of this particular assignment has encouraged Larry to take more chances in his teaching. “We need to take more chances and, maybe wing it every now and then. Because I’ll tell you, the first time we did this assignment, I had no idea if this was going to work. Part of me thought ‘This could be a complete and utter disaster—it could literally crash and burn’, in which case we’ll simply reallocate the grading points between the midterm and the final and I won’t do this again. I think this is one of those cases that I am really glad that I took the chance because it worked out really well.”

If you are interested in adding new media to your course, you can start the conversation by posting a comment here, emailing your Academic Technology Specialist, or contacting Troy Davis at the Swem Media Center.

Read more and watch a video about Larry’s video projects at W&M News…

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