The past decade has seen an explosion in free, online videos that teach everything from art history to Spanish to calculus. Students today are accustomed to being assigned videos by their teachers. And they consume educational videos on their own to supplement what they’re learning in school. There’s Khan Academy, Crash Course, The Organic Chemistry Tutor, The Amoeba Sisters, Señor Jordan, and many, many more.
Since video learning has become so ubiquitous, it’s high time I covered some best practices for learning via video. So here are eight tips for getting the most out of educational videos:
1. Write stuff down.
The main downside of video is that it’s passive. It’s all-too-easy to just sit there and watch. If you want to actually retain what the video is teaching, you’ll need to be actively engaged.
That means taking notes. Write down the key ideas, the vocabulary, the equations – whatever it is they’re presenting. Sometimes you’ll want to draw pictures, diagrams, maps, or timelines. Keep your pencil busy, and you’ll get way more out of the videos you watch.
2. Work ahead.
For anything that involves solving problems – math, chemistry, physics – your note-taking will involve following along with the example problems the video is presenting. But any time you think you’ve got it figured out, try to work ahead of the video. Pause and see if you can continue the problem on your own. Then let it play and see if you were right.
3. Pause often.
In order to do the first two things, you’ll most likely need to pause the video frequently. Most YouTube videos go really fast (I’m looking at you Crash Course), so your only hope of keeping up with note-taking is to pause whenever they say something important.
Pro-tip: hitting spacebar pauses and un-pauses YouTube videos.
4. Look things up.
Another thing you can do when the video is paused is look things up.
Did they just use a vocab word you don’t know? Look it up and write down the definition.
Did they just gloss over a major concept as though you’re supposed to already know it? Look it up and take notes.
5. Rewind if you need to.
One of the advantages of video over in-person lectures is that you can rewind. People don’t like repeating themselves, but videos don’t care. Rewind and replay whenever you need to.
Forgot to pause while you were taking notes? Rewind.
Got distracted by something? Rewind.
Spaced out for a minute? Rewind.
6. Adjust the speed.
Another advantage of video is the ability to adjust the playback speed. If they’re talking too quickly, you can slow them down. If the video is moving too slowly, you can speed it up.
I find the latter especially useful for long videos where the thing I’m looking for is somewhere in the middle. I turn the speed up, let it play until they get to the topic I want covered, and then I slow it back down and take notes.
7. Watch multiple videos on the same topic.
Sometimes, the way a video teaches a topic makes perfect sense to me. Most of the time, though, it offers only a partial understanding. But that’s fine because there are always other options.
If the Crash Course Biology video on meiosis felt confusing, I can go watch The Amoeba Sisters video on the same topic.
Seeing the topic repeatedly and from multiple angles deepens your understanding of it. (It also taps into the power of spaced repetition, improving retention.)
8. Write down your questions.
Video is great, but it’s rigid. You can’t ask it questions. Maybe your question will be answered by a Google search or another video, but often it won’t be. So write down your questions to ask a teacher, tutor, or friend later.
Videos may not be your favorite way to learn, but they’re here to stay, and they can be really helpful. With these techniques in your toolkit, you’ll be sure to find learning from videos both easier and more enjoyable.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.