Video Podcasts (Vodcasts) Add Life to General Zoology!

Sehoya Cotner
Joseph Kleinschmidt
Michael Kempnich

What motivated change?
General Zoology is offered each semester as part of the required curriculum of many pre-professional and natural sciences students. Because Zoology is typically rooted in classic Linnaean taxonomy (Kingdom, Phylum, etc.), it can seem like a relatively uninspired march through the animal groupings, or clades. The traditional lecture-style offering, compounded by student perceptions of the material as stale, have created a course that must be “gotten through,” rather than one that motivates and transforms.  And while the instructor (SC) attempted to educate and entertain, she did not typically involve the students in the process of science.  Thus, she sought ways to make the course more about questions and process, spending less time in class focusing on discrete bits of information. From this search, and with the support of the Office of Information Technology’s Faculty Fellowship Program, the Zoology Vodcast Project emerged.

The Vodcast Project 
Project Overview
Students were tasked with generating mini vodcasts (“Science Friday” style; see for an example) to present contemporary work in zoology.  Now that technological constraints are less of an issue (anybody with Powerpoint or Keynote can make a short, simple movie to share online), students can focus on their message (illustrating the process of science as it pertains to topics in animal evolution) while at the same time using “hip” new media.

With the explicit use of the term vodcast (or video podcast), we want to stress the use of video without confusing the content with audio-only podcasts. Moreover, video projects may represent live-action video. With vodcasts, students can create any combination of PowerPoint slides with accompanying narration, live-action video shot by students, and live-action video from approved sources on the Internet. But what really identifies the vodcasts is the overarching narration with every video, whereby a story is conveyed through multimedia.

Project goals were for students to: (1) realize the dynamic and ongoing nature of zoology research, (2) participate meaningfully in the communication of science, (3) appreciate how our understanding of animals has been, and is being, constructed, and (4) engage their peers in the process of science, as it relates to zoology.

Project Specifics
In Spring 2011, 105 students in General Zoology at the University of Minnesota participated in a new project—small-group production of vodcasts—worth 10% of their total grade for the semester. Each vodcast was designed to communicate recent primary research (using current journal articles) in one of the animal clades. Students were charged with choosing a topic (by animal group and date discussed in class), reviewing contemporary literature, and selecting a journal article that is understandable, relevant, and informative.  A grading rubric was provided a priori, so students began the project with a list of expectations. Projects were evaluated on technical aspects (e.g., “audio is understandable and appropriately timed” and “graphics and written words are legible and remain onscreen long enough to be read”), timeliness, and vodcast content (e.g., “makes clear connections to class material” and “conveys understanding of the scientific processes involved.”).  

Beginning in week five of the semester, a new vodcast was premiered in each class, for three new premieres each week. These five-minute premieres complemented lecture material by focusing on the zoological vignettes the students found most interesting, and were the highlight of many of the class sessions. Vodcasts were posted on a public blog space along with questions to guide the viewer. Students could—and were encouraged to—revisit their peers’ videos from the blog in preparation for exams.

In Spring 2012, 106 students in General Zoology participated in the vodcast project, redesigned based on experiences and feedback from the 2011 pilot project.

Project Assessment
The Vodcasts
Vodcast evaluation was based less on the technical capabilities of the students and more on the video’s ability to communicate the science. Vodcasts showcased content in a variety of methods ranging from simple slide shows with added narration to more complex video production (visit
to see vodcasts from Spring 2012). Students used prezi, Keynote, Powerpoint, QuickTime, Windows Movie Maker, iMovie, or a combination of tools. Every video included a “hook,” or simple attention-getting device, the most salient features of the scientific article, and finally the broader implications of the research.

In the 2011 pilot, the vodcasts ranged in quality from exceptional to weak.  Some themes emerged in the early vodcasts that led to a clearer description of expectations in 2012. Specifically, many of the vodcasts were too long, relied too much on external media (typically gathered from youtube), and seemed disorganized. These problems were addressed by implementing a time restriction (suggesting vodcasts be between 4 and 5 minutes long), allowing no more than 20% of the vodcast to be from external media, and requiring a storyboard one week ahead of time. As a result, the 2012 projects were consistently good—neither too long to keep the students’ attention, nor too short to convey a story about the science, constructed largely with original material (e.g., simple animations, video shot by the students, voice-over narration), and clearly planned in advance.

Student Surveys
In both semesters, students were surveyed about various aspects of the vodcast project—specifically, the project’s perceived utility in helping them learn course material and understand how science is conducted. Also, pre-course and post-course survey items assessed student confidence in their scientific abilities (e.g., to interpret tables and graphs, make a argument using scientific evidence, and discuss scientific concepts with friends or family).

Student response to the vodcasts themselves has been very good (Table 1). On the post-course survey, students rated their level of agreement with several statements related to the vodcast project (e.g., “Developing my vodcast encouraged me to think about how science is communicated,” and “I enjoyed watching other vodcasts in class”). Most items averaged between 1 (“Strongly Agree”) and 2 (“Agree”):
A sample of student comments follows:
On all of the nine science-confidence metrics, the students’ self-reported confidence improved significantly over the course of the semester. For example, students reported a pre-course average response of 3.58 (where 3 = “Somewhat Confident” and 4 = “Highly Confident”) to the item  “Make an argument using scientific evidence;” the average post-course response was 4.11 (where 5 = “Extremely Confident”), with a pair-wise difference of means that is significant at the p<.0001 level.  Students showed similar gains in their confidence to do all of the following:
It is impossible to imply causation from the vodcast project, however it was the only course element in which the students were primarily responsible for describing scientific concepts, interpreting data, evaluating claims, and relating scientific findings to a “bigger picture.” Thus, it is logical to assume this project played a role—major or minor—in the increase in student confidence from the beginning to the end of the course.

Based on our experiences with the Zoology Vodcast Project, we highly recommend a similar activity for those seeking novel ways to engage their students in reporting the work of their disciplines. These projects have several potential benefits for students and teachers alike, namely
  1. Most of the work is completed outside of class, but showcased in class and shared with their peers. In this way, the intellectual burden is similar to that of many paper-writing assignments, however students enjoy premiering their work in an efficient, engaging manner.
  2. Grading is straightforward, especially when based on a specific rubric such as the one we provide.
  3. Science is dynamic and memorable with video storytelling.

With such an open, student-driven project, quality varies considerably without some restrictions and clearly defined expectations. Thus, we recommend the following strategies to improve the student and teacher experience with vodcasts.

  1. Assign the project early in the course, and provide a means for students to collaborate. On open-ended comments, students remarked that, as this is a time-intensive project requiring group-work, having plenty of lead-time was helpful. A few groups initiated their dialogue months ahead of their final deadline, and used moodle’s group feature to discuss possible papers, meeting times, and storyboarding.
  2. Model the entire process. In the second week of the semester, we assigned a scientific paper that we then discussed in the context of vodcast production. As part of our class dialogue, we addressed possible attention-getting hooks, which features of the paper were essential to communicate, a possible take-home message from the work, and how exactly to translate this information to visuals and sound. Then, we used their input to construct a vodcast ourselves. By specifically transferring their thoughts to the video, and using a familiar paper, we were able to clarify expectations and reduce much of the confusion about the project.
  3. Make everybody accountable for every vodcast. There are many ways to store and organize video online (we used the blog-space,, and students have access to numerous devices for retrieving these videos. Each group was tasked with supplying a few questions to accompany their vodcast, and we drew upon these questions on lecture exams, iClicker quizzes, and class discussions. All vodcasts premiered to an attentive audience, which may be partly due to the knowledge that they (the students) would somehow be accountable for the material.
  4. Be as specific about expectations as possible. Between the pilot year and the second year of this project, we refined the project description and the grading rubric to be clearer about expectations. These revisions appear to have paid off, for the year-two vodcasts were consistently better than those from the pilot year.
  5. Acknowledge extra effort. Some groups exceeded expectations, producing vodcasts featuring local experts (at the University of Minnesota or neighboring institutions), generating their own simple animations to illustrate complex experimental procedures, or communicating directly with the primary investigators to obtain images, video, etc. We often shared these vodcasts with the investigators, colleagues in related fields, or the administration, thereby letting students know that they had excelled.  We know, based on anecdotal student response, that this type of acknowledgment is meaningful and memorable.

Concluding remarks
By investing time and energy in the construction of these vodcasts, students were able to (1) realize the dynamic and ongoing nature of zoology research, (2) participate meaningfully in the communication of science, (3) appreciate how our understanding of animals has been, and is being, constructed, and (4) engage their peers in the process of science, as it relates to zoology. An evaluation of the vodcasts themselves, as well as student data on perceptions of the process, lead us to conclude that the Zoology Vodcast Project is worthwhile. We encourage interested teachers in other disciplines to consider similar projects, whereby students not only consume, but also generate, the media designed to facilitate their learning.

The authors wish to acknowledge the logistic and financial support of the OIT Faculty Fellows Program, with special thanks to Christopher Brooks, Lauren Marsh, and Kim Wilcox. Also, Scott Spicer with the University Libraries was a great help in developing the project. Lastly, we are grateful to the wonderful students in General Zoology during the 2011 and 2012 Spring semesters!


Sehoya Cotner <>
Sehoya is an Associate Professor of Teaching in the Biology Program, with interests in evolution education, and the use of technology to engage students in scientific storytelling. The work described in this chapter formed the basis of her work as an OIT Faculty Fellow for the 2010-2011 academic years.
Joseph Kleinschmidt <>
Joseph, an undergraduate in CBS, served as the teaching assistant on the pilot of the vodcast project.
Michael Kempnich <>
Michael, an undergraduate in CBS, served as the teaching assistant on the second year of the vodcast project.