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Focus On Basics

Volume 8, Issue B ::: May 2006

Video as a Professional Development Tool

by Jessica Tomkins
The video projected on the wall shows a full classroom. One student works with her teacher; two students — good friends, it seems — sit shoulder to shoulder and whisper as they do their work. At another table, two students work in silence, each intent on his writing assignment. Five members of the engagement research team and two adult literacy teachers from the research study site are watching the video of the class. On the video, a student enters the room noisily and begins looking for her work. After a few minutes she interrupts the teacher to ask for help. A member of the research team stops the video to ask, "Who is this? What is she having trouble with? Are students supposed to interrupt the teacher?" The teachers explain that while being quiet and waiting your turn is a norm in the classroom, there are reasons particular to the student that explain her behavior.

[The video] jogged my memory, but it was through the data analysis sessions and talking with other people and explaining what I thought was going on that led into what I got out of the tapes. If I hadn't had the opportunity to get this great visual thing I never would have thought of that stuff at all. If someone had reported it to me, it would not have had the impact. So it was a good way for me to see exactly what was going on in the classroom. (Labsite teacher)

For the past five years, the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) at Rutgers University research team has worked closely with the New Brunswick Public Schools Adult Learning Center on a study examining student engagement. During the data collection process we observed and videotaped classes, interviewed teachers and learners, and worked with teachers to analyze data. The video data played a central role in the research. It also turned out to be an unexpected source of professional development for the six teachers who participated.

Joint Data Analysis

Our procedure for analyzing video data was to play the tape, review it, and then have one member of the research team prepare for a joint analysis session by reviewing a video tape of one class and noting interesting episodes related to student engagement. When we watched the tape with teachers, we viewed the episode, and then paused the video and discussed what we saw. This enabled the research team to understand more clearly what we were seeing on tape. The teachers report that these conversations created an opportunity for them to reflect on their practice. Many of the teachers afterwards remarked upon the important difference between thinking about their classes informally and participating in this structured exercise. As one teacher in the project explained,

You prompted me to try to step back and really look at it from the outside. I had the opportunity to try to evaluate what I was doing more, and see the interaction that was going on around me, which I often wasn't aware of when I was in the middle of it.

The video data allowed researchers to observe learners in the classroom in a more thorough way than a single observation could. Although we also sat in classes and took field notes, our main source for data analysis was the video, because we could view it over and over again. It grounded our questions into the very specific reality of the teachers' classrooms. The video allowed teachers to watch themselves teach and see with some objectivity an episode that they had been involved with during the class. It offered an extra set of eyes, showing teachers what students were doing when teachers' own attention was elsewhere.


Although the data analysis sessions were ultimately very informative for both teams, some teachers were initially skeptical about joining the project. Everyone worried at first that we would be evaluating them, although this fear seemed to be put to rest fairly quickly by our focus on the students. Of more concern to some was the worry that the camera in the room would make them nervous or self-conscious. Whatever the feelings of the teachers before the experience, many were surprised by their actual reaction to the camera. Some teachers found themselves very uncomfortable seeing themselves on tape, or surprisingly self-conscious with the camera in the room, as in this anecdote from a teacher who had entered the project with no initial qualms about the video component:

I was working with a student; it was either the first or second time that we were videotaped. And I thought the student was nervous because he was being taped. I said, "It's hard to ignore that camera, right?" He said, "What camera?" He looked up and said, "Oh, yeah, we're being taped," and went back to what he was doing. And I thought, 'Oh, you're not nervous, I'm nervous. It's not you at all, this time it's all me.' I was convinced that the students were uncomfortable, and they weren't even processing that they were being videotaped.

Other teachers very quickly forgot the presence of the camera. One teacher felt she taught better than usual when she had an audience. Regardless of the teachers' comfort levels, all teachers seemed to embrace the video process as a learning opportunity, and spoke of it as the most important aspect of their involvement on the project.

Another initial concern about the video process was the students' reactions. Would students behave differently with a camera in the room? As the example demonstrated, after brief exposure to the project, students carried on as though the camera was not there. Some students expressed an interest in the research and seemed to want to be a part of it, and others basically ignored our presence, or were as unaware as the student described above by his teacher. Perhaps the teachers set the tone by running class as usual despite the camera, or perhaps, like the teachers, the students were too busy working to spare us much thought. For whatever reason, the video shows little student reaction to the camera.

Uses in Other Venues

In the K-12 environment, "The use of video evidence as a vehicle for promoting discussion and critical reflection is well established in educational literature in the field of professional development" (Jones & McNamara, 2004, p. 279). The educational director of a K-8 school a few blocks from the literacy center explained how common it is to use video as a tool in peer coaching, particularly as an additional form of formal observation for new teachers. They then review the video with a mentor or colleague to get feedback, and follow up with a piece of reflective writing (personal conversation, Michele Waldron, January 31, 2006). The practice may not be as common in adult literacy classrooms, where observations are not necessarily mandated. However, it certainly meshes with current ideas about effective professional development in which the teachers and the classroom are central. It draws on and respects teachers' input and their role in planning, and invites collaboration (Sherman & Kutner, 1998).

Three Benefits

Teachers on the project used the video data as a professional development tool very informally. Although reflection in general was embedded in the data analysis process, teachers used the opportunity to reflect on their own practice voluntarily and on their own initiative. We researchers asked few questions about the teachers' behavior in the classroom. The questions that teachers asked themselves varied from very personal ones, about their demeanors in the classroom, to much broader questions about their delivery of the program. The two main benefits of the video seem to be the chance to watch oneself on tape with some objectivity (increased self-awareness), and the chance to see how students engaged when working alone or with other students (the video as "extra eyes"). The third benefit was positive validation.


Increased self-awareness translated into both minor and significant changes in teaching style. One teacher noticed, for instance, that the hand gestures she used while speaking were exaggerated and distracted her students. Another teacher noticed that his voice was often the loudest in the room and was at times disruptive. He also got a sense from the video that the pace of his teaching was unnecessarily fast, and resolved as a result to slow down:

...a lot of the time when I was watching the tape, I thought, 'I really could have spent a couple more minutes with that person.' Part of the jumping around [from student to student] is because there are so many students and you want to make sure everybody gets attention. But part of the jumping around is my attention span. So I've been trying to decide more on a case-by-case basis....I don't think I would've ever come to that conclusion if I hadn't watched myself running around like I did.

Another teacher saw that she was dividing her time unevenly among her students, and realized she needed to be fairer. This teacher also explained her surprise when watching the video of a group lesson she had taught. At the time, she had felt that it was successful, but when viewing the tape she could see that the students disengaged fairly quickly and would clearly have preferred to carry on with the work they had been doing previously. This teacher spoke about becoming more mindful of the students' responses to her presentations. In general, the increased self-awareness resulted in teachers being more mindful of their own behavior in the classroom.

Awareness of students

The value of the video as an extra set of eyes (or, as one teacher described it, "a bird's eye view of your teaching style") translated into different kinds of changes. Teachers became more aware of students' behavior in the classroom. A couple of teachers spoke about becoming aware of how often students were helping each other when not working with a teacher. In both of their classrooms, as with most at the Center, learners work at their own pace, and teachers move around the room to work with students individually. The video revealed how much more the students relied on each other than this teacher had realized:

I think it was very valuable to see the videos, to notice what's going on around me in the classroom. Because with one-on-one you're really not aware of everything that's happening, and to see what the student continues to do after you're finished working with her was very interesting. To see the interaction of the students among themselves, to see if there is really learner-to-learner inspiration and motivation going on, that was really great too. I hadn't noticed that before. It's such a varied selection of students of all ages, backgrounds, and interests, that a lot of times they don't really seem like they're interacting very much. But I noticed from the videos that it really does happen, more than I saw before, and it's helped me to try to change my teaching style a little bit more too, to encourage that more, and take advantage of it more.

Similarly, another teacher became aware of how much time students spend working alone, and was able to see that many need more frequent direction from the teachers. Although he was aware of this beforehand, watching the video allowed him to experience the students' time working alone more from the students' point of view, and to alter his classroom accordingly:

...I am trying to modify some of the things I do with students so that they're done in shorter segments. I think it would help a lot of people that need help before the finished product because there's an awful lot of time that people are on their own and I think that more students could be successful....if things were put in even smaller chunks so that they can get more from a teacher.... I mean, it's fine that they can ask questions of other people, but I still think there has to be more of an impact from a teacher, and seeing the way these things work on a tape I think there can be....As I said, I have not done massive changes with my curriculum but I think that it needs to be delivered differently.

This type of understanding of the students' experiences also influenced a few teachers to improve their orientation process, so that new students would have a better sense of direction.

Positive validation

The teachers' self-reflection also served as a source for positive validation of their practice. This does not result in change in the classroom, but contributes to teacher development in its own right. Just as teachers do not have many chances to be observed and evaluated, they also do not have many opportunities to get positive feedback. One administrator pointed out that seeing themselves do good jobs was beneficial to her staff. Teachers were also conscious of appreciating the validations, despite their interest in self-critique:

It also gave me an interesting viewpoint about my teaching style. I don't think I'd change the overall style. I'd change the way I deliver some things, but my teaching style? The video helped me realize why it's worked as well as it has over the years. So, that was a validation.


The intent of the research team was to use video as a source of data on student engagement. Teachers used the video to evaluate themselves, and watching their classes became a forum for both self-critique and for positive validation. One teacher on the project described it as "ongoing professional development."

Reflecting on the project, the Center administrators also spoke about professional development as a central benefit. NCSALL hosted professional development days for staff and presented with staff at conferences, but the most significant professional development came from working together on the project.

In general, the way in which teachers seized the opportunity to watch their classes suggests that many are eager for such input into their teaching. While it may have been uncomfortable if the research team had been in an evaluative role, some of the teachers actually hoped for this, and frequently sought feedback during our joint data analysis sessions. Other teachers have suggested that using the video record for critique would be welcome if done by peers. In one way or another almost all the teachers on the project pointed to the lack of opportunity for formal reflection on their practice as a gap that the data analysis process temporarily filled.

Although this teacher development occurred through collaboration with researchers, the process they followed does not require the presence of outsiders. In fact, professional development was outside the scope of this study. The research teams' role was to provide the video and to ask the question, "What's going on in this learning episode?" That simple question was probably the teams' most important contribution to teacher development, because it encouraged teachers to observe the students and not fixate on their own behavior.

Teachers could use video to capture their classes and, with colleagues, ask similar questions. There could be great benefit in pursuing a version of the video data analysis among teachers, with the focus on student engagement and the premise that analyzing this can be a valuable way to develop as a teacher.


Jones, A., & McNamara, O. (2004). "The possibilities and constraints of multimedia as a basis for critical reflection." Cambridge Journal of Education, 34 (3), 279-296.

Sherman, R., & Kutner, M. (1998). Professional Development Resource Guide for Adult Educators: Improving Instruction, Organization, and Learner Outcomes through Professional Development. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

About the Author
Jessica Tomkins has worked as a research assistant on the NCSALL team for the past three years while earning her master's in adult and continuing education from Rutgers University. She teaches adult English for speakers of other languages and is a literacy tutor for adults and children.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL