Published: April 15, 2013

Film reelA student in the back of the lecture hall leans forward in her seat. A shy freshman raises his hand for the first time. Heads nod. Eyes brighten. The pace of note taking quickens. As a teacher, these small indications that students are engaged can be exhilarating, and no one knows this better than linguistics Professor Kira Hall. “Many of my students do very well,” she says. “They are good test-takers. They ask questions in class. But then there are those who, for a long time, I couldn't seem to reach. And when I started offering the option to create video essays, there was suddenly a whole new world of talented students that I had never noticed before.”

Dr. Hall has been teaching large lecture classes in the Linguistics Department at CU Boulder for over a decade. Years before the ubiquity

of social media, she used technology as a way to foster collaboration by encouraging her students to participate in online discussion groups.  “Back then there was a lot of hesitation,” she says  “But now everyone is more energetic and comfortable with technology.” Dr. Hall has always been passionate about supplementing the traditional lecture format with multimedia presentations and interactive projects including blogging and social service assignments, but she worried that a large percentage of students were struggling to produce competent essays. She thought that they just weren’t understanding the material.

The idea to offer students an alternative to writing a research paper came to her one day as she was helping her daughter with schoolwork. Sofia is a bright eight-year-old who struggles with writing. “She has sensory integration difficulties“ says Dr. Hall, “But while she has difficulty expressing her ideas in writing, she is amazing at expressing these ideas visually – in painting, in artwork, in a PowerPoint, in video.” Sofia, says Dr. Hall, has helped her to realize that her students need to be given the opportunity to learn and express themselves visually as well as verbally. “I have to remember that they are not all going to be academics,” she says. “The most important thing is that they learn the material.”

Kira HallDr. Hall has a deep appreciation for the written language, but as a linguistics scholar who studies the spoken word, she also recognizes the value of effective visual and verbal communication. “If writing was the only way that I assessed my students’ understanding of the course material, then I would miss out on a whole world of student competence and creativity,” she explains. “My experiences with my daughter have helped me see this. In all truth, she's made me a better teacher.”

When students in Dr. Hall’s Language and Gender course were given the option to write a 5-6 page essay or to create a 5-6 minute video essay, over 35% of the students chose to make a video, often with great success. These videos, often shot in the student’s dorm room, are earnest and well-researched. The students also look like they’re having fun. One student analyzes the word ‘dude’ as a discourse marker. Another, the word ‘yo’. From across his kitchen table, the student explains that ‘yo’ is popular “because of its linguistic simplicity and flexibility.” The camera then pans to a scene of two college students engaged in a lively Xbox game, a dialog interspersed with liberal exclamations of ‘yo!’ Each of these exclamations are then isolated and analyzed.

As a testament to Dr. Hall’s innovative teaching strategies, Hall was recently awarded an ASSETT Outstanding Teaching with Technology Award, receiving several nominations directly from her students. “I learned a lot by making a video essay and would love to make more in the future,” wrote one student nominee. “Throughout the semester, Kira constantly used videos during lecture.  This helped me to understand confusing concepts,” said another. “As a freshmen, she was my favorite professor and definitely made an impact on me during my first semester of college.”

Dr. Hall's enthusiasm for teaching is genuine. “I try to teach through aural and visual modalities, not just textual ones,” she explains.  “I demonstrate points in my lectures with multiple examples of language data from television, film, and everyday conversation.” Dr. Hall glances around her room, looking at the computer screen playing a student-created video and the towering shelves of books that crowd her office. “I have found that it helps this new generation of students connect to the course material. Plus it makes it fun...and shouldn't learning be fun?”

Article by: Ashley E Williams