Study Shows Video Captions Improve Student Comprehension

November 3rd, 2013 No Comments Other

Captions are generally thought of as something reserved for the hard of hearing or, at most, the viewing of foreign films. According to new research, however, the benefits of this simple tool could extend far beyond its most common uses.

The study, led by Robert Keith Collins, anthropologist and professor of American Indian studies at San Francisco University, found that students’ comprehension and test scores were significantly improved when they watched educational videos with captions as opposed to those without.

Previous studies have shown that captions can be useful for students with learning disabilities, but Collins points out that his study, which explores the impact of captions more broadly, indicates that they can benefit so-called “normal learners” as well.

The two-year case study, which involved students in Collins’ American Indian Studies 150 class, came about as a result of his participation with the Faculty Learning Community group: Ensuring Access through Collaboration and Technology.

Collins found that prior to the first exam, when captions were not used during the presentation of video materials, student discussions and notes were very general.

Prior to the second exam, however, students were presented with lectures and video materials that used captions consistently. As a result, both large and small group discussions became livelier, and students were often able to recall specific dates, names and places from the videos.

Additionally, on the second exam, there was an overall increase in B and A grades, with an average B grade as opposed to the average C grade on the first exam.

“When I first began this case study, I was a little skeptical about whether or not a simple tool like closed-captions would actually impact the way that students interacted with the course material, one another, or their overall achievement,” notes Collins in his report.

“In fact, to my amazement two trends emerged in all students. When captions were not used, students were quite passive and silent during in-class discussions.

However, when captions were used, the complete opposite occurred: students were more engaged; seemed to take better notes, as reflected in exam grades; and they were responsive to specific questions asked about the films.”  

Throughout the semester, students frequently commented that having captions with the videos helped them spell difficult Native American names and nations, understand anthropological, archaeological and historical terminology, and in general, comprehend what people said in the videos.

Collins believes that these same benefits could be observed regardless of the subject matter.

“Student involvement was – and is – a major factor in determining the reach and success of the video information. Captions as a resource seemed to increase student involvement and participation.  

I believe, from ongoing observations, that student involvement with the course material shapes the success of this – or any – pedagogical resource.”

He points out that students are often so distracted by technology that they tend to forget where they should focus their attention when engaged with technology or media. The use of captions enables students to read and listen simultaneously; thus blocking out distractions in their immediate environment and helping them focus on specific information.

“I plan to also examine this in the next phase of the study, which focuses on the relationship between culturally competent pedagogy and student concerns raised,” he says.

The full report on the study was published in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal in the article ‘Using Captions to Reduce Barriers to Native American Student Success.’


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

Leave a Reply