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Transcribing History – Understanding modern history through video transcription

Written by: Kirsten Smith
3 min read

The study and teaching of modern history can rely heavily on the use of multimedia. Video is now commonplace in education and more accessible than ever before thanks to a variety of video sharing websites. Put in any area of 20th century history into YouTube and a range of documentaries, films, interviews and news broadcasts are returned in your search results.  

According to Russel Tarr, author of A History Teaching Toolbox, ‘primary footage, feature films and historical documentaries offer varied and stimulating ways into key topics’. However, the use of videos can also present difficulties for students with English as an additional language and its implementation in the classroom needs to be thought through carefully when involving students with hearing difficulties and other learning needs.  

In my own department we started implementing transcription of videos in order to assist with a student who had hearing difficulties. According to Dr Marianne Thomson from Washington University, the use of transcripts can assist student with hearing loss, those with English as a second language and help all students when there are strong accents involved (Thompson, 2011). The reaction from our EAL students when we started using transcripts was one of gratitude as many of the videos watched in our modules on American Civil Rights or Germany during the Second World War had difficult accents or sound quality issues in the primary film footage which did not help them with their comprehension. Some of the students spent time outside of lessons trying to watch videos with captions in order to try and understand the content. Nevertheless, on many videos captions are not available and the use of transcription has helped these students with their overall comprehension and understanding of subject specific vocabulary.  

However, we have also seen the benefits of transcription for our SEND students and we hope that this will also be extended to all students. The National Research Study by Oregon State University on student uses and perceptions of closed captions and transcripts demonstrated that captions and transcripts play an important role in assisting all students not just those with English as an additional language or those with specific learning needs. The study highlighted the fact that 47.3% of students used transcripts as study guides or revision tools. Additionally, around 46.3% also used transcripts to help retain information from lessons. The study demonstrates that not only can transcripts assist with difficult vocabulary, poor audio and EAL issues they can also stand alone as tools to aid accuracy, comprehension, retention and engagement. As one student reflected in the study, ‘Being able to read the material at my own pace and take notes helped me retain the information better’ (Linder, 2016).  

Baddeley’s working memory model (Baddeley and Hitch, 1974) suggests that the human brain is organised with different channels for processing visual and auditory information. This knowledge can be of use to us in the classroom as we strive to present content in a way that is accessible and maximises cognitive capacity and therefore retention. Both the auditory and visual processing areas of the brain have a limited processing capacity and so we need to present material in a way that does not result in cognitive overload. Through the provision of transcripts, we remove the need for students to engage the auditory processing channel in listening to the content whilst at the same time attempting to convert that to written words (a task that could well result in cognitive overload of the limited processing capacity of the auditory channel). For learning to happen there is a need for cognitive processing of material and the challenge we face as educators is that the cognitive resources the learner possesses are limited. We therefore need to devise ways in which we can maximise the processing of essential information whilst preventing cognitive overload (Mayer and Moreno, 2003) 

Starting to do transcriptions for students is a time-consuming task, with roughly one-minute of video taking around five minutes to transcribe. By splitting videos around the department, we have made sure that not everyone spends their planning time transcribing while also allowing us to build up a catalogue of video transcripts which once typed and held on file can be used for many years to come.  

Through the inclusion of transcripts into our curriculum we hope that the use of videos will not just be seen as a passive ‘easy’ element in lessons where students can switch off. Instead with the transcript in front of them it will help them to engage more with the topic and provide a useful revision tool at a later stage.  




Baddeley A and Hitch G (1974) Working Memory. Psychology of Learning and Motivation. Psychology of Learning and Motivation (8): 47–89.
Linder K (2016) Student uses and perceptions of closed captions and transcripts: Results from a national study. Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit. Available at:
Mayer R and Moreno R (2003) Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. Educational Psychologist 38(1): 43–52.
Thompson M-H (2011) Fostering the Increased Integration of Students with Disabilities: New Directions for Student Services. 134. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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      Author(s): Bill Lucas