You are ready to make a video of a lesson—but where do you start? Dave Farina, MA, explains his process—and his path to YouTube stardom.
Lecturer of Biological Sciences,Southern California University of Health Sciences, in Whittier
MA in Science Education, BA in Chemistry
Adjunct instructors know all too well the tenuousness of their position. So when Dave Farina, MA, got the news that he was being let go by the university where he had been teaching for seven semesters, he was not entirely surprised.
He was, however, troubled by the thought of simply shelving the organic chemistry lectures that he had honed during that time. “I felt that they were very effective,” Farina says. “Rather than let those lectures evaporate, I decided to record them and put them on YouTube.”
The response to his first 38 uploads—which he admits were minimally edited—surprised him. “Students were pretty vocal in their feedback,” he says. “They really liked the tutorials, and I got a little attention from other outlets, too. So I kept going and never looked back.”
Today, his YouTube channel—Professor Dave Explains—has generated more than 30 million views, has more than half a million subscribers, and has recently become his full-time focus. The video library contains some 800 videos (most of which are 5–10 minutes long) on a range of topics, including general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics, mathematics, American history, and Italian language.
Farina’s fans appreciate his uniquely clear method of instruction, and he loves being able to reach so many people. (His most popular video—Quantum Numbers, Atomic Orbitals, and Electron Configurations—has more than 1.5 million views!) “What else could I do that could possibly help this much?” he says.
Below, Farina shares some practical tips for other educators interested in his YouTube experience—or in fine-tuning their own videography.
“I’m really passionate about giving students the tools they need to meet their academic and career goals. But I’m equally—or even more—passionate about trying to inform the general public about basic scientific principles so that we can have a knowledgeable and well-informed populace.”
-Dave Farina, MA
Course: CHEM 1000 General Chemistry I
Course description: This course provides a quantitative introduction to atomic and molecular structure, states of matter, basic thermodynamics, and solutions…. Within this course, students become conversant with the scientific vernacular, chemical symbols, and notation. Students will manipulate mathematical equations in order to appreciate the quantitative nature of atomic interactions. States of matter will be categorized. The Periodic Table of the Elements will be studied to illustrate chemical periodicity and bonding. The gas laws will be introduced in order to understand statistical handling of large populations of atoms and molecules. The laws of thermodynamics will be introduced, including the concepts of enthalpy and entropy.
Professor Dave’s tips to help instructors find their video “voice”
Farina says the first step for professors who would like to include videos in their syllabi is to see what is already available (including on his own YouTube channel). “The amount of educational content has exploded in the last two or three years,” he observes.
If a video on the topic has already been produced, using it will save a lot of time. But if a class has a very specific set of learning objectives, or if professors are not able to find the content they need, Farina recommends giving the YouTube strategy a try.
Here are Farina’s top tips for those who are ready to try recording video lectures.
Start simple and expect a learning curve
When Farina first stepped in front of the camera, he had confidence and material but zero experience with video. His advice to those in this situation? Take the plunge anyway, but keep it simple at first. “There are a lot of ways to make content, some of which are as simple as using the built-in camera on your laptop and narrating over PowerPoint slides, or writing notes on a whiteboard,” he says.
Making improvements simply takes time and effort—just as it does for students. “After a while, I learned how to use Adobe After Effects to do some basic animating,” Farina explains. “I also have used better and better stock images and video clips. It’s really just about putting the time in and learning.”
Find a formula that works for you
Following a formula speeds up the video creation process, just as the “five-paragraph essay” formula helps students tackle writing more quickly. “Visually, my videos follow a three-fold pattern: Students are hearing words, seeing an abbreviated version of those words with key words highlighted, and looking at an appropriate visual aid,” he says. “There’s something about those three things at once that delivers comprehension more thoroughly than reading a textbook.” Other educators can look at their own lecture approach to see if a pattern emerges. (Maybe you always lead with a case study or personal story, for instance.)
Keep whittling down the script
Many viewers praise Farina’s unique ability to distill a topic to its essence—which is no easy task. “It’s about filtering out extraneous information,” he says. “Here’s all the stuff that need not be included at the moment, and here’s what needs to be included. And here’s the exact specific sequence in which this information should be offered. And here’s the exact visual aid that should accompany each sentence.” Much of this is intuition—but some of it, he says, involves watching your videos, seeing what did and did not work, and doing better on the next batch.
Get a second set of eyes on the writing
“The main lesson that I learned early on was not to let a single script get into the teleprompter without having other people read it,” Farina says. He typically shares his with two PhDs or PhD candidates (in the appropriate field of study). “Between two people, they’ll probably catch 98% of the errors,” he says.
Even so, it is impossible to be perfect. Whenever Farina does find an error in one of his posted videos, he details corrections at the top of the comments section.
Use an assembly-line approach
Farina has found that the most efficient way to produce videos at scale is to work in batches. He writes for about three weeks, then he goes into the studio to shoot for roughly two days. Raw material in hand, he then spends roughly three months editing and animating the videos. He estimates that he creates 40–80 videos within each such cycle.
Give yourself a reality check—and a pep talk
For educators who are still intimidated about making their own videos, Farina recommends looking at the humble beginnings of other YouTubers. “Check out almost any successful YouTube channel,” he suggests. “Go to their videos page and click ‘sort by oldest first,’ then watch their first five videos. They’re not good. Mine are not great either. Don’t worry about it. You’ll get a better microphone later, and you’ll learn how to use [editing and animation] software later. But you have to start somewhere. So just do it.”
The payoff is well worth it, he adds. “Learning on the Internet has been a core part of the democratization of education,” he says. “Now, anyone in the entire world who is effective at explaining a particular concept is able to do so on a global platform. And whether [the viewer] is a student at Harvard or someone living well below the poverty line in India, they are able to find somebody who explains things in a way that is tailored to their learning needs.”