How selecting electives is like choosing a movie
For box office films, the trailer is carefully designed to attract an audience. Using various excerpts from scenes of the film and spanning only about two minutes, producers must carefully determine how to pitch or position their film for viewers. This requires them to carefully identify the target audience so that they can construct the trailer using elements that would appeal to that demographic. At the same time, they also try to capture the essence of the film in a way that convinces viewers that they should buy their tickets.
In some ways, selecting elective courses is similar to choosing a movie from the marquee – or, more accurately from Rotten Tomatoes. Students must choose from a range of interesting possibilities with a limited budget. Unfortunately, students don’t often have the flexibility in their schedules to take multiple electives, so they think carefully about what they select. When confronted with different possibilities, they will most likely select the option that is most interesting and engaging to them. Just as a written review of a movie in the newspaper only tells you so much about the movie, a written course description only goes so far. A trailer is a powerful way to attract an audience for a movie – or a course.
Examples of course trailers
A number of colleges, universities, departments and individual faculty members have begun to produce course trailers. Some are simple and developed by faculty on their own while others are professionally produced. While production value can be important, just like the courses themselves, the content, organization, and delivery is the key to an effective course trailer.
In many cases, trailers are designed to feature new courses or to highlight professional learning opportunities for non-degree seeking students. For example, the Harvard College Program in General Education offers a number of course trailers. One of my favorites is Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education. I like this trailer because it does a great job of piquing the viewer’s interest in the topic, highlighting key features of the how the course will be delivered, overviewing key course topics and assignments. I especially like the “testimonial” from a student from the course. While it provides a great deal of information, it still pulls you in and makes you want to sign up.
- Clearly articulate and form your trailer around the key takeaways from your course. What do you hope students will remember from your course five years from now? What do you hope they will talk with their roommates about over coffee? What will surprise and inspire them? These are the ideas you want to put front and center in your trailer.
- Keep it short. While video professionals can produce engaging trailers that span three or four minutes, one to two minutes is what you should aim for in terms of run time. It’s easier to make a really engaging, inspiring, and interesting one-minute video than a four-minute one.
- Vary the visuals. While it’s easiest to just set up a camera and go the “talking head” route, it’s probably the least engaging form of video. Even in very basic video editors (e.g., iMovie, MovieMaker), it’s fairly easy to incorporate still images or other video clips in a project.
- Leverage social proof. Like in the example from Harvard above, a student’s perspective on the course can be very valuable for other students. If they hear from another student about their takeaways and what they liked about the course, they will be more likely to enroll themselves.
- Project Enthusiasm. None of these tips will make much difference if you don’t project passion and excitement for your course. Nothing will help sell your course more than your own enthusiasm.
For more tips and ideas, take a look at Duke University’s great resource for faculty on best practices for creating course trailers.
I've started to develop a trailer course I’m teaching in the fall. I've realized that this process has helped me clarify my purpose and key aspects of the course. It's also inspired me to raise the level of creativity and commitment to delivering an engaging and student-centered course. I'm sure it won't win any awards, but I hope it will intrigue and inspire my students.
Have you developed a trailer for a course you teach? If so, please share a link in the comments below.