Captions as Universal Design

Increasingly, studies are being released that suggest that video captions help more than just D/deaf or hard of hearing students.* I recently watched a webinar on the “e-accessibility” movement at the University of Cincinnati that focused heavily on captioning and made captions the first step to a universal design environment for students. So how can captions help all types of students?

Easier Note-Taking

When captions or transcripts are provided, students can take notes down exactly as they are presented in the video and sometimes even copy and paste directly. This reduces the spread of misinformation and increases accuracy of notes; if the information is being presented in black and white text to students, there is no discrepancy between what is being said and what students write down. 51.9% of all students in Oregon State University’s study used captions to aid with comprehension of material.

Searchable Captions for Review

Modern video playback tools allow students to search captions for keywords. If students don’t understand a concept in your course content, they can search your video captions for specific keywords to find the moments in the video where you discuss specific concepts. This can help them to rewind to content they may have missed by searching for the last thing they remember or to review the content later in the semester. Searching for keywords in video captions also allows for just-in-time information retrieval, allowing students to find what they seek without unnecessary hunting.

Increased Attention and Focus

Robert Keith Collins, in his study on captions and class performance, found that captions helped students to “focus on specific information” and participate more fully in class discussions. The National Research Center for Distance Education and Technology conducted a smaller study and found that students used captions to help them focus and to improve the accuracy of information they learned. The Oregon State University study found that students who use captions improve their focus and retention as well. The University of Cincinnati webinar mentioned an anecdotal example – one word in the captioning throughout the course was misspelled, and every single student misspelled that word on the test! Try it yourself: watch an information-heavy video with captions and see how your ability to focus and retain information is affected by the presence of captions.

“Non-Traditional” Students and Environments

During the above-mentioned webinar, my office was rather loud. By leaving the caption/transcript box up in the webinar, I was able to copy and paste captions into my notes, and I could see what was being said even when I couldn’t hear. Students who need to access course content at work or in public spaces, like libraries, are able to watch videos and access video content information even without sound. Students for whom English is a second language and first-generation students were also found by Oregon State University to benefit from captioning.

In a world where exceptions are the norm, we can no longer consider the work of captioning our video content to be an extra layer that accommodates just a few students. Instead, we should recognize the multitude of differences among us and employ Universal Design techniques that remove barriers for the greatest number of learners. Captions are an ideal place to start.


*In the deaf community, there are separate spellings of the word “deaf” – “big D” Deaf and “small d” deaf. People who are not completely deaf tend to refer to themselves as “hard of hearing” instead.


For more information, you can check out this EDUCAUSE article on closed captions as a learning aid. To learn how to add captions to the videos you record in TechSmith Relay, check out TechSmith’s caption tutorials.