Science-- there's something for everyone

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Closed captions for the win


Example of closed captioning
Recently, my family decided to turn on the closed captions feature for our TV. We’re not deaf or English language learners, but we still don’t always catch everything that’s said. Apparently, we’re not alone. Robert Keith Collins from San Francisco State University has shown that adding captions to educational films helps students learn and retain the material better.

Captions can be a transcript of the dialogue in a scene, a translation of that dialogue, or a visual narration. The first type (transcript) are usually ‘closed captions’. These can be turned on or off at the discretion of the viewer. The second two types are ‘open captions’, and these are permanently on display as the film plays.

Collins gave about a hundred students two sets of educational films, the first with closed captioning off and the second with the captions on. After each set of films, the students were given an exam on the material covered by the films. For each film, the students were provided with written supplementary materials including lists of people and events.

Using closed captions significantly improved the students’ academic performances. They had much better recall of names and dates after watching films with the captions on. This doesn’t surprise me at all. Not only does seeing and hearing something help reinforce it in one’s memory, but seeing things written out can also help clarify what was said.

What was surprising was that with the captions on, the students were far more engaged with what they were watching. They were more apt to draw analogies between the events depicted in the films and their own lives, leading to livelier discussions. They also remembered more of the specific elements within the films. 

This was a small study. However, the results corroborate other studies which show that closed captioning can be extremely helpful as a learning tool. Which makes me a little sad I didn’t turn my captions on sooner. Think how much more I would have learned from Breaking Bad.


Robert Keith Collins (2013). Using Captions to Reduce Barriers to Native American Student Success American Indian Culture and Research Journal , 37 (3).