Using Film to Contextualize Course Content


It's been my personal experience that seeing a concept in action makes it easier to understand and remember. I've used films and media clips in my courses for over 10 years now. Sometimes I use a short clip of a commercial, movie, tv show, or youtube video to make a point, or provide an example for a concept I am lecturing on. Sometimes I'll show a full length documentary because the interviews, graphics or stories that are told are so compelling that they are worth time away from lecture or other classroom activities. I have also chosen to show a full length feature film in a course when that film accurately portrays a number of principles from the course and use it to spur class discussion and usually a writing assignment. I have also used this technique as a final exam where students write mini essays as they watch the movie.

The most extensive use though of film is in my Motivation and Emotion course. In this course, we watch 6 full length feature films. During class time. I have had some strong reactions from students ("Yah!") and faculty ("How dare you!") about this practice. Here's why it's needed:

  • Most students find the available textbooks to be 'boring' and 'dry'. While they may not be the best judge of the academic content, they are not far from wrong when you consider the small market for M&E books means that the books usually have a small to non-existent art package, and few pedagogical tools in text. Open up a M&E book, and yep, it looks boring.
  • Once you get past the presentation of the information in most M&E textbooks there is another hurdle. Given that this is an upper division course, the content is presented and grounded in science, relying on original source material and a solid understanding of research methods.
  • The content is extremely diverse ranging from biological approaches to personality theories. Most students will find some of the content not to their liking.

Given these potential obstacles, an instructor needs to find a way to make the information accessible and interesting, and essentially be able to motivate the student to engage with the material. There are many ways this can be done; I have chosen film. Here's why it works:

  • Carefully chosen films ground and contextualize the otherwise abstract content students encounter in the textbook, journal articles, and lecture. They bring concepts alive. Students interact cognitively and emotionally with the movie. That emotional connection facilitates learning.
  • The films act as a motivator and positive reinforcer for engaging in other less desireable classroom behaviors. The indepth, face paced lecture days (coupled with numerous writing assignments at home) are tempered by the more relaxed environment of the movie days.
  • Note taking is encouraged during movie days as a way to stay involved and to be consistently linking content to movie action.
  • Students like it. There is nothing wrong with creating a course that students actually like. They like the course, they feel they are being helped in understanding the content, and they remain motivated to work and learn.

Essentially, I found a pedagogical need, and filled it with film. That said, this sort of course that incorporates film, lecture, reading original scientific literature, and a lot of writing serves many elements important to those of us trying to ready students for life (which may or may not include graduate school). These course activities dovetail nicely with Liberal Arts principles. Students learn to see abstract, academic concepts in the world around them. They gain academic knowledge from primary sources and develop their research and writing skills. Here's how it works:

  • Choosing films: It turns out that the best films to show are usually excellent films in general. To accurately portray the complex biological, cognitive, and social concepts related to motivation and emotion requires that the story is engaging, coherent and meaningful; and that the acting rings true and portrays complex characters. On a practical note, it doesn't matter so much if students have seen the film before; they are seeing it with brand new eyes. However, I do tend to choose films that are before their time and/or out of their typical choice of entertainment. Films rotate semester to semester and I'm always on the lookout for a new film to include.
  • Grounding films in course content: Indepth lecture days come prior to viewing the relevant movie. Comprehensive discussion days follow the movie where we bring it all together. They are prepared for this discussion by having read the chapter, listened to lecture, read a primary source journal article (something cited in the chapter) and written a summary of it, watched the movie, and written a comprehensive analysis of the film linking film events to course concepts.
  • Check out the syllabus and course calendar links for how this all fits together.

Students build analytical and writing skills throughout the semester. By the time they get to the final, where they watch a movie and write 10 short essays throughout the 2 hour period (they don't know what the movie is until they arrive), they are completely comfortable with knowing motivation and emotion content when they see it. When I read their exams, it is clear that they get it. And they get it in a way that is far more comprehensive and rewarding (for me and for them) than multiple choice testing.

If you are a student, you'll have a sense of what this course is going to be about. Yes, you will work, and you will write and read more than you do in many of your classes. But you will also learn, and have a pretty decent time doing it.

If you are an instructor, give it a shot--incorporate a movie in your class, balance it with content and discussion, and watch the lightbulbs go off!

Let me know how it goes, and oh yah, don't forget the popcorn.






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