Ever walked by a college classroom that should be holding class, but noticed that the lights were off.  If you are like me, you can’t help but peak through the door to see what is going on?  Did the professor get sick and cancel class?  Are the students having a sit-in somewhere else on campus resulting in no class being held?  Perhaps the lecturing professor has the lights down low so everyone can see the PowerPoint images being projected on the screen?Perhaps the professor is showing a movie?

There is a long tradition among teachers of showing movies in classrooms.  Using class time to show movies has some real advantages for the educational process.  One is that using class time to show movies virtually guarantees that students do actually watch the assigned movie.  Another advantage is that the professor can provide important context during a pre-viewing introductory lecture as well as lead post-viewing class discussion, as all attending students have had an immediately preceding common experience.

But, the situation could be a lousy educational experience for students.  Suppose students are watching a long movie during class.  The least desirable scenario being that half of the students have their heads down on the table sleeping and the other half’s faces being illuminated by the faint blue light of their smart phones while the text their friends about how bored they are.  One might be inclined to think that students do not like to watch movies.

The proposition that students dislike movies is certainly untrue. For one, movie attendance is quite high these days, with blockbusters easily making tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars.  Moreover, popular electronic and social media videos have never before been more frequently or easily accessed by students. For many, mobile cell phones, tablets, computers, and Internet-linked smart televisions makes access of video a nearly daily activity.

As a result, students naturally expect video and popular media to be a part of the contemporary learning experience.  At the same time, discipline-based science education research clearly shows that it is irresponsible simply to turn to popular media as a classroom babysitter and hope that learner will gain something transformative from the experience.  What we now know is that to be effective as an educational tool, at least three conditions must be satisfied.

The first necessary condition for success is that the use of any media needs to have a clearly specified and explicitly specific purpose that is repeatedly explained to students.  If students do not know why they are doing what they are doing, they will be inclined to passively watch.  One cannot lean on “I want them to be surprised how they are different as a result of watching this film” and expect positive results.

The second necessary condition is that students need to know what they are supposed to be doing during the media presentation.  Although one could ask students to simply “take notes,” we’ve found it much more useful to give students a list of questions to answer DURING the video.  Yes, this does mean that the lights need to be on in the room at some level.  We find that students best engage when we provide three highly structured levels of questions.  The first series of questions we ask are a few low-cognitive level factual recall questions: We are talking about those questions that assure students are at least paying attention.  For example, one might ask, what is the name of the lead character?  The second series of questions we ask are synthesis and evaluation level questions, where students are asked to put together ideas from different parts of the movie.  For example, one might ask which of the experiments actors conducted were most fruitful in moving along the plot?  The third series of questions we ask are self-reflection and relevance questions that directly relate the concepts in the movie to students own lives.

Finally, the third necessary condition is that students must be aware of the direct benefit to their course letter grades for participating in viewing and answering questions about a movie.  For me, making sure that students know what they will be responsible for on the upcoming midterm or final exam that come directly from the time spent watching and analyzing the movie are critical to keep student buy-in.  Otherwise, I will get negative comments on my end of course evaluations about wasting students’ time unnecessarily.

Movie Ideas for Teaching Science: http://www.teachwithmovies.org/science-technology-subject-list.htm#ast

These minimally necessary conditions are above and beyond traditional considerations of how long are my students’ attention span, and how long can I show a movie in one sustained sitting in a relatively dark room.  Reflective professors should also ask if it would be better to assign students to watch the media outside of class and then use scarce class time for discussion and analysis.  In the end, I am certainly in support of using media in the classroom—and so are students—but careful steps need to be taken so that students fully understand why they are being asked to watch the media, what they are supposed to do by watching, and precisely how does their participation impact their grade.

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, Tim@CAPERteam.com

Suggested citation: Slater, T. F. (2016, December). Practical strategies to use popular movies effectively. Society of College Science Teachers Blog, 2(5), http://www.scst.org/blog


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