Alexander B. Swan (Eureka College)
Picture it (pun-intended)—you and your students, all starting intently at the screen as Joy and Sadness, with the help of Bing-Bong, desperately try to get back to Riley’s Headquarters to break her out of the funk she’s feeling after moving across the country to a new place and a new school. Yep, that’s the plot of the Pixar film, Inside Out (2015). But wait, why are you watching an animated movie in your psychology class, taking up precious time for material?
What if I told you that this is precious material time? It may seem odd if you’re not used to using full class periods for film viewing, but from my experience, it is a fantastic learning and material-delivery tool (e.g., Bluestone, 2000; Mishra, 2018). One discussion that tends to arise when I mention using films in class is the use of documentary films vs. fictional Hollywood film, such as Inside Out. The argument tends to be about using factual information rather than fictionalized information, either based on completely fictional and fantastical plotlines or a fictionalized account of a true story. I hear this argument and find docs to be wonderful teaching tools—and some even have great entertainment and production value. But in this essay, I want to promote the use of fictional films as pedagogical tools that not only entertain, but also promote critical thinking skills.
The Ways to Use These Films
The primary way I use fictional films in my classes is to promote critical thinking skills. Perhaps one of the strongest ways to accomplish this is by having students assess the accuracy of portrayal for the intended psychological concepts (Bluestone, 2000; Fleming et al., 1990; Gregg et al., 1995; Wedding & Niemiec, 2014). For example, in Inside Out, there are several psychological concepts that can be broached, including emotions, memories, or even depression. I use this film in several classes and tend to highlight that the film had noted emotion psychologist Dacher Keltner as a consultant. Students can explore how connected the emotions portrayed (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear) are to the current understanding of emotion research. With respect to memories, students can explore our current spatial models of memory, especially long-term memory, are shown in the new world of a person’s head.
On the other side of the portrayal coin, bad portrayals of psychological concepts, can also spur critical thinking. One of my top films to explore bad psychological science is Lucy (2014). Students are immediately thrust into a world that has famed scientists believing in the myth that humans only use 10% of their brains. Of course, using more means special powers, right? A better example of exploration of accuracy, however, comes in the form of the film I have used the most in my classes: Memento (2000). In this film, the main character suffers from anterograde amnesia, similar to what is described about H.M. by Scoville and Milner (1957) or the many documentaries on Clive Wearing. There are accurate portrayals of the memory impairment, like how another character is described to have been put under memory tests or how the main character nearly describes recalled memories in general; but then there are inaccurate portrayals, like the length of the main character’s working memory or how he describes it in several ways to other characters. Students have to grapple with the differences presented in the film to the information presented in the material of the course. This nuance is crucially important to build critical thinking skills.
Another way fictional film pedagogy is useful in the classroom stems from the desire to use varied material to reach students at all stages and backgrounds. While some students might prefer the straight empirical findings of the hottest psychological studies, many others prefer the varied active learning quality that can come with film in the classroom (Gregg et al., 1995). Along with the portrayal argument, the artistic nature of the film can be beneficial to understanding psychological concepts. Boyatzis (1994) explores how students can use a fictional film to discuss emotional and social development. Fleming et al. (1990) discusses usage of psychological disorder films to explore intimately how a character might deal with their disorder, or how others in their lives might deal with the disorders. I’ve explored recently in great deal with colleagues how films like The Hours (2002) portrays three women with depression and bipolar disorder across three distinct time periods, and how the culture of the time periods impacts how these women are treated and how they cope. With fictional films, you can get a glimpse of how these characters directly deal. While this is possible with documentary films, there is a sense of disconnection without the artistic direction of the scene, the camera angles, or even the music. This extra stuff can give students a deeper insight into the struggles of characters and their illnesses.
A third way I like using fictional films in my courses is the discussion about the filmmakers’ decisions. These are people with limited knowledge of psychological concepts in general, and thus their perspectives are useful windows for students to explore. Students can approach the content from the perspective of filmmakers and discuss their lay understanding from those that put the spin on the fictionalized material. For example, A Clockwork Orange (1971) clearly portrays the use of aversive conditioning on the main character. And the director, Stanley Kubrick, describes and films the features of the process with relatively accuracy. But if we compare that to M. Night Shyamalan‘s Split (2016) and the portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder, it is clear that he as a writer-director doesn’t necessarily understand the nuance and appearance of the disorder (albeit, the world is somewhat fantastical).
How to Assess Learning with Films?
If you’re interested in incorporating films into your classes, either using class time or assigning the films to view outside of class, there are several ways to assess whether that critical thinking and evaluation of the artistic material is connected to your course learning outcomes and conceptual material.
The most common assessment appears to be the analysis paper. This is the typical assignment I use with films in my classes. Boyatzis (1994) describes in detail the various prompts you can include to encourage students to evaluate the course material within the context of the films. While the prompts in the paper are geared toward child development, they can be adapted for whatever material your course focuses on, such as memory, psychological disorders, learning, or even sensation and perception (yes, there are few films out there for this niche topic!).
Gregg et al. (1995) offers additional examples of assessments, such as having students watch a film from a list of options and create a diary of experiences they have had similar to the characters in the film. Another option, specifically for a psychological disorders course, is to have the students evaluate a character’s symptoms using diagnostic criteria from the DSM or the ICD. I do caution the use of the latter, as students should be given a clear disclaimer that films will likely exaggerate symptoms for narrative reasons and may not reflect the reality of the conditions in real life or the appropriateness of the diagnostic categories.
One additional option of assessment that I tend to use in my introductory psychology course is the use of a short answer question on a test. This is usually a broad open-ended question that doesn’t require too much psychological knowledge—it’s an introductory course after all—or deep viewing practices (e.g., multiple viewings to capture all the nuance).
One thing to keep in mind when designing these assessments: engage in previewing the films and highlight the concepts that you find to be the most appropriate. There is going to be a lot of subjectivity in the film analysis, especially from younger students toward older films. I tend to keep my rubrics as open as possible, so that students can have the freedom to apply the course concepts to whatever scene they see fit. Sometimes, my students capture things that I do not. For example, when I showed Inside Out to my Psychology in Film course, one student pointed out the interesting gendering of the emotion characters in the minds of Riley vs. the adults in the film. It was clear that this was something I had missed, and I now use this information in all discussions I have about the film.
Where To Find Appropriate Films?
As a firm believer that most films are psychologically-based, because as humans, we tend to make art about ourselves, it’s likely you’ll be able to find films everywhere you go. But, if you’re just starting out in this pedagogical practice, I can recommend several places to find great films for various subdisciplines in psychology.
Of course, trying an internet search for “psychology films” will bring a wealth of information. However, it’s hard to know which results are good and which aren’t so good. Indiana University maintains an excellent repository, which includes ratings (and who among us doesn’t love data?). It’s called the Cognitive Science Movie Index (https://cogfilms.sitehost.iu.edu/), and while the name might indicate niche films or films that you couldn’t use in a social psychology class, you’ll be pleasantly surprised! There are several keywords to narrow searches and many films have been tagged to fit multiple concepts and ideas within psychology. As I mentioned, there are three ratings for each film, each on a scale from 1-7: overall film quality (it might be a decent cognitive science movie, but does the film stink?), relevance (it’s tagged with AI, but is it really about artificial intelligence?), and accuracy (how accurate is the portrayal with what we currently know about that topic?). The great news about these ratings is that they are user-generated. So if you pick a film from this Index, you’re invited to add your ratings after viewing. I’ve used this resource several times, as many of my courses are in this realm.
Gregg et al. (1995) lists several films in different psychological categories, each used by one or more of the authors in their courses. Boyatzis (1994) includes several films related to child development and this list has a bonus: foreign language films, in case that is of interest to you as an instructor or in the case that you give the option to your students to choose, their film interests.
Give It a Try!
If you haven’t engaged in film pedagogy before, I hope this essay was a decent help to get your journey started. Again, fictional films are varied and should be used with as much preparation that you give to your other course pedagogy and assessments. It may be simpler to use documentary films, but I definitely suggest broadening those film horizons. You can aid your students’ critical thinking abilities by offering them an artistic exploration of the content, in a funny, thrilling, and entertaining way! I consistently get student evaluation comments, anonymous and otherwise that tell me they appreciated the incorporation of the films in class. You get to have your very own Monty Python moment and exclaim, “And now for something completely different!
Bluestone, C. (2000). Feature Films as a Teaching Tool. College Teaching, 48(4), 141–146. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567550009595832
Boyatzis, C. J. (1994). Using feature films to teach social development. Teaching of Psychology, 21, 99–101. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top2102_9
Fleming, M. Z., Piedmont, R. L., & Hiam, C. M. (1990). Images of Madness: Feature Films in Teaching Psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 17(3), 185–187. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top1703_12
Gregg, V. R., Hosley , C. A., Weng, A., & Montemayor, R. (1995). Using feature films to promote active learning in the college classroom. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Washington D.C. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 389367).
Mishra, S. (2018). The World in the Classroom: Using Film as a Pedagogical Tool. Contemporary Education Dialogue, 15(1), 111–116. https://doi.org/10.1177/0973184917742250
Scoville, W. B., & Milner, B. (1957). Loss of recent memory after bilateral hippocampal lesions. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 20(1), 11–21. https://doi.org/10.1136/jnnp.20.1.11Wedding, D., & Niemiec, R. M. (2015). Movies & Mental Illness, 4th Edition (Vol. 47, Issue 9, pp. 737–738).