Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

E-xcellence in Teaching
Editor: Manisha Sawhney
Associate Editor: Annie S. Ditta

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  • 11 Jul 2016 6:26 PM | Anonymous

    Russell Crowe is a Better Teacher than You: Movies Outperform Paper Assignments or Teaching-as-Usual

    Russ Phillips
    University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg

    Abnormal psychology is an interesting class for so many reasons, one of which is the multitude of media examples that can bring mental disorders—and their causes and treatments—to life. Like many of you, I like to incorporate feature films into my pedagogy. There are a couple of aspects to this process that I have been invited to share with you.  For one, I like to show one or two full-length feature films IN class, every semester. Some faculty object, saying “but that takes so much time!”  I say the payoff is worth it for a number of reasons. First, it gives me an opportunity to discuss the film in real time with students (I often stop the film and ask what they’ve observed, and how it relates to what they’ve learned from my lectures and the book). Second, it breaks up the flow of class, keeping things fresh and the students (and me) engaged. Students like the alternation between breadth and depth in this course.

    But back to the main point–showing feature films depicting mental disorders, their causes, and treatment. I think most of us agree that films offer the opportunity to engage in higher levels of thinking, as outlined by Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson, Krathwohl, & Bloom, 2001), for example by applying course information to the movie and critiquing the movie’s depiction of the mental illness. Compared to written case studies describing a hypothetical client in therapy, films flesh out details and give more realistic examples of the “messiness” of understanding abnormal psychology “in the real world.”  (See Wedding, Boyd, & Niemic, 2010, for an excellent review of movies concerning abnormal psychology.)

    I used to work from the assumption that the key to learning was for the student to integrate his or her thoughts about the movie in a paper. Indeed, some teacher-researchers have studied the use and effectiveness of the movie-paper pairing (e.g., Hemenover, Caster, & Mizumoto, 1999; Kelley & Calkins, 2006). However, for the past decade, I have focused my paper assignment on application-based learning, asking students to write a simulated case report on the main character depicted in a feature film, as practitioners would write after seeing a client for an intake interview.


    The Paper Assignment

    I ask students to discuss the symptoms of the diagnosis, hypothesize potential causes of the disorder, and create a treatment plan. More specifically, I provide the following instructions: 

    1. Diagnose the mental disorder and psychosocial stressors. Note the EXACT mental disorder and use the PROPER TERMINOLOGY for psychosocial stressors from the notes. Consider the client when his/her symptoms were worst. Explain EACH diagnosis. Note the abstract symptom (e.g., obsession) and then state SPECIFIC, CONCRETE things the client thought, did, or said that relate to that symptom. Give AT LEAST one concrete example from the case study/movie for EACH symptom. (You need four or five sentences TOTAL here.) Give a 1-2 sentence explanation for each psychosocial stressor, using concrete examples from the movie/case study.
    2. Describe how you would CONCEPTUALIZE the “client’s” case (4-5 sentences). That is, describe one possible SCIENTIFIC cause (noted in the book or notes) of the client’s disorder. Note CONCRETE EXAMPLES of the cause FROM THE MOVIE. It is better to go into detail on one cause than briefly mention three or four. If there are few clues, make an educated guess as to why the main character has the disorder s/he does.
    3. Describe how you would TREAT the “client” in 4-5 sentences. Mention SCIENTIFIC treatments noted in the book or notes. It is better to go into detail on one treatment than briefly mention several. Don’t just say you will treat the client with drugs, tell me what drug you will give the client, and how you will motivate the client to take the drug as needed. Don’t just say you will use cognitive-behavioral therapy, but describe in detail how you would engage in such therapy. Give CONCRETE examples of things you would do or say with the client, using information from the movie.

    I also provide students with an example of a “good paper” (based on a different movie and disorder than the one the class saw). In addition, I provide a rubric, stressing professional writing skills (correct grammar, spelling, and organization); utilization of relevant disorders, theories, and treatments; and an ability to show that they know the abstract concepts learned in the chapter by using those terms and providing specific concrete depictions of those concepts as illustrated in the movie.

     The Research

    I’ve conducted multiple studies assessing the effectiveness of the movie paper assignment over the past decade. I also continuously honed my study design as I received feeback from colleagues. The latest study, presented at the 2016 National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, sought to compare four different types of teaching, all of which included my “teaching-as-usual” approach (lecture, discussion, and small in-class activities - a paragraph case study where students determine the diagnosis; a two-page handout where students practice cognitive-behavioral treatments of the disorder). The conditions I tested were:

    1. CONTROL condition—no additional teaching methods.
    2. MOVIE condition—show and discuss in class a movie depicting a mental illness.
    3. PAPER condition—students read a 3-5 page case study depicting a mental illness with a corresponding paper assignment (as described above). We discuss the case study in class, since I discuss the movie condition in class.
    4. MOVIE and PAPER condition—show and discuss in class a movie depicting a mental illness, with a paper assignment (as described above) with the same instructions as the paper condition.

    The study involved “a snapshot” (weeks 6-12, including spring break) of two abnormal psychology classes (71 students at a small regional university in Pennsylvania) that I taught in the spring of 2015. I examined quiz scores for 4 of the 12 chapters: dissociative disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and personality disorders, alternating the chapters across each class that received various conditions. For example, one section wrote a paper about a case study reading for schizophrenia, watched a movie concerning anxiety disorders (Coyote UglyBruckheimer & Oman, 2000depicting social phobia), had class as usual for personality disorders, and wrote a paper about the movie Fight Club (Bell, 1999; depicting dissociative identity disorder). The other section wrote a case study paper for dissociative identity disorder, watched A Beautiful Mind (Howard & Grazer, 2001) in the schizophrenia unit, had class as usual for anxiety disorders, and had a movie paper assignment for Fatal Attraction (Jaffe & Lansing, 1987; depicting borderline personality disorder).

    I assessed learning with multiple choice quizzes for each chapter. Quiz questions equally assessed diagnoses, causes, and treatments of mental disorders. I used 95% confidence intervals of the mean percent correct on quizzes. The MOVIE (85.06%, 88.88%) and the MOVIE and PAPER (83.58%, 87.78%) conditions outperformed the CONTROL (79.42%, 83.06%) condition. The PAPER condition (81.76%, 86.82%) was not significantly different from the other three conditions. Thus, the two movie conditions outperformed class-as-usual, but a paper alone did not.


    Overcoming Barriers and Limitations

    This assignment does have some potential limitations. First, you might be concerned about grading so many papers. I have 25-45 students in each section. I make sure the two paper assignments are dispersed throughout the semester, and that when I collect one of the papers, I have spring or fall break to grade it. Often I will grade one set of papers while showing a movie in class. Second, you might be concerned that you don’t have enough time to discuss the other mental illnesses by showing a full-length feature film in class. While showing two movies across the semester and discussing schizophrenia and the dissociative/personality/anxiety disorders, I also discuss paraphilia’s, sexual dysfunctions, gender dysphoria, and addiction, stress, compulsion, depression, bipolar, neurodevelopment, impulse control, somatoform, and eating disorders. My discussion of some disorders is brief (addiction) where I know other parts of our curriculum address the issue in depth (we have multiple classes addressing drug use). A third issue to consider is trigger warnings and moral qualms. I warn students before the movie if there is violence, cursing, sexuality, etc. I explain if they are going into the mental health field, they are likely to see and hear things that are at least “R-rated.”  (If there are students who wish to find an alternative assignment, for moral or mental health reasons, I accommodate them, although this has happened only a few times across the 15 sections that I have taught this course.)  A final issue to address is the inaccurate depiction of abnormal psychology in a movie. For example, I was loath to show Fight Club, but my students were loath to watch a 1950’s portrayal of the disorder (Three Faces of Eve–Johnson, 1957). I used Fight Club as an opportunity to critique the movie’s portrayal. Although I didn’t include this teaching element within the paper, it could easily be added, if so desired.

    In the future I hope to round out my study, with two more courses to alternate across the four-chapter conditions; leaving each chapter with each of the four conditions, to help me best assess which form of learning is most effective. In any case, given the information presented here, preliminary evidence suggests that the key to learning was the feature film. Feature films provide a thorough context that offers concrete examples of abstract concepts. This helps students learn, especially in an area as rich as abnormal psychology.



    Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., & Bloom, B. S. (2001).  A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives New York: Longman Publishing.

    Bell, R. G. (Producer) and Fincher, D. (Director). (1999). Fight club. [Motion picture]. United States: Twentieth Century Fox.

    Bruckheimer, J., & Oman, C. (Producers), and McNally, D. (Director). (2000). Coyote ugly. [Motion picture]. United States: Touchstone Pictures.

    Hemenover, S. H., Caster, J. B., & Mizumoto, A. (1999). Combining the use of progressive writing techniques and popular movies in introductory psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 26(3), 196-198. doi:10.1207/S15328023TOP260307

    Howard, R., & Grazer, B. (Producers). (2001). A beautiful mind. [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.

    Jaffe, S. R., & Lansing, S. (Producers), and Lynne, A. (Director). (1987). Fatal attraction. [Motion picture]. United States:  Paramount Pictures.

    Johnson, N. (Director). (1957). The three faces of Eve. [Motion picture]. United States: Twentieth Century Fox.

    Kelley, M. R., & Calkins, S. (2006). Evaluating popular portrayals of memory in film. Teaching of Psychology, 33(3), 191-194. doi:10.1207/s15328023top3303_7

    Wedding, D., Boyd, M. A., & Niemic, R. M. (2010). Movies and mental illness: Using films to understand psychopathology (3rd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe Publishing.



    Russ Phillips is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. He has taught a 24-credit-hour-per-year undergraduate teaching load for 10.5 years, in the areas of clinical/counseling, health, cultural, and personality psychology. His research interests lie in the psychology of religion, where he regularly supervises undergraduate research. Russ’ applied work involves stress management and mindfulness meditation interventions. Russ obtained his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Bowling Green State University. Born in western Pennsylvania, he moved to Ohio, then Maine, then Missouri, but his heart remained in Pittsburgh (Go Steelers!). He resettled in western Pennsylvania in 2012, acquiring the position he now holds (Hail Pitt!). He met his wife at a teaching of psychology conference ten years ago (NITOP), and married her 3.75 years ago. He is happy.

  • 11 Jul 2016 6:11 PM | Anonymous

    Greetings!  E-xcellence in Teaching is The Society for the Teaching of Psychology's monthly column of invited essays.  Historically, it's been published on STP's electronic listserv and gathered into annual collections available from the STP e-books page ( Our primary function is to provide brief, thought-provoking, and insightful essays on the teaching of psychology. These address effective teaching at the high school, college, and graduate school levels in an engaging style, concentrating on applications. Instead of presenting data or findings from a novel empirical study, these invited articles present best practices, innovative ideas, and advice to inform and enrich the teaching of psychology.

    To enable our members to share these essays more easily with their social media contacts, we're also now publishing them as blog posts here on the STP website.  We hope you'll find these essays useful, and will share them with interested colleagues, students, and members of the public.

    Be well,
    Bill Altman, Co-editor of E-xcellence in Teaching

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