Benefits and Perils of Using Movies in Education
By Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel
When I was in school, our teachers would sometimes let us watch movies during classroom time to add to the topic that we had been taught before. For example, in History we watched “Schindler’s List” after discussing World War II and Holocaust in class before, in English we watched “1984” after having read the book by George Orwell, and in German, we went to the theater to see Goethe’s “Faust”.
Teachers use popular films because they assume that this will enhance student’s learning and understanding of the topic. This may happen for several reasons:
- Repetition is a good way to increase memory performance. Encountering a piece of information two or more times is usually better for memory than only seeing it once and adding a movie to the instruction mix accomplishes that.
- Students benefit from using multiple modalities when learning about a topic (1). Thus, if they read about the French Revolution in a textbook, have the teacher explain certain aspects to them, and watch a movie about it, this engages all senses which deepens their understanding.
- Related to the previous point, having students watch a movie in addition to reading the textbook is a form of dual coding which is one of the go-to learning strategies to enhance performance (2).
- Adding a movie to classroom instruction time is perceived by students as an entertaining and welcoming change and, in turn, may increase their motivation and interest in the topic (3).
Despite all these positive aspects, an important question to ask is: What if the movie contains inaccuracies that were added to tell a more consistent story? Movie directors use their artistic freedom quite often in that way. Consequently, some popular historical movies contain major factual errors and the danger is that students may update correct knowledge with incorrect facts from the movie. This is problematic and certainly not desirable.
Elizabeth Loftus, Professor at University of California, Irvine, ran a classical and influential experiment (4) that demonstrates how our memory is affected by erroneous information that follows correct information. In their experiment, participants were presented a series of slides showing a car-pedestrian accident. It was the footage of a car (a red Datsun) stopping at a stop sign before turning right and hitting a pedestrian. After watching the slides, participants were given 20 questions about the car-pedestrian accident. One of the questions contained a misinformation because it asked: “Did another car pass the red Datsun while it was stopped at the yield sign?” Twenty minutes later, participants took a final test. For this test, they were shown two slides at a time and had to correctly identify which one they had seen before during the first presentation of the car-pedestrian accident (see an example of a test trial below). The results of this experiment were striking: Participants identified the correct slide 75% of the times when the info in the question was consistent with the info seen before on the slide, but only 41% of the times when the question had introduced incorrect info. Thus, participants picked more often the slide with the yield sign that was mentioned in the question instead of choosing the correct slide that showed a stop sign. This shows that our memory is malleable and that information we read or hear after an event may change our remembering of it.
The finding that subsequent wrong information can alter previous correct information stored in memory is referred to as the misinformation effect. The misinformation effect has been extensively researched in relation to eyewitness memory, but more recently has been found to be relevant in education, too. An experiment by Butler, Zaromb, Lyle, and Roediger (5) had participants read text passages on different historical topics. The text passages contained veridical info only. Either before or after studying the text, participants watched a 5-minute excerpt of a popular movie. A control group was not exposed to a movie clip and only read the text. The movie content overlapped with the text content, but contained a major contradicting inaccuracy. One week later, all participants took a test. What did they find? One the one hand, the researchers found that for questions that concerned details that were consistent between text and movie, participants performed better in the conditions were a movie was shown than in the control condition where they had only read the text. On the other hand, they found that incorrect details from the movie were three times more likely to be remembered on the test than the correct information from the text.
In addition, Butler, Zaromb, Lyle, and Roediger (5) investigated the effect of providing participants with different types of warnings. Before watching the movie clip, participants were either given a general warning that told them that the upcoming clip may contain inaccuracies or a specific warning that described and corrected the inaccuracy. Interestingly, only the specific warning – that directly pointed participants to the inaccuracy and corrected it – was able to reduce the misinformation effect. Taken together, their findings highlight that using popular movies in education has a bright side as it adds to performance if the information in the movie is consistent with historical facts. However, it has a dark side, too, because it enhances the likelihood that incorrect details from the movie are stored in memory.
Another experiment looked at whether putting participants in a so-called discovery mode to detect inaccurate information in a movie clip reduced the acquisition of false knowledge (6). They found that triggering a discovery mode alone did not reduce the misinformation effect. However, if, in addition, participants were provided with feedback on whether they detected the inaccuracy and were concretely told the incorrect detail, misinformation on the final test was reduced considerably. Thus, having students try to find incorrect facts in movies without guidance is a bad idea because they often are unable to detect discrepancies. In fact, in the study by Umanath, Butler, and March (6) participants only detected 35% of the misinformation.
In summary, introducing movies to classroom instruction is a double-edged sword. If used properly the benefits clearly overweigh the perils. Proper use means that students are made aware of inaccuracies in the movies and are told concretely which facts have been distorted and are inconsistent to historical facts. General warnings or having students trying to identify the inaccuracies themselves are proven to be unsuccessful strategies. Teachers need to directly point students’ attention to the aspects that need correction and need to spend classroom time discussing these aspects. Otherwise, fiction becomes truth and this is certainly counterproductive in education.
(1) Mayer, R. E., (2002). Multimedia learning. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 41, 85-139.
(2) Paivio, A. (1969). Mental imagery in associative learning and memory. Psychological Review, 76, 241–263.
(3) Silvia, P.J. (2008). Interest—the curious emotion. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 57–60.
(4) Loftus, E. F., Miller, D. G., & Burns, H. J. (1978). Semantic integration of verbal information into a visual memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 4, 19-31.
(5) Butler, A. C., Zaromb, F., Lyle, K. B., & Roediger, H. L., III. (2009). Using popular films to enhance classroom learning: The good, the bad, and the interesting. Psychological Science, 20, 1161–1168.
(6) Umanath, S., Butler, A. C., & Marsh, E. J. (2012). Positive and negative effects of monitoring popular films for historical inaccuracies. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26, 556–567.