Academic Exchange Quarterly      Spring  2009    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  13, Issue  1

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Using Popular Film to Teach General Psychology

Anthony M. Zoccolillo, Ph.D., DeVry University, NJ

Zoccolillo, Ph.D. is currently an adjunct professor at several institutions of higher education in New Jersey



The challenge for today’s educators is building upon established teaching methods and developing innovative means of instruction. General Psychology has long been a popular course on college campuses, and more and more students are required to take the course as a requirement.  Using film in the classroom is an excellent way of taking abstract theoretical concepts and making them tangible and useful for today’s student.  Rationale, psychological topics, and concerns with using film as a pedagogical tool are discussed.



The influence of Hollywood on our lives is undeniable.  The majority of films produced today are commercial in intent, generating large audiences and revenue.  This suggests that rather than enlightenment, most moviegoers are seeking entertainment and escape (Ferrell, 2000).  Despite their intentions, movies have the power to influence, and as such, have the power to become a useful teaching tool.  By understanding this powerful medium we can learn why popular film compliments our current teaching methods. By examining the intersection between film and psychology and the limitations of using movies in our classrooms, we can form a basis by which to determine if film is an appropriate pedagogical tool to use.


According to Valenti (2000), compared to our recent past, some of the pillars of our society are viewed in a much different way.  Organized religion does not have the hold it once had on the American family.  The traditional family structure has been replaced with high rates of divorce and dual income households.  The vacuum created by these changes is now being filled, at least partially, by the entertainment industry, which is able to create a new common thread in our society via the media.  In the escape that movies allow for, we become witness to a wide range of human behavior and emotion and cannot help but become affected by the images and sounds (Ferrell, 2000).  Most of us have been passive movie viewers for so long that the continuous adjustments to the changing plot go relatively unnoticed. 


Understanding how people create meaning from their consumption of popular culture can be of great value to educators.  Instructors are turning to exciting, innovative and non-traditional means of conveying the subject matter of psychology.  A review of the literature finds course activities incorporating popular culture using a variety of media. This includes literature (Connor-Greene, 2006), autobiographies (Norcross, Sommer, & Clifford, 2001), music (Potkay, 1982), comic books (Gerde & Foster, 2008), video games (Squire, 2006), television (Polyson, 1983; O’Shea 2006; Callahan & Rosser, 2007) and newspapers (Gudelunas, 2005).


The challenge is to find new ways of engaging our students in a process of active learning.  Teacher enthusiasm is the single biggest factor that students believe is crucial to their own learning process (Lammers & Smith, 2008).  Presenting material enthusiastically not only helps to keep the attention of our students, but also has pedagogical value.  As master teachers point out there is more than one way to communicate this enthusiasm (e.g. Buskist, Sikorski, Buckley, & Saville, 2002; Meyers, 2008) but utilizing active learning strategies and popular culture content are means to that end.

Rationale for Film Use

As Irving Schneider (1977) points out, film and psychology were made for each other.  The pioneers in both areas were largely outsiders, and after a period of popularity and respectability, became cultural forces that have influenced society.  When Lumiere, Edison and others were first demonstrating their motion picture system in 1895, Sigmund Freud authored Project for a Scientific Psychology, the blueprint for his later theories.  In the early part of the 20th century, when George Melies was making the first in his early series of movies, Freud was publishing The Interpretation of Dreams. 


Popular culture has the power to familiarize the general public with the words and ideas associated with psychology as well as convey concepts about human behavior and relationships (Ridenour, 1948). Students can learn to improve their powers of observation, memory and reflection, and can lead them to more productive use of their mental faculties (Ange, 1930).  Research points to an actual cognitive difference in the way film is processed which is superior to reading text or listening to a lecture.  Film provides for better recall because it consists not of phonetics but rather a set of codes (e.g., iconic, auditory) that promote deeper processing (Roberts, Cowen, & MacDonald, 1996).  Movies also provoke an emotional reaction, from which we derive an expressive meaning (Tudor, 1974).  Because of this, film allows for more information to be extracted with less effort (Roberts, et al., 1996).  In Ange’s (1930) eyes film is the epitome of practical pedagogy, whose aims are maximum intellectual return with a minimum of cerebral fatigue. 


Educators understand the importance of relating psychology to real-life events.  The use of film, if presented in the proper manner, can increase a student’s ability to critically think (Boyatzis, 1994) and generally aid in application of course material to everyday life (Roskos-Ewoldsen, & Roskos-Ewoldsen, 2001).  By challenging our students to apply psychological principles to what they see in movies, we hopefully compel them to search for examples in their own lives (Brender, 1982). 


Instructors are faced with the task of helping students make meaning out of content, especially for students who find that the material is too abstract (Nissim-Sabit, 1979).  Taking abstract concepts and permitting students to struggle with difficult questions encourages more reflective and abstract critical thinking (Connor-Greene, 2006).  Alternatives to the traditional lecture format help to facilitate conceptual learning and students report higher rates of satisfaction with these methods (Banyard, 2000).  Feature films make course topics immediate, relevant, and concrete.  When combined with discussion their use promotes critical thinking skills (Anderson, 1992). 

Teaching Psychology

To go into all of the uses of film in the teaching of psychology is beyond the scope of this paper.  There is no shortage of recent articles that have discussed different ways to use popular culture in teaching psychological constructs (for a review of specific concepts and potential applications see Badura, 2002; Berry, 2003; Callahan & Rosser, 2007; Damico & Quay, 2006; Lopes, 2006; Roskos-Ewoldsen, & Roskos-Ewoldsen, 2001).   Carefully chosen films can be used to help illustrate many topics in social psychology, developmental psychology, memory, learning, and most other topics covered in a general psychology course. It is even possible to teach entire courses using film as the primary teaching methodology (e.g. Wedding, Boyd, & Niemiec, 2005; Niemiec & Wedding, 2008). 


Films that deal with the nature of mental illness and therapy are the most widely represented in film.  Wedding, Boyd and Niemiec (2005) strongly argue for the use of movies to help depict mental illness.  Their suggestion is that movies are “particularly well suited to depicting psychological states of mind and altered mental states.  The combination of images, dialogue, sound effects, and music in a movie mimics and parallels the thoughts and feelings that occur in our stream of consciousness” (p.4).


Most introductory textbooks provide overviews of major mental illness as well as therapeutic interventions for those conditions.  Sometimes they will also provide case studies for classes to use for discussion.  While important in the overall discussion of mental illness, the case studies are often provided from a very impersonal, detached and professional vantage point (Banyard, 2000).  Capturing the enthusiasm and emotion popular film elicits, is another way of presenting the material in order to stimulate critical and analytic discussion (Badura, 2002). 


While the breadth and scope of films is vast, the effects of the media’s portrayal of mental illness have embedded in its viewers conceptions that may be inaccurate.  Data indicate that individuals with mental illness tend to be characterized as unlikable, dangerous, and inadequate with emphasis on the bizarre symptoms of mental illness (Wahl, 1992).  Common unflattering portrayals of individuals with mental illness include the rebellious free spirit, homicidal maniac, female seductress, enlightened member of society, and the zoo specimen (Hyler, Gabbard, & Schneider, 1991).  Those who have experienced mental illness know full well that these images add to the stigma and the devaluation of people with mental illness (Wahl, 1995).  


Hollywood has also been unkind in its portrayal of the mental health profession.  Less than half (48%) of all therapists in film were portrayed as serious and effective (Winick, 1978).  The majority of therapists fell into one of several categories including:  eccentric, ludicrous, miracle worker, personally troubled, foolish, or evil/destructive.  We can only hope that the public views these representations as inaccurate however the results of a 1991 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation poll indicated that the most commonly cited source of information regarding mental health is the media (Wahl, 1995). 


The difficulty in teaching mental illness to a general psychology class is that while it is often the most interesting topic to the students, many are extremely limited in their exposure to mental illness.  They rely on the images projected by the media as their window into an unfamiliar world. These unflattering portrayals of the mentally ill are not a reason to turn our backs on using film as a teaching tool.  The value in this method lies in well-selected films that render realistic and convincing pictures of mental illness.  It also provides an opportunity to examine the way the mental health system is presented, both accurately and inaccurately, and allows us to challenge previously held beliefs in a way that promotes deeper understanding.


Issues with Using Film

Because viewing a motion picture is subjective, instructors need to be careful if they want to create the sort of shared experience(s) that is necessary to make this an effective teaching technique.  As we have seen, the motion picture industry’s portrayal of mental health is often over dramatized and even factually questionable.  Using film without proper discussion could potentially have detrimental effects, far outweighing the positives gained by using this methodology.


One of the pitfalls of using film is that students may become so caught up in the immediacy of the film, that they just accept the views of the movie without question (Anderson, 1992).  Students need to be taught proper ways of systematically observing and discussing the events they see transpire on the screen before them.  Many students are unfamiliar with these techniques and it is important to provide guidelines for each film that is being used (Dorris & Ducey, 1978).  As students gain confidence in their ability to perform this task, less instruction will be necessary.  Instructors must be mindful of the diversity of learning styles and the fact that some students will find this harder to accomplish than others.  The end result of teaching students this method of evaluating film is not only a deeper and more relevant understanding of the subject matter, but also a critical sensitivity when viewing further films outside of class (Dorris & Ducey, 1978).  In essence, through this method we can teach our students to become better consumers of psychology.


The two biggest obstacles to implementing this methodology are time and resources.  Often times the scene that highlights the concept(s) that you would like to teach are embedded into the context of a two-hour feature film.  A clip may lose effectiveness when removed from the character buildup and narrative that precedes it.  However, showing full-length motion pictures in class is time consuming.  Many colleagues have expressed a reluctance to ‘lose’ a week’s worth of instruction, in favor of a film.  Alternatives to showing entire films during class periods would be to show selected clips, have out of class viewings, or require the students to view the movie as a weekly assignment. Group viewings out of class can minimize expense to the student.  Coordinating those assignments with your institution’s library, local lending library, or video rental store would be ways of providing the students with easier access to the materials while being considerate of their time and money.


As educators we share a common goal of making our subject areas more accessible and easier to understand for students.  In this process, we want to encourage students to take an active role in the learning process and to process the information at deeper and more complex levels.  Incorporating teaching techniques that students enjoy and are comfortable with is one way of raising interest, enthusiasm, and effort.  Motion pictures allow for us to do that by providing a multi-sensory presentation, and guided critical discussion, to aid students in comprehending difficult or abstract subject matter.


Using video is not meant to replace established teaching practices, but rather to enhance it.  It is imperative that instructors find their comfort level with film and introduce it into their teaching repertoire at their own pace.  Much like any other teaching strategy, this can only work if the instructor has belief and confidence that it will work. 


This tool is not meant to water down the content of general psychology.  It is meant to bring to life the material and to promote an even deeper level of understanding (and appreciation) through the use of pictures and sounds otherwise absent during traditional lectures.  Integrated with other teaching techniques, the use of motion pictures can help both instructors and students reach their goals and meet their expectations in a general psychology course.



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