Movies like Elizabeth I can help students learn history

It’s late one Friday afternoon with “double history” looming. But you arrive at class and your prayers are answered: the teacher says that for today’s lesson you’re going to be watching the popular film Elizabeth I. According to a new study, not only will this ease you comfortably into the weekend, the experience could significantly improve your retention of the associated course text. With one caveat. The teacher must point out in advance where the film deviates from the true historical record.

Andrew Butler and colleagues presented dozens of undergrad students with short, accurate passages of text about a historical event or situation. Some of these passages were accompanied by five minute clips from relevant historical movies, including Elizabeth I and The Last Samurai. Each film clip included a factual accuracy that matched the text, and one inaccuracy.

Crucially, when the students were tested a week later, their memory for a fact in the text was improved by about 50 per cent if they’d also seen a film clip portraying the same information. The students also rated text as more interesting if they’d watched an associated film clip.

What about the effects of inaccuracies in the film clips? It depended on what kind of warning students were given about the inaccuracies. With no warning or a general warning, students asked a question about a fact that was misrepresented in a film clip tended to give an answer mistakenly based on the film information, rather than the text. However, a specific warning about the inaccuracy in a film clip eradicated these kind of errors.

A follow-up study with 54 more students replicated these findings and showed that when students mistakenly relied on inaccuracies in film clips, they often showed misplaced confidence in the accuracy of their answers, sometimes misattributing the source of the false information to the text rather than the film.

“The current study clearly shows that watching popular history films has both positive and negative effects on the learning of associated texts,” the researchers said. One the one hand, they can “increase learning and interest in the classroom,” but on the other hand, historical inaccuracies in films can have detrimental effects. “One potential solution,” Butler’s team advised, “is for educators to provide students with specific warnings regarding the misinformation present in popular films prior to showing them in the classroom.”

ResearchBlogging.orgButler, A., Zaromb, F., Lyle, K., & Roediger, III, H. (2009). Using Popular Films to Enhance Classroom Learning: The Good, the Bad, and the Interesting. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02410.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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