Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Film as a Medium for Analysis in a Graduate Psychology Course

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Film as a Medium for Analysis in a Graduate Psychology Course

Article excerpt


This paper presents the author's experience using film as a pedagogical tool in a graduate Psychology of Adolescence course. Two films depicted early adolescence and two films illustrated late adolescence. Students analyzed characters, situations, and issues in the films using psychological theories of adolescent development and focused on several main themes. These included parenting styles; theories of identity development; the values of school, family, and peer groups; and issues related to gender and ethnicity. Students concentrated their analyses on the socio-political-economic-historical context of each film.


Cognitive theories of learning and research have taught educators much about the importance of active learning. Strategies such as meaningful processing, elaborative rehearsal, personal interaction with material to be learned, and personal relevance all positively affect learning and memory (Stein, Littlefield, Bransford & Persampieri, 1984). Teachers at all levels have sought unique ways of presenting information in an effort to maximize critical thinking, motivation, and achievement. Higher order thinking skills appear to be better developed using formats other than traditional lectures (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). At the elementary and even secondary levels of education, active learning and higher-order thinking can be encouraged through the use of hands-on activities, cooperative group work, projects and presentations, and other creative methods. The nature of much course work at the college level sometimes precludes the kinds of activities utilized at earlier levels. These courses often enroll well above thirty-five students, making some less traditional approaches more difficult to implement. However, with the increasing popularity of collaborative group work and a resurgent focus on constructivist approaches to teaching and learning, active learning is becoming popular even at the college level. One pedagogical technique that utilizes an active processing approach and has been used at the post-secondary level is the showing of feature films in class.

Using film in undergraduate college classrooms is not a revolutionary idea. In 1976 Duckworth and Hoover-Suczek wrote about teaching adolescent psychology using film. In their article they presented detailed descriptions of the plots of the films they used: The Member of the Wedding, Rebel Without a Cause, Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and The Graduate. Films such as these are timeless and, while perhaps out of touch with specific issues of contemporary adolescence, can still be analyzed in terms of the social and historical context of the film. Duckworth and Hoover-Suczek, however, focused on issues other than critical thinking. They defended the use of film as a tool in affective education, asserting that "complete understanding comes not only through learning facts, but through being able to empathize with characters in novels, historic situations, and moral dilemmas" (p. 601). Given the emphasis on affective education at the time Duckworth and Hoover-Suczek wrote the article, it is no surprise that their focus was on affective aspects of learning.

Desforges (1994) described how she used the film The Breakfast Club for an exercise in an adolescent psychology course. Her objective in using this film was to enhance students' understanding of specific developmental theories of Erikson, Marcia, and Kohlberg. Desforges found that students rated the method as enjoyable, supporting the Duckworth and Hoover-Suczek assertion regarding the use of film as an affective and motivational strategy. Moreover, the students actively engaged in processing information regarding psychological theories both in small and large group discussions.

Johnson and Sullivan (1995) describe an adolescent development course in terms of encouraging students to become active learners and to develop an empathic understanding of adolescents and their experiences. …

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