Academic journal article College Student Journal

I Saw It in the Movies: Suggestions for Incorporating Film and Experiential Learning in the College History Survey Course

Academic journal article College Student Journal

I Saw It in the Movies: Suggestions for Incorporating Film and Experiential Learning in the College History Survey Course

Article excerpt

For many undergraduates, history courses are inherently uninteresting and the required papers are boring. The analysis project described here is designed as an alternative to the traditional history research paper but is adaptable to any field of study where feature films are available. In the survey courses where this project has been employed, students were asked to distinguish between historical fact and fiction by viewing a film, reflecting upon its themes and characters, researching an issue from it, and writing an analysis paper based on those reflections and research. Built around David Kolb's experiential learning theory, the project provides multiple opportunities for students to grapple with significant historical issues and, more generally, to develop more broad-based intellectual abilities.

   Like most of us who teach history to the television generation, I envy the
   power of film (and video) to grasp and hold the attention of students.
   Books and lectures are all very well, but the magical properties of film
   are too obvious to ignore.

      Donald Mattheisen, from "Finding the Right Film for the History
      Classroom"

College history survey courses traditionally have reinforced the five pillars of classical historical instruction: lectures, note-taking, texts, tests, and term papers. For better or worse, many history educators swear by these methods and tools for teaching. Yet students often decry the boring and repetitive nature of their history classes, citing the irrelevancy of historical topics and complaining about general education requirements. One educational medium often overlooked, if not sometimes misused, in discussions about stimulating student interest in history and enhancing critical thinking skills is film. As the above quote from Professor Mattheisen illustrates, many instructors recognize the potential of film in the learning process, but few utilize movies outside of their attempts to give students a "sense" of history or, as is often the case, simply to fill time in the classroom.

Debates over film use among history teachers and historians have, in past decades, focused more on the legitimacy of film and its place in the field rather than what particular film-related exercises produce the best learning. This piece embraces the legitimacy and role of the cinema in the college classroom and serves three basic purposes. One objective is to acquaint instructors with the growing and dynamic body of literature specific to film use in history education while also exposing the reader to related contributions from other fields. Though it lacks an official moniker, the relativity new sub-field of history and film has seen the emergence of many valuable works in the past decade. Educators interested in film use in the history classroom should be aware of this burgeoning canon.

The second, and arguably most important, purpose of this paper is to offer a theoretical justification for film use in the history classroom. Researchers consistently have demonstrated that individual students possess unique learning styles. This information should come as no great surprise to seasoned educators, especially those responsible for teaching survey courses containing large proportions of students fulfilling general education requirements. Unfortunately, however, many survey classes do not address the needs of students with varied learning strengths and weaknesses. Most courses tend to revolve around the five aforementioned pillars of historical education with lecture as a centerpiece. Lecturing, a valuable teaching tool when used judiciously, also encourages students to slip into passive learning modes.

One means of combating passivity is to employ experiential learning, a theory and method based on the concept that learning is a "social process based on carefully cultivated experience" (Kolb, 1984, p. ix). Researcher David Kolb's theory, in which he describes the connection between learning styles and experiential learning, will serve as the conceptual framework for a student writing project. …

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