5 Tips to Effectively Show Historical Films in Class

The practice of showing historically-based films in class has been scrutinized by scholars as a “double edged sword” of opposing positives and negatives.  Films can be beneficial through their use as a visual aid and supplemental resource for the students’ acquisition of knowledge.  But on the other hand, films can provide fictional information which students may take as fact as well as placing students in the position of being passive participants in the learning process.

There are ways to effectively implement the use of historical films to bolster the class’s understanding of the time period and themes being discussed in the course.  Films can be a powerful tool for teachers if they are used correctly and efficiently.

1. Provide the Students with the Proper Context

Any competent teacher should already know this and probably tell the students what they are about to watch.  But sometimes that is not enough.  The film should not be used as the students’ primary form of understanding the content, nor should it be their first.

Teachers should work up the context of the film at least a day before the class watches the movie.  Films are better understood and can be viewed more critically AFTER the students understand the overarching themes, conflicts, and customs of the period and setting.

2. Don’t Show the Whole Film

This is especially true if you are showing a monstrosity of a movie elapsing over two hours.  There are a lot of negative consequences to showing a long film for over one class period.  Student attention and retention declines especially if they know they will be sitting in the dark going into class that day.

The visual element in films is great in a Differentiated Instruction sense, and to accomplish this teachers do not need to show the entire film.  Certain scenes can illustrate the period’s theme, customs, and setting. For example, Monty Python and the Holy Grail has great isolated scenes depicting feudalism, serfdom, and the plague.

Scenes can provide their own context to the teacher’s lesson to the class, but it remains important that the students must have a basic understanding of what they are about to watch for them to possibly gain a higher level of understanding of the content.

3. Stop the Film periodically for Class Discussion

If showing the film in its entirety is the most effective way for the class to understand the message you want to understand, then the movie should be a point of continuing discussion rather than an uninterrupted sitting.  Similar to what was previously mentioned in “not showing the entire film,” students can become apathetic and disassociated with the material if there is no stimulation for a lengthy period of time.

To remedy this dilemma, teachers should stop the movie after pivotal moments and allow the class to discuss what they just saw.  The benefits in doing this cannot be overlooked.  Along with breaking up the monotony and providing much-needed stimulation, students have a chance to analyze the important concepts as well as updating struggling students who may be lost or didn’t understand prominent facets essential to understanding the course content.

4. Proper Note-Taking

Many teachers require students to perform some act of note-taking to confirm both their understanding of what they’re watching and that they were watching in the first place.  Possibly the worst way this is implemented is by teachers handing out sheets with completed sentences where the students must fill in the missing words which they learn through watching the film.  This is incredibly ineffective because students listen for key words rather than thinking critically about the content.

Another poor strategy to avoid is that of assigning a minimum requirement for note-taking for students to complete during films.  This is especially problematic when students fulfill their quota within the first 10-15 minutes of the film then fade into a more passive role for the remainder of the film.  Quota systems are also flawed because the students don’t have any direction in what they should be looking for and analyzing.

For the teacher to promote critical thinking about the material, the students should take notes which straddle a middle ground between overly controlled fill-in-the-blanks and an aimless quota system.  This can be best achieved through giving the students a limited amount of questions which not only require them to focus on the entire film, but also guide their attention to the most pivotal aspects.

“In Casablanca, how does the change in Rick’s actions mirror those of the United States in World War II?”

A limited amount of questions allows the class to evaluate the film as whole and to draw their own connections.  For maximum potential, questions should not be based on rote memorization.  Instead, the questions should require students to make connections to previous lessons, analyze character developments, and synthesize plot points and conflicts.

The benefit of utilizing film is in its imagery and re-creation of events.  Students should be asked to interpret images, icons, costumes, and settings, to connect these concepts to the content in general.

5. Emphasize the Distinction between Fact and Fiction

Outside of documentaries, films are hardly historically accurate.  This deficiency in film is one of the strongest arguments against their use in the classroom.  Studies have been conducted illustrating poor student performance based on their retention of fictional elements in films presented to the class.

This is where all the aforementioned ideas correlate to bring forth a solution to this problem.  Students must have an understanding of the film’s context to be able to properly decipher fact from fiction.  Before the class is shown the film, some of the more glaring or detrimental fictional elements should be addressed in order for students to not misread the story and context of the film.

The Amount of Historical Inaccuracies in this film would be too much

If the film is being watched in its entirety and the film is divided into sections for discussion, the teacher should facilitate an analysis of factual information with the class.  Students should be encouraged to look for and write down elements in the film which appear dubious or inaccurate.  By having the class look for historical inaccuracies, they must first know what is accurate in the film, establishing an analytical theme in the film.

Similar to discussing inaccurate elements in the film, students should be encouraged in their film notes to periodically describe an aspect of the film which they believe to be untrue and to write down what would have made it historically accurate.  It is important for students to understand what WOULD be true and to emphasize fact over fiction.

In short, the value of films in the classroom can be seen in the process of requiring students to think critically about the content presented to them.  Films can be beneficial in developing learning skills and in exercising students’ analytical abilities, which is a cornerstone of the social sciences.