Introduction to Psychology Using Film

by KellyAnn Bonnell, MA

A few years ago I was struggling with my Psychology 101 class at a local community college. I had always specialized adult reentry alternate delivery classes however this time found myself teaching a morning weekday class. My class wasn’t filled with working professionals anymore. Now I was faced with recent high school graduates in their first semester of college. I had been a popular instructor in the adult reentry world. Their assignments were designed to apply what they were learning in their workplace. This didn’t work with professional students.

I needed to find some common ground and quickly. My first step was embrace the online supports for the course textbook. This took the course into the online world that was such an integral part of their lives. This was a start but I needed more. That’s when I turned to contemporary film.

We began with And the Band Played On. The film addresses the response to the AIDS epidemic in the early years but also portrays the use of scientific method pretty well. I had the students read the chapter and then watch the film. Their assignment was to identify elements of the film that did or did not support what we were studying. Regardless of whether they thought the film supported the content of the chapter, the examples used from the text book and the film gave me a clear idea if we had achieved the learning goals of the chapter.

Our next chapter was Organic Brain Disorders. The assigned film was Lorenzo’s Oil with Susan Sarandon and then on to brain injuries with Memento. Mental illness was a little more interesting. I happen to really love All About Eve but there have been several really great films about mental illness in recent years. I  also got papers referencing Cybil and Benny and Joon. And I began to notice that the papers were starting to get longer, the ideas more complex. Over the years, I’ve expanded the Psych 101 around films motif. I’ve found Remember the Titans is best watched in class over three sessions during the Social Psychology chapter and I have to leave the drug abuse selection up to individual selection.

Sometimes I throw them a curve ball and require a movie that has nothing to do with what we are discussing. Honestly, those are my favorite to read because it is so interesting to see how they respond to the assignment when the feel they’ve wasted their time. It’s usually toward the end of the semester and its usually when they finally get that they can voice an opposing opinion and they aren’t going to be penalized for it. It is then that I know I’ve done my job. The automatons that graduated high school being told the teacher is always right have evolved into vocal, thinking young adults with distinct points of view because they can learn the content from the book. It’s my job to get them to do more than simply regurgitate it. I want them to think about it.

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