Teaching Psychology Through Film, Video

You’ve been working your fingers to the bone all semester and it is time for a break. So, you come up with the great idea to show a film. One of your colleagues has recommended one highly. You plan to dim the lights, hit the play button, and quietly sit in the back of the classroom wishing for some popcorn. Sounds great – what could go wrong? The film starts and before you know it you find yourself wondering – how does this fit with the material I’ve been presenting? This question is reinforced when one of your better (and braver!) students asks the same question as the lights go up. The next question brings up a point in the film that you had no idea would be addressed and thus you do not have an answer. This lack of knowledge helps bring questions and discussions to a halt. As you stand sweating in front of the class wondering how to tie the material in the film back to the class objectives you think – shucks, it would have been easier to lecture!

This nightmare scenario does not need to happen. Movies can be a wonderful tool for teaching psychology. However, for this to happen you need to do your homework. In this article I will discuss some of the reasons for using film in our courses as well as important rules, hints, and suggestions for doing so. I will conclude with a method for using film to teach psychology outside of the classroom.


Complement Other Course Content – There are many excellent reasons for using films to teach psychology. The most basic is that theatrical movies or educational videos can complement the text, lectures, and discussions. One of the basic rules of communication is redundancy, that is, communicating the same point in a number of different ways. Movies provide a concrete way to present important information (Anderson, 1992), sometimes in a way that grabs the class by their collective lapels and gives them a good shaking! For instance, teachers can talk about the power of Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiments until they are blue in the face and most students will just nod their heads. However, show them the film Obedience and many of them will squirm and giggle uncomfortably, just like Milgram’s participants.

Improve Students’ Discerning Eye – Filmmakers love to use psychology as a topic, perhaps because we are all amateur psychologists at heart. Thus, there is no shortage of psychology-oriented material. However, this leads to another reason to use film: to debunk inaccurate portrayals of psychology in popular film and to help students become critical consumers of popular information (Hollander, 2000). Many people have a distorted view of what psychology is and how psychologists work due to popular movies. We can use these films as a reminder that not everything presented on the silver screen is accurate and thus students should view portrayals of psychology with a discerning eye. For example, in Analyze This, starring Robert DeNiro and Billy Crystal, the absolute disregard for client confidentiality is appalling. Thus, I show this film clip to illustrate how psychologists “don’t work.”

Increase Relevancy – Finally, using fairly recent popular films allows you to “talk” in a language that students understand and frequently use. Another way to think about it is that the student tends to think of newer movies as more relevant to them and their world. For instance, you may want to use Sybil as a jumping off point for discussing Dissociative Identity Disorder but you may find that the students are not enthused about it and consider it dated. I guarantee, however, that you will not receive this reaction if you choose to use more recent films like Primal Fear or Fight Club (if you have not seen this movie I just ruined the ending for you – sorry!).



There are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce any potential problems associated with using a movie and to make it a beneficial experience for you and your students. It is important to note that I believe that the same teaching tips apply to the use of theatrical films and educational videos, although there are generally fewer time concerns with educational videos. In my opinion there are three crucial rules for insuring successful use of videos in the classroom.

View the film before the class sees it. Previewing allows you to answer a number of crucial questions. Does the content merit the use of class time? Are there portions of the movie that can/should be skipped? Is there any particularly objectionable material? If so, does the importance of the material outweigh the possibility of offending a student?

Always watch the movie with the class (Gross Davis, 1993). In the mind of some students, and some colleagues, a film means, “No learning today” or “The teacher is feeling lazy.” If you use the film as a substitute for yourself or if you leave the room and come back when the film is over you are reinforcing these beliefs.

Be aware of copyright laws. In general, legally obtained copies of materials can be used in face-to-face classrooms for educational purposes without violating copyright laws. However, the issue quickly becomes murkier if you want to tape something off television to show in your class. At this point the Fair Use exemption to United States copyright law probably comes into effect. The Fair Use exemption allows for educational use of copyrighted material without permission of the author (amongst other uses). However, Fair Use comprises a short excerpt that is attributed to the original source. Further, the use of the material should not harm the commercial value of the material. If you plan on using a longer piece of material I suggest that you contact your University counsel to determine your University’s policy concerning copyrighted material.


There is no shortage of films that contain psychological content. In fact, you stand to be overwhelmed by the possibilities if you are not selective in your approach to finding a good film! The two places that I always begin are Instructor’s Manuals for the class and my colleagues. Use of the Instructor’s Manual insures that the films are relevant to the course and content being covered. However, remember that this does not guarantee that the film is of high quality or useful for your particular classroom. No matter how highly recommended a film is – make sure that you preview it first. If you have more time I suggest that you use the Internet to find additional films, particularly theatrical releases that might be helpful. The best site that I have found for this purpose is www.psychmovies.com.


You can spend quite a while previewing films, preparing summaries, and designing exams only to have all of your efforts undermined if some basic preparation is ignored. Remember to practice operating the machinery that you will use in the classroom that you will use to show the film or video. This will help you to determine if you have the proper materials (e.g., adequate sized television, extension cords) and to check to see if there might be barriers to visibility (e.g., glare from late afternoon sun).

Time is of the Essence in the Classroom – Most teachers feel that there is never enough time to cover what they want. So how does a professor take advantage of the benefits of movies without sacrificing other important material?

Do not feel obligated to watch a whole video from beginning to end. Feel free to use brief clips and /or sections of both scholarly and popular videos. This approach has become even easier with the advent of DVD technology that allows you to choose scenes with the push of a button.

One warning with this approach – make sure that you provide your students with the appropriate context to understand the video clip. For example, give your students any important vocabulary or proper names that they might need to know before they see the film (Gross Davis, 1993). Also, provide them with a question or set of questions that they should be able to answer/discuss after viewing the film.

Use of movies – Feel free to fast-forward through the “fluff” when using longer portions of movies. This will allow more time for discussion and tends to keep the students interested in the movie. The student feedback that I have received is that they resent “wasting time” watching material that is not relevant or appropriate. When using this approach let the students know ahead of time that you will be skipping parts of the film and take care to not undermine the continuity of the film.


Another time issue occurs when the film takes up the whole class. Often the transition to the next class is awkward and scholarly momentum is lost. One method for dealing with this problem is to provide a small assignment to be completed for the next class. This can be as simple as “Generate one thought/reaction/question related to the content of the film.” These thoughts and questions can be used as the jumping off point for discussion in the next class. An alternate and frequently enjoyable assignment is to ask your students to act like movie critics and rate the film or video. Ask your students to evaluate both the overall presentation and psychological content separately. Then the next class can begin by asking how many thumbs up the film received on each factor. This assignment regenerates enthusiasm and is a much more useful prompt than “Any thoughts about the film?”


Some ethical dilemmas arise when using movies to help teach psychology. Many times the most visually arresting images will be the most powerful for getting your point across (Anderson, 1992). At the same time these images are often controversial and may be offensive to some students. This leads to two questions: should you use the film, and, if you do, how do you address the fact that you are presenting potentially objectionable material?

I approach this first question in much the same way that an Institutional Review Board approaches proposed research. I attempt to balance the potential benefits versus the potential costs and work to find the film that maximizes this ratio. Then, if I am going to use a potentially controversial film I warn the students about how it might be offensive (e.g., harsh language, violence, sexuality). Further, I allow students to leave if they choose to, and, when possible, I provide them with an alternative assignment that helps to cover the material (Anderson, 1992). Afterwards, I work with them to insure that they understand the important concepts covered in the film.

Test on Film and Video Material – Another potentially sticky issue is whether to test students on film content and, if so, how to test them. I agree with Gross Davis’ (1993) assertion that if film material is important enough to show in class then it should also appear on a test. However, there are bounds to this logic. If you are merely showing a brief clip to highlight a concept or to spur on conversation then a test question is probably not merited. For instance, I use a humorous scene from Monty Pythons’ Search for the Holy Grail where the medieval townsfolk are trying to decide whether a woman is a witch, as a way to indicate the strides that have been made in the assessment of abnormality. Using this scene gets my point across nicely but I would never test students on it.

If you are going to test students on the material you need to tell them before the movie or video. I suggest that you tell them not to take notes and that instead you will provide them with notes or a summary after the film. My rationale for this is simple. If students are taking notes they are not watching the movie. Further, for optimal viewing you want the lights turned down which makes note taking difficult. Finally, the issue arises – How should I test my students on the film content? Many films (moreso than educational videos) present potential problems in that they are more open to differences in interpretation than are lectures or textbooks. Questions pertaining to movies posed in an open-ended manner (e.g., essays) so that students have room to explain the rationale behind their answers work well. Other faculty ask two or three simple factual multiple-choice questions on exams, rewarding students, in essence, for attendance and paying attention.


One of the most important lessons that I learned as a college student was that I could learn as much, if not more, outside the classroom as I did inside of it. For this reason I borrowed an idea from The History Channel and created a Psychology Film and Discussion series. The format involves inviting the university community to four different Hollywood movies throughout the semester. At the end of each a panel of “experts” leads a discussion concerning the psychological aspects of the movie. Each panel member presents a brief reaction to the film and highlights a facet that caught their interest. Then the floor is opened for questions and discussion. The panel usually consists of faculty but also includes knowledgeable and relevant community members. For instance, a lawyer would be helpful when discussing a movie that focuses on legal issues related to psychology. The film series is not used as a class requirement for any psychology course, but many professors at our university offer extra credit for attendance.

The benefits of this format are numerous. For example, time constraints are no longer a concern. Discussions can go in many different, even tangential, directions without worrying about the clock or curriculum issues. Further, this format shows students that psychology can be discussed intelligently outside the classroom. Also, the film series provides students with an opportunity to meet faculty with whom they have not previously interacted. One fringe benefit is that our department has found the film series to be a wonderful recruiting device for attracting psychology majors. Finally it is one more way your college or university can offer educational and intellectual opportunities to its general community.

Once again, an area to be careful with is copyright law. In order to avoid copyright infringement our film series follows three policies. First, the movie has to have been purchased by the university. Movies cannot be rented from the local video store. Second, the movie must be shown for educational purposes. Third, students cannot be charged admission to view the movie, so don’t try to use a film series as a fundraiser.

Top Psychology Movies – To give you a head start in finding movies I have included a table that contains 13 movies that are excellent vehicles for presenting psychology to your students. I have used many of these films in class and others have been used for the Psychology Film Series. Obedience is the only film in the list that is not a feature length presentation.


Movies can be a wonderful tool for teaching psychology. There is a lot of truth to the cliché that a picture tells a thousand words. What we must remember, however, is that movies do not provide an easy way out or a day’s vacation. Successful use of a film involves as much, if not more, preparation than a traditional lecture.

Now, turn down the lights and pass the popcorn.


I don’t see your list of top movies. Can you send it? Thanks

Wondering if your list of films is still available?
Could you email it to me?
Thank you

Thank you for your words, I completely agree. Can you provide me with the list of your favorite movies? I couldn’t find them in the article.

Hello, Can you share your list of films? Thanks

Can you please send me your list of 13 movies? Thanks!

Good article. I like to use films, clips from films or videos when I teach as it seems to be a more multi-media approach.
Would it be possible to obtain the list of movies that was mentioned in the article?
Thank you,

I would also like to see your list please.

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