I’m a fan of historical movies. And when I look at movies and TV shows over the past few years – Elizabeth I, The Tudors, John Adams, Rome, even 300 – it looks like I’m not alone. Obviously, though, the primary goal of these dramas is entertainment rather than education, and the information presented may not be entirely accurate. This raises the question: Do historical dramas improve or interfere with students’ learning?
A new study published in the current issue of Psychological Science tested students’ recall of historical facts after watching short clips from a number of films. The participants watched parts of movies containing a mixture of facts and misinformation. For example, in The Last Samurai, an American military adviser is hired by the Japanese to combat a rebellion; in reality, French advisers were hired. The students were also given a short passage to read containing factual information about the subject covered in the film clip; they were asked to study the text because they were to be tested on it one week later. Subjects were given general warnings that filmmakers often take liberties with historical facts, or specific information about the inaccuracies in the material.