Friday Fun: Can movies improve test performance?

HistoryI’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.

When the information in the text and the films was consistent, the students’ recall of the material improved by 50%! In addition, watching the movies increased their interest level in the passages that they were required to read. Even though reading something more than once doesn’t necessarily lead to large improvements in recall, the researchers theorized that by presenting the information on film as well as in text promoted “dual coding” that made the material easier to remember. So if the film and the text were in agreement, the students performed much better on a test.

Unfortunately, when the movie included false information, the students were more likely to remember the incorrect portrayal than the factual material that they read. This occurred even when a general warning was given about possible liberties taken by the filmmakers. The misinformation effect was large: almost half of the answers to questions in which the text and the film disagreed were incorrect, favouring the film version. This effect dropped dramatically when students were given specific warnings about the inaccuracies in the film clips, though, and participants often recalled both versions on the test (“The film presented it this way, but it was really like this …”). Even though the warning was helpful, it’s possible that students could become confused if the delay between the film and the test were longer than a week.

Overall, it looks like historical movies can have a major impact on students’ performance on history exams – the effect is positive, though, only if the information in the movie is accurate! Teachers and parents will need to be careful about the films that they show to students, and a discussion of specific facts versus fiction is probably essential.

You can read the Psychological Science study here.

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