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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2021 / Winter 2022)

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Shared experiences: Using Hollywood to illustrate psychological theories

By Darin J. Challacombe and Whitney K. Whitaker, Department of Psychology, Fort Hays State University


Background: Educators have utilized movies to supplement traditional learning methods for years. As instructional designers continue to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a need to consider methods to improve learning.

Objective: The current study explores how the inclusion of a movie-based final essay component in an online social psychology course impacts final grades.

Method: We used data from 1,086 students enrolled in online Social Psychology courses that either contained a movie-based final essay component or did not contain this assignment.

Results: We found the inclusion of this final essay component significantly improved students’ final grades.

Conclusion: This finding illustrates that movies can increase students’ engagement and understanding of concepts (Blessing & Blessing, 2015; Eaton & Uskul, 2004; Fehim Kennedy et al., 2011; Mak & Hutton, 2014).

Teaching Implications: This research supports the use of movies to illustrate concepts as an effective instructional tool.

This photo is by Patrick Blaise, who shared this on Pixabay.


movies, instructional design, social psychology, learning methodology

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, internet or online-based learning spaces have and continue to increase. There are thousands of online degree programs offered by colleges and universities worldwide. Online educators must balance between upholding rigorous educational values, facilitating accessibility, and operating within the limitations of learning management systems (LMS). Course design is an important part of a learner’s experience (Adair, 2014). LMS platforms like Blackboard have added features to more accessibly facilitate advanced instructional design techniques. The Quality Standards Institute (QSI) and other organizations have recommended using active learning content that engages with the student, facilitates collaboration, establishes relevance, among other qualities (O’Leary Egerton & Posey, n.d.). Most courses have multimodal elements that include readings, assessments, discussion boards, and writing assignments (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2018).

Courses that engage with the learner are seen more favorably (Adair, 2014). Finch and Jacobs (2012) report the frequency and nature of interactions (in any dyadic relationship) increased course satisfaction. Asynchronous online discussion (AOD) boards are utilized in many courses (Osborne et al., 2018). Students find AODs, especially those with active faculty involvement, as helpful to adapt the material in a constructivist way. Additionally, online educators will frequently pilot other novel instructional design techniques in an effort to make their asynchronous courses more engaging and fun.

Regardless of delivery method, educators have utilized various instructional design methods to provide new or interesting engagement opportunities. The use of movies in the classroom is nothing new. Movies have been used to illustrate important, controversial topics or cross-cultural management concepts (Fehim Kennedy et al., 2011; Pandey, 2012). Others have used movies to teach language (Albiladi et al., 2018; Cho, 2019; Qiu, 2017). Mak and Hutton (2014) found the use of movies was beneficial to teaching non-majors about public relations. Even The Simpsons has been used to teach social psychology (Eaton & Uskul, 2004; Groening et al., 1989). Blessing and Blessing (2015) incorporated an assignment in introductory-level psychology courses in which students had opportunities to connect course content to a movie. Students watched the movie, 12 Angry Men and responded to essay prompts to integrate and synthesize information from the movie to various course themes and psychological concepts (e.g., “behavior being determined by multiple causes; behavior being shaped by cultural heritage; heredity and the environment jointly shaping behavior; people’s experience of the world being highly subjective;” p. 52). Findings suggest that students who had an opportunity to view the movie and respond to essay prompts performed better in the class compared to a control group. Important to note, performance was enhanced through this assignment for both majors and non-majors. The findings and research outlined above support the use of movies as a teaching resource that may help students to better understand and apply course content. Using this prior research as guide, the current work modeled such an approach to expand existing knowledge regarding the utility of movie-based assessments. 


Beginning in 2005, a medium-sized Midwestern-based university’s online social psychology courses have required students to review movies. Social psychology is the study of how we interact with ourselves (viz., personality) and others (e.g., attraction, group effects, etc.).  The instructors curated a list of movies where social psychological elements were readily illustrated. This curation involved a specific cinephile instructor reviewing movies to ensure topics for every social psychology textbook chapter were covered. Students were provided with this list of movies. The students usually watched these movies at the start of the semester, then would refer to specific scenes in movies in order explain a social psychological component. For example, a student chose to explain gender roles by using scenes from the 1980s movie Mr. Mom (Dragoti, 1983). Another student explained the fundamental attribution error using Shrek (Adamson & Jenson, 2001). Students used these shared Hollywood experiences to illustrate a psychological concept for their discussion board postings, both a new thread and a response. Students periodically debated the relationship between the concept and a particular scene. Since first introducing this learning component, the movie list has changed to include newer, more ubiquitous ones: From 12 Angry Men, Girl Interrupted, and Natural Born Killers (Lumet, 1957; Mangold, 1999; Stone, 1994) to Shawshank Redemption and Kubo and the Two Strings (Darabont, 1994; Knight, 2016).

In Fall 2016, the university’s psychology department made the decision to standardized the core course components. The social psychology course now has a required final paper. This essay requires the student to select their favorite movie and then point out between five to seven social psychology concepts from the movie for the essay. For example, suppose a student chose Shawshank Redemption (Darabont, 1994), they may point out the false consensus effect occurred in the scene with “the sisters” who assault the protagonist. Or, they may point out the exchange relationship between the prisoners and Red or other prisoners.

The final essay is meant for the student to demonstrate their understanding of the material by applying it to something familiar. This allows students to synthesize new connections between academic topics and the everyday. As an example, one recent student discussed external attributions (viz., situational factors outside a person’s control) in relation to the movie The Truman Show (Weir, 1998). They described how Truman’s fear of water was caused by the drowning death of his father. The final essay is required to be between 5-7 pages, and this includes a summary of the movie plot. Students must find examples of social psychology phenomena in the movie and to make connections between the course content and the movie (see Appendix A for the grade matrix). This analysis of movie scenes and integration of social psychology concepts helps them learn to extrapolate and synthesize content. The final essay represented between a third and a fourth of the final grade.
For the current exploratory research, we wanted to examine if the inclusion of the final essay influenced the final grades. We also wanted to examine the relationship between the specific movie and its genre related to the student’s grade for those students who were required to complete a final essay. Prior to beginning this research, we sought and received approval for this study from the Fort Hays State University Institutional Review Board under 1318629. Special thanks to Shylo McCulloch, the FHSU Registrar, and the FHSU Virtual College staff for their assistance in gathering the data.



We used data from 1,086 students enrolled in online 300-level social psychology courses offered at a Midwestern university. Students enrolled in these courses consisted of both majors and non-majors. Based on the university’s statistics, the students in these courses were roughly 70% female and a majority of students identify as White, non-Hispanic. These courses were offered from spring 2015 to fall 2018. Courses from spring 2017 to fall 2018 contained a final essay component; whereas, courses from spring 2015 to fall 2017 did not contain this assignment.


Final essay: Assignment details


For students enrolled in the course from spring 2017-fall 2018, assignment instructions were provided at the beginning of the semester. These instructions detailed the purpose of the assignment and paper formatting criteria; however, students were given a great deal of autonomy in picking their movie and applying the content that they felt relevant to their movie selection. Students who completed the course from spring 2015-fall 2017 did not complete this assessment. While writing skills (e.g., correct grammar usage and professional tone) were included as grading components of the essay rubric, a majority of the points were earned based on both the quantity and quality of the examples used from the movie as well as the accuracy defining and describing course content that connected to movie examples (see Appendix A).  

Data collection

The primary author retrieved the grade data from the 2015 to 2018 PSY340 courses, then the primary researcher retrieved the movie data from the 2017 to 2018 courses. After collection, the researcher and a research assistant utilized the Internet Movie Database ( to code the movies for their release year, primary, secondary, and tertiary genres for courses that included the final essay component. The university only records final grades as letters without pluses/minuses.


Final grade comparison

We conducted a chi-square to compare students’ final letter grades between those who completed the final essay assignment (N = 493) and those who did not complete the essay assignment (N = 593). A chi-square test of independence showed that there was a significant relationship between those two variables, X2 (4, 1086) = 42.70, p < .001. See Figure 1.

Figure 1.  Distribution of final grades btwn students w/  final essay component and those w/o

Movie selection

The instructions for the final essay specified students were to choose their favorite movie. Table 1 shows the top ten movies selected by students for their final essays. In the entire collection, movies primarily classified as comedy and drama genres were selected more than any other genre (see Table 2).

Table 1.  Top 10 movies selected by students for their final essays


Release Year

Essay Choice

Primary Genre

The Truman Show *




Shawshank Redemption *




The Breakfast Club




Mean Girls




Adventureland *




Trading Places *




The Blind Side




American History X




King Kong




Kubo and the Two Strings *




Note. * indicates the movie was curated by the instructor for approximately half of the courses for use in AOD postings.

Table 2.  Primary genres for movies selected by students for their final essays

Primary Genre


































We conducted a chi-squared test to evaluate any relationship between the movie selected and the final letter grade; however, the result was not significant: X2 (1, 1088) = 786.40, p = 1.00. Additionally, we performed a similar evaluation on the genre of the movie and final letter grade; again, no significant result emerged, X2 (1, 56) = 79.53, p = .02.


The use of movies in education is not a new concept. However, we found the inclusion of a final essay component was connected to higher students’ final grades in a Social Psychology course. Students’ final grades were higher when they were required to use a movie for a final essay. This may indicate that the essay assignment, as a supplement to the regular quizzes and discussion board assignments, helped to increase students’ understanding of the material. This notion would support Mak and Hutton’s (2014) and others' assertion that movies increased understanding and engagement. These findings also are consistent with previous research that used a movie-based assessment to examine differences in overall student performance in introductory-level psychology courses (Blessing & Blessing, 2015).

The requirement that students self-select the movie for the final assignment created an opportunity to better understand their preferences. The current assessment also allows for some flexibility to accommodate students’ preferences. Students in the course overwhelmingly selected comedy and dramas more than any other genres. Even so, there was no significant relationship between movie genre and essay grade nor between the movie genre and the movie release year. While prior research (see Blessing and Blessing 2015) has used an approach in which a movie is selected for students, allowing students to select their own movie also may enhance their ability to think critically about course content; with this approach, students must design their own themes and connections to a self-selected movie as opposed to having those themes predetermined or predeveloped by the instructor. 


While the current findings contribute valuable information, limitations of this work should be noted. First, the course selected for this work, Social Psychology, is offered as a general education course at our university. Students enrolled in these course sections (both online and on-campus) represent a variety of majors. The data provided for the current study were deidentified, and as such, we were unable to classify students according to major. While we expect that non-psychology and psychology majors would not differ considerably with respect to completing the final essay, a student’s major (and classes that have been completed prior to this course) might shape their approach to writing the final essay, and thus their overall final letter grade in the course. Future research on this topic might benefit from categorizing students based on major and either controlling for or including major as a variable that might influence final essay and course grades.

A second limitation includes the way our main variables of interest were measured. Final essay grade and final grade were classified as categorical variables based on our university’s categorization of the letter grade earned (i.e., A, B, C, D, U). The data provided for this work only included letter grade information as opposed to overall points or percentages. Future research might benefit from collecting more detailed information specific to the grade percentage/points earned. Furthermore, students’ perceptions of completing the assignment, or a reflection of what was learned or gained as a result of the assignment from students’ perspectives, were not collected. Including a self-reflection and/or lessons learned as a result of the assignment may enhance the overall findings and help to better explain why those who completed the assignment may have a better overall course grade compared to those who do not complete the assignment.

Implications and future research

Despite these limitations, this research would support using movies to illustrate concepts, especially those in social psychology, as an effective tool. This would follow with recommendations from QSI and others regarding active learning content. Instructors can build upon these findings to develop content conducive to using movies to illustrate concepts. Continued research on this topic as well as replication of these findings would be helpful. With the COVID-19 pandemic and shift to content delivery that incorporates more online tools and assessment, the current assignment could be used for both online and in-person modalities. Findings from this work suggest that both online and on-campus students benefited from such an assignment as evidenced through an increase in final course grades. The course in which this assignment was used also includes both majors and non-majors. As such, this form of assessment may be beneficial among various teaching modalities and for students who either major or are non-majors in Psychology.

Data availability statement. This study’s data is available through the Center for Open Science,


Adair, D. (2014). A process to improve course design. In K. Shattuck (Ed.), Assuring Quality in Online Education: Practices and Processes at the Teaching, Resource, and Program Levels (pp. 81–90). Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Adamson, A., & Jenson, V. (2001). Shrek. DreamWorks Pictures.

Albiladi, W. S., Abdeen, F. H., & Lincoln, F. (2018). Learning English through Movies: Adult English Language Learners’ Perceptions. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 8(12), 1567.

Blessing, S. B., & Blessing, J. S. (2015). Using a Movie as a Capstone Activity for the  Introductory Course. Teaching of Psychology, 42(1), 51–55.

Cho, G. M. (2019). American Movies. WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, 47(1–2), 83–88.

Darabont, F. (1994). Shawshank Redemption. Columbia Pictures.

Dragoti, S. (1983). Mr. Mom. 20th Century Fox.

Dunlap, J. C., & Lowenthal, P. R. (2018). Online educators’ recommendations for teaching online: Crowdsourcing in action. Open Praxis, 10(1), 79.

Eaton, J., & Uskul, A. K. (2004). Using The Simpsons to Teach Social Psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 31(4), 277–278.

Fehim Kennedy, N., Şenses, N., & Ayan, P. (2011). Grasping the social through movies. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(1), 1–14.

Finch, D., & Jacobs, K. (2012). Online Education: Best Practices to Promote Learning. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 56(1), 546–550.

Groening, M., Brooks, J., & Simon, S. (1989). The Simpsons. Fox Broadcasting Company.

Knight, T. (2016). Kubo and the Two Strings. Focus Features.

Lumet, S. (1957). 12 Angry Men. Fox Movietone Studio.

Mak, A. K. Y., & Hutton, J. G. (2014). Using Feature Films to Teach Public Relations: An Assessment Model from Nonmajor Students’ Perspective. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 69(4), 386–403.

Mangold, J. (1999). Girl, Interrupted. Columbia Pictures.

McKay, A. (2006, August 4). Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Sony Pictures Releasing.
O’Leary Egerton, E., & Posey, L. (n.d.). Quality standards inventory (QSI).

Osborne, D. M., Byrne, J. H., Massey, D. L., & Johnston, A. N. B. (2018). Use of online asynchronous discussion boards to engage students, enhance critical thinking, and foster staff-student/student-student collaboration: A mixed method study. Nurse Education Today, 70, 40–46.

Pandey, S. (2012). Using popular movies in teaching cross-cultural management. European Journal of Training and Development, 36(2/3).

Qiu, J. (2017). The Effect of English Movies on College English Listening Teaching. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 7(11), 1011.

Stone, O. (1994). Natural Born Killers. Warner Bros.

Weir, P. (1998). The Truman Show. Paramount Pictures.

About the Authors

Darin J. Challacombe is ScanSTAT Technologies’ Manager of Training and Employee Development.  He is a member of the Human Resources team and oversees all educational opportunities for the company. He has worked in educational space since 2002, and has focused on Health Information Management and Release of Information for the past three years. Mr. Challacombe has a Ph.D. in Social Psychology and is on the adjunct faculty for Fort Hays State

Prior to ScanSTAT, Dr. Challacombe has worked as a grant-writer for a not-for-profit and for the Department of Justice. He serves on two boards – as Treasurer for the Association of Health Information Outsourcing Suppliers (AHIOS) and on the board of Global Ties Kansas City, a not-for-profit organization connecting the USA to the world. He is a regular volunteer with the KKFI 90.1 Kansas City Community Radio station, United Methodist Church of
the Resurrection, and several other organizations in Kansas City servingindividuals experiencing homelessness and immigrants.


His email is 

Whitney K. Whitaker is an associate professor of psychology at Fort Hays State University (FHSU). She received her BA from Baylor University in Waco, TX and her MS and Ph.D from Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS. Dr. Whitaker has been a faculty member at FHSU for six years. She has taught introductory psychology, personality, experimental methods, and statistics; however, her favorite subject/course is social psychology! When she is not teaching, Dr. Whitaker enjoys mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in research. She works with students in the MARS (Mindfulness and Attention Research Studies) Lab on research projects examining psychological outcomes related to relational conflict, forgiveness, and mindfulness.


Her email is 

Appendix A

Appendix A.  Grade matrix for final essay.


35-32 points

31-28 points

27-24 points

23-20 points

19-16 points

< 15 points







Connections to Movie and Course Content

Excellent evidence of connections between assigned readings (textbook and debate articles), lecture material, and movie. Student goes above and beyond to present many (~7 or more) connections that are logical, informative, and interesting; ample elaboration.

Strong/Commendable evidence of connections between assigned readings (textbook and debate articles), lecture material, and movie. Student presents several (~5-7) logical/informative connections; adequate elaboration.


Average evidence of connections between assigned readings (textbook and debate articles), lecture material, and movie. Student presents several (~4-5) connections; limited elaboration (i.e., surface-level connections).

Below average evidence of connections between assigned readings (textbook and debate articles), lecture material, and movie. Student presents some (~2-3) connections; limited elaboration (i.e., surface-level connections).

Weak evidence of connections between assigned readings (textbook and debate articles), lecture material, and movie. Student presents one connection; Limited elaboration (i.e., surface-level connections).

Unacceptable evidence of connections between assigned readings (textbook and debate articles), lecture material, and movie. Student presents one connection (or no connection at all); no elaboration.






Description of Social Psychological Concepts

Excellent understanding of the course material/concepts presented. Excellent demonstration of critical thinking; properly explains all (or almost all) psychological principles/concepts in relation to the movie.

Commendable understanding of the material concepts presented. Strong demonstration of critical thinking; properly explains most psychological principles/concepts in relation to the movie.

Average understanding of the material/concepts presented. Average demonstration of critical thinking; somewhat explains psychological principles/concepts in relation to the movie.

Below average understanding of the material/concepts presented. Below average demonstration of critical thinking; number of errors in explaining psychological principles/concepts in relation to the movie.

Weak understanding of the material/concepts presented. Weak demonstration of critical thinking; substantial errors in explaining psychological principles/concepts in relation to the movie.

Unacceptable understanding of the material/concepts presented. Unacceptable demonstration of critical thinking; fails to adequately explain psychological principles/concepts in relation to the movie.


10-9 points

8-7 points

6-5 points

4-3 points

2-0 points



Length & Formatting Requirements

Meets page requirements; meets all or almost all (very minor errors) formatting requirements.

Meets page requirements; some minor formatting errors.

Meets page requirement; several formatting errors.

Meets page requirement; substantial formatting errors.

Does not meet page requirement; substantial formatting errors (or does not meet formatting requirements).






Discussion/Summary of the Movie

Excellent summary of movie plot and main characters; summary is concise/brief (~8-10 sentences) and understandable (covers all necessary details).

Commendable summary of movie plot and main characters; summary is concise/brief (~8-10 sentences) and mostly understandable (covers almost all necessary details).

Average summary of movie plot and main characters; summary is concise/brief (~8-10 sentences) but lacks sufficient detail to be understandable (only covers some of the necessary details).


Below average summary of movie plot and main characters; summary is not brief (> 10 sentences) and lacks sufficient detail to be understandable (only covers some of the necessary details).

Unacceptable summary of movie plot and main characters; summary is not concise/brief (> 10 sentences) and not understandable (several components of necessary details missing).






Writing Style

Excellent writing style; writing is clear, concise, logical, convincing, and flows; no (or almost no) technical errors.

Commendable writing style; writing is clear, concise, logical, but lacks flow/not convincing; some technical errors.

Average writing style; writing is somewhat clear, concise, logical, but very limited flow/not convincing; several technical errors (and repeated errors throughout paper).

Below average writing style; writing is somewhat clear but not concise or logical; very limited flow/not convincing; substantial technical errors (and repeated errors throughout paper).

Unacceptable writing style; writing is unclear, lacks flow, and has numerous technical errors or repeated errors throughout paper.





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