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Movies, music, popular magazines, the Web-all of these resources often can help reinforce what you're teaching more effectively than textbook and lectures alone, says Megan Flom, a fourth-year school psychology student at Texas Women's University in Denton, Texas.

In fact, research has also shown that using multimedia sources can enhance students' learning by reinforcing text and lecture and also by making the subject matter seem more accessible. For example, a 2002 review by Richard E. Mayer, PhD, and Roxana Moreno, PhD, in Educational Psychology Review (Vol. 14, No. 1) found that meaningful learning is more likely to occur with multimedia presentations than with single media.

Shelley Leiphart, a third-year clinical psychology student and teaching assistant at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, uses a combination of popular films, psychology videos and magazine articles in her class to grab students' attention.

"I've found that students have responded to and remembered the media assignments the best," she notes.

Bringing topics to life

What does mania look like? Or psychosis? Krisann Alvarez, a fifth-year clinical psychology student and a teaching assistant at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, frequently uses video in her abnormal psychology classes.

"I think it's just harder for students to grasp without video," she says, noting that most students have never encountered anyone with psychosis. Alvarez uses films produced by her textbook publishers to show patients coping with the condition instead of just presenting a list of signs and symptoms. She's also used the movie "Dying to Be Thin" and magazine pictures of emaciated models to talk about anorexia and body image. She finds that students often are shocked to see how thin these women are-a reaction that spurs them to want to learn more about how the women developed the distorted perception that they aren't thin.

Similarly, Flom uses a video that incorporates several forms of media in her developmental psychology classes. "Tough Guise" analyzes violent masculinity in the media and society, from toys like GI Joe-whose biceps keep getting bigger and bigger-to music and movies that equate masculinity with sexuality. She also uses popular teen movies like "The Breakfast Club" to illustrate adolescent development.

The outside sources, she says, help her communicate psychology topics better to her students-particularly when it comes to subjects that touch on issues specific to the undergraduate age range.

"I think it's challenging for them to hear any data that goes against their beliefs if it's just coming from me," she says. "Movies are entertaining, current and closer to reality than classroom lecture."

In one of Flom's most popular assignments, students identify psychological concepts in movie plots. They write a brief essay identifying two concepts from the course and how they relate to the movie and discuss their findings in class. It's a creative challenge for students to use their new knowledge to view the familiar in a different way, Flom explains.

Indeed, media incorporated into the classroom can help students become more critical consumers of information-distinguishing credible sources from non-credible ones, says Sharon Hollander, Psy.D, in a chapter on popular media in the classroom in "Lessons Learned, Vol. 2" (American Psychological Society, 2004).

Joanna Legerski, a second-year clinical psychology student and teaching assistant at the University of Montana, uses clips from popular media outlets such as CNN, Time and Newsweek to teach students how to critically examine information. As they read articles or watch the news, students are encouraged to analyze how reporters came to their conclusions and whether those conclusions are backed by evidence.

Legerski also uses coverage of current events to encourage debate about stereotypes and biases. She recently used Hurricane Katrina newspaper clippings to discuss race and class. Legerski presented two photos of refugees in chest-deep water clutching bags or food; one was of a white person, one of an African-American person. The caption for the African-American person implied that he or she was carrying stolen items, but the one for the white person described the person as carrying their belongings, Legerski says.

She notes that many students are used to memorizing facts to pass tests, which doesn't help them retain the material. She hopes that by showing her students that psychology is a part of their daily lives, she'll encourage longer-lasting knowledge.

Getting started

Many teaching assistants say they couldn't teach psychology without using outside media. Or at least, not as well.

To incorporate more media into a class, they recommend starting with a few short movie clips or supplemental reading from psychology and popular magazines.

Leiphart recommends keeping movie clips closely focused on the topic of discussion. For instance, when using the film "Mean Girls" to talk about relational aggression, she shows short scenes in which the girls spread gossip on the phone and scenes surrounding the "burn book."

Alvarez uses her class Web site to post newspaper and magazine articles that are connected to regular course material. This kind of material can be used as optional supplemental reading or to generate discussion, she notes.

Slightly more ambitious projects can be used for short papers or extra credit. Leiphart had her social psychology class write a half-page summary of a magazine or newspaper article that related to topics discussed in class, such as conformity, obedience or stereotyping. Her students often would go beyond that and mention other situations they had noticed on their own.

Deciding what material to use may seem overwhelming at first, but there are many resources available to help you plan.

Start by heading for the library. Dorothy Persson, head librarian at the University of Iowa's Psychology Library for more than 30 years, says that librarians can point teachers to the best resources, such as periodicals, instructional videos, Web sites and films, and help determine whether their assignments are feasible-for example, whether the students have the level of knowledge or time to complete the project.

Persson also emphasizes the importance of networking: Maintain an exchange of information with colleagues, instructors and others who have experience with media. What has worked for them? What should you steer clear of?

Scan your own reading material for relevant material. Hollander recommends developing a list of popular media that you scan regularly. She also recommends databases such as EBSCO Host and Infotrac, which are available at most libraries.

The idea is to generate involvement and interest. As Persson notes, "the new material makes it exciting-nothing is static."

"I've found that students have responded to and remembered the media assignments the best."

Shelley Leiphart
Wright State University