Daniel Vidal and Robert Beekman explain their strategy of using film excerpts
to engender deeper learning in economics.

How often do you use Netflix or Youtube to engage your students? These sources can create a context that can be used to explain and illustrate basic economic concepts and theories taught in an economics course. They provide real life settings to the abstract concepts so often discussed in the classroom. If you get a chance to show films, then the deliberate nature of film, in which all its elements come together to create a final product, can be used to help students think critically as economists do.

Experimenting in the USA

We have been using films to foster student engagement.  This promotes active learning and fosters critical thinking and abstract reasoning.  Ultimately it gets students to think as economists do. They show real-world situations with chances to see the world around them. Active learning is a valuable tool for a teacher. Discussions that ensue followed by high order questions that relate to the theories and concepts taught in class keep students interested throughout the lesson. They maintain engagement and challenge even the students with short student attention spans. They can be used to illuminate theories and concepts including supply and demand, elasticity, consumer and producer surplus, different forms of government intervention, industrialisation, product differentiation, trade, economic growth, technology, human capital, physical capital, and market structures. Moreover, the discussions that ensue when using films should help students exercise the ability to apply the theories and concepts learned in class to the fictional world within the films and to the actual world we live in. That is, introducing film in the classroom should allow students to exercise their ability to think like economists.

Linking the films to economic situations

Economic theories and concepts regarding crime, economic growth, market structures, etc. were initially explained to the students.  The class was then shown a specific part of a film, pausing at relevant intervals to discuss the action. The ensuing discussion was always prompted by higher order questions intended to help students think critically about the film, and about the underlying socioeconomic context the film addresses. Completion, analogy, and point of view questions were used repeatedly to successfully engage students in active learning.

Completion questions require students to analyze a given situation, such as a scene from a film, and determine an appropriate way to complete the given situation; that is, predicting how the characters and story will develop from that point on. Learning acts as a process of change in one’s perspectives, ideas, and ways of looking at the world. It seems logical, therefore, to make students attempt to guess how the action will play out and to then discuss the actual outcome. In this sense, the class also has an open discussion before each session of the course to highlight the students’ views on the specific topic, prior to deeper content discussions.  

Questions such as How do firms in a particular market try to outdo the competition? Why do some people go to college and others don’t? Why do some people commit crimes? Why are some countries/people rich and others poor? allow students to recognize their position on a particular matter prior to discussions, and to later understand how their way of thinking has changed during the term.

An analogy question could be constructed as: How does this scene relate to the theories of economic growth and productivity growth that were discussed in class?  Such questions can help the student to better understand the relationship between theory and the fictional world within a movie, and to then extrapolate that connection to the real world.

Analysis of point of view questions require students to analyse and evaluate someone else’s opinion about a subject matter. Batman Begins (2005) is a film that can be used to discuss different theories of crime. Batman’s parents are said in the film to have been charitable in the community and to have tried to invest in crime prevention but they are ultimately assassinated by common criminals. Batman, as a reaction to that, represents the ultimate form of law enforcement at any cost. The end result, crime reduction, justifies the means for this vigilante. An interesting question to elicit a discussion on crime prevention policies is to ask whether Batman-like policing is the solution to crime in our society and if this is what the filmmaker is hinting at. Students are then asked to refer to specific scenes in order to evaluate the filmmaker’s perspective on the matter. The instructor can follow up with questions designed so that students understand the value of thinking about issues like these as economic problems.

These questions impose a superior cognitive demand on students who must apply, examine, synthesize, and assess information instead of merely remembering facts. With higher-order questions, the student must go beyond the literal as she is encouraged to think critically about the issues being addressed.

It is important to note that instructors should be aware of the idiosyncratic linguistic and cultural characteristics of their students and adapt the films used in class accordingly, or at least, augment the lectures with the appropriate explanations. Films about specific parts of the English-speaking world that have a very particular vernacular and microculture may make a film more opaque for the foreign student. This could be used as an opportunity to have the students’ local classmates explain jargon and the cultural context to fellow students who may be unfamiliar with such concepts. Choosing foreign films and reversing the roles can create added value and a broader sense of learning which is important in the global economy in which we live. Of course care must be taken not to offend copyright law.

The economics classroom has changed and we live in a time in which an economics class session can be engaging, interactive and fun for both the students and the teacher. We have a vast supply of technology and educational resources at our disposal just waiting to be tapped by the creativity and passion of the teacher. For example, online streaming platforms such as Amazon and Netflix make it easy for teachers to assign and discuss movies with their students while respecting copyrights. The use of new technologies and creative pedagogies are both effective teaching strategies and palatable approaches to education for the new generations of students. This allows them to develop and exercise their ability to think like an economist. The pedagogical opportunities are vast and the field of educational economics should continue to embrace new pedagogical strategies as the world is changing outside of the economics classroom at an ever-increasing pace.

Daniel Diaz Vidal and Robert Beekman teach at the University of Tampa, Florida.