A look at documentaries
What was the last documentary you watched? I'm a big fan and watch just about any type: historical, scientific, sci-fi, inspirational, environmental, or mystery. If you haven't watched one in a while, here's a peek at a couple:
Having watched to a variety of documentary-style films and television shows, I've started to notice some patterns:
The beginning is key to keeping me interested.
They are filled with stories, often told by the actual people involved.
No single individual talks for very long in one shot (often for no more than twenty seconds), keeping the documentary moving and maintaining variety in the voices used.
They often ask reflective or probing questions along the way that both get us thinking and give us a hint of what's to come.
They let the story unfold one piece at a time through slow revelations.
They have multiple perspectives (the expert, the narrator, the novice, multiple people involved who may see things from different angles, etc.)
These multiple perspectives engage or are edited together in a sort of choreographed dance.
Music often plays a key role in setting the tone.
Emotion is often intentionally stimulated through visuals, sounds, and stories.
Once I started to identify these patterns, I realized that these elements are there to help the film's message sink in. Through engaging the audience, stimulating emotion, presenting stories from multiple angles, and providing perspectives the audience can relate to, the film can effectively hit home. But wait, isn't this exactly what we should want to do in our courses? Don't we want to create learning experiences that engage and stick? The answer is yes.
Leveraging strategies for course design
So what are some ways we can apply the same strategies that documentary filmmakers use to create vivid and relatable experiences?
Gain interest in or buy-in to the course from the very beginning and within each week or module. This might be through sharing a story, an emotion-igniting image (with descriptive text), a sound bite/podcast (with transcript), or a video (with captions). You might start with a question that sparks interest and ignites the students' curiosity.
Include multiple perspectives in the course content and course videos that your students can relate to. Perhaps when presenting a topic you can have several “voices” (whether via video, sound, graphics, or text) that share different views or add to the completion of the puzzle.
Consider the variety of knowledge types and skill levels in your classroom. By incorporating a novice, expert, and narrator into your content, you can give students who are confused someone to grab onto (the novice), someone more advanced for the advanced students (the expert), and someone who can bring it all together (the narrator).
Ignite emotion through images, sounds, and stories about the concept. For instance, perhaps an engineering class could find itself driven by a futuristic story of a problem that must be solved to save the earth.
Give students a chance to stop and reflect in a discussion forum or in a journal. This will give them the chance to think about their impression of the content, its value and meaning, and what might be ahead.
Provide teasers that hint at what's ahead, but don't reveal too much. Maintain some mystery and intrigue.
In course videos, try to incorporate multiple voices. You might even stage and film a mini-talk show of sorts (perhaps of The Daily Show variety) and get several voices talking about the topic from several angles.
By implementing some of the same strategies found in documentary-style filmmaking, we can more deeply stimulate and intrigue our audience, thereby increasing their buy-in to the content.
Jessica Phillips is a senior instructional designer and strategic initiatives coordinator at The Ohio State University.