The Right Way to Show Movies in Class

I like to think of myself as a proponent of using multimedia in the classroom to better engage students in the curriculum.  I’ve amassed a large collection of movies from youtube, teachertube, itunes podcasts, and commercial DVDs that I show in frequent short bursts in the classroom with adults and children to help make my points and show visual examples of what I’m talking about.

I think it’s time to clarify how to show movies effectively.

1.  Showing movies in class should not be a Friday fun day activity.  Okay, I don’t mind if you show them on Friday or even if students enjoy watching them.  However, students should not view watching a film in class as any less rigorous than reading a book.  If they do then you’re doing nothing to teach media literacy or enhance your curriculum.  Brains should turn on when watching multimedia, not turn off.

2.  Show curricular movies at the beginning of units and not at the end.  This gives students background information that they need to understand a unit before teaching that unit.  That background knowledge then pays dividends throughout the unit.  If you wait until the end to show the movie as a “treat” it implies that the rest of your unit is not a treat and the benefit of having background knowledge to carry students through the unit is lost.

3.  Do not clean your desk, file papers, or correct homework while students watch the movie.  You will need to be front and (off)center.

4.  Set up expectations about the content and the delivery of the movie as well as student behavior.

Content.  This is a movie about X it relates to what we’re learning about Y because Z.

Delivery.  Working with English Language Learners in primary grades, often any selection I choose will have language students will not understand.  I tell them straight up, there will be a lot of academic English in what we’re about to watch and some of it you won’t understand.  Still, you’ll be able to understand a lot of it and figure out the rest based on what you do understand.  If you still don’t understand, right down what you hear and raise your hand, we’ll stop for a moment to clarify it.

Behavior.  When watching a movie about animals, for example, I tell students, you’re going to see a lot of amazing animals that you know in this movie.  You’re going to feel like shouting out every time you see an animal you know.  Instead of shouting out, I want you to raise one finger like this (I model) every time you see an animal you’re familiar with.  And every time you hear an interesting fact, I want you to write it down.  Also, write down any questions you have about anything you hear.

5.  I sit up front at a 90 degree angle to the screen so that I can see both the TV and my students.  This keeps students on task and allows me to see the screen.  (If you have problems with students talking during movies, see #3).

6. Don’t put down the remote control.  You will need to stop the movie frequently.  I stop whenever I want to clarify something or students raise their hands to ask questions.  Students absolutely comprehend more and retain additional information if you stop along the way rather than waiting until the end.

7.  At the end of the movie, ask some students to ask the question they’ve written down but don’t attempt to answer all those questions.  Students can record their questions on a concept/question board or KWL chart.  These questions become the basis for research in the coming unit.  Also assist students in clarifying information that was confusing.  Try to model how to figure out confusing language rather than handing them the definitions of unfamiliar words.

8.  Have students recap what they’ve learned and explain how the movie is related to the unit.  This helps transfer the new knowledge into long term memory.  If students can explain what they’ve learned, you can assist but if they still can’t explain, you need to re-evaluate showing that movie or better frame the movie discussion next time.

9.  Ask students to evaluate the movie.  Not just did you like it but did this movie add to your knowledge about X?  If they say yes, be sure to ask why…you’re starting to make them aware of themselves as learners.  If they say no, then that’s learning for you.

37 thoughts on “The Right Way to Show Movies in Class”

  1. Mathew,
    Thanks for the tips about how to watch movies in class effectively, especially #9. I want my students to get into the habit of watching a movie and expecting to learn something instead of letting the content of the movie just wash over them.

  2. Hi! Great tips for moving viewing. I, too, believe that students should be just as engaged with movies/programs as they are with any sort of text. I wanted to add something that might also be beneficial. You mentioned stating the purpose of viewing the videos to the students prior to watching. I sometimes will stop the program and spend some time letting students make their own connections. Whether video-to-text, video-to-self, or video-to-world connections, I find that students have a wealth of knowledge and experiences they are dying to share; especially those ELLs that have a hard time understanding a text’s print. Once they see visuals of just about any concept, a lot of the time they are able to make a connection with some sort of prior experience.

  3. I never knew there were so many aspects to watching a video in the classroom, but reading all of this really makes since. Whenever a teacher would put on a video when I was in school, they didn’t really care if we watched it or not. My teachers always sat in the back of the classroom, graded papers and did whatever else they wanted to do. Therefore, I didn’t pay attention. I also agree that videos should be just as important as any other class material. I like how you said teachers should recap at the end of the video. I barely remember my teachers doing that which left me feeling lost and confused about what I had watched. Another great tip that was mentioned was having students evaluate the movie so it’s a learning experience for the teacher and the student. These are excellent tips and definately ones that I will remember.

  4. Thanks Matthew for a great post. We were just talking about this at my school last Friday. Our principal is extremely concerned about videos in the classroom. I put a link to your post on my blog. I will share this with the staff tomorrow. Great points!

  5. Mr. Needleman:

    I am in Dr. Strange’s EDM310 class at the University of South Alabama and I am reading your blog as part of an assignment. I enjoyed this post, I found it helpful. I remember being in school and watching videos on “Free Friday” or as a treat and I remember kind of tuning out. I’m in my freshman year of college so I have a few years left but this is something I will remember when showing videos to my future students. Thanks for the great information 🙂

  6. Hello Mathew Needleman.My name is Catina Magby and I have read your post on the effective ways to show videos in the classroom.There are some very interesting points that I took from your post.I like the fact that you stated that videos should not be a Friday treat and that the video should be at the beginning of the lesson instead of the end. The examples that you have given really helps to see how to keep students involved with the lessons and take something from it it as well. When using the methods you used it makes learning interesting. The post was awesome and I will keep this example in mind as a future educator.

  7. Hi Mr. Needleman I’m from Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama. I found this post really useful as a future teacher. I remember many times in my lower education when a teacher would show a movie and it wouldn’t really benefit us academically. I think these are great ideas! Thanks!

  8. I’m curious about anyone’s opinions on showing the movie of a book the class has just finished reading. Right now I’m working on my Master’s degree but I’m certified in English Ed (5-12), so I am still very new to teaching.

    Have you found it to be beneficial to students when showing the movie version of a book after (or before) they have read it? Or would you recommend another technique for giving the class some kind of visual on the book?

    Thank you in advance for any help. This post has given me a lot of good ideas for strategies in the future.

    1. @Kimberly,

      I believe there is value in seeing a movie version of a difficult to understand book. I watched the movie version of several Shakespeare plays to make it through college. However, I think there is probably greater value in seeing the movie before reading. If it’s a confusing book then why read the whole book feeling confused when watching the movie might help. It’s also not necessary to watch the entire movie when a teacher could just show scenes. If you’re only showing portions than perhaps read a bit and then watch a bit.

      Most of the time I see teachers show movies of books they’ve read as a “you’ve finished reading treat” while the teacher cleans up their desk. There’s no harm in this but I’m not there’s much educational value in it either. Simply comparing a book to a movie generally doesn’t provide much higher level thinking as the differences are often obvious. How about having students write their movies? There’s more brainpower involved in that.

      Other thoughts?

  9. Awesome advice Mat! It’s a very effective way to draw the children’s attention to a particular topic. Interacting while the movie proceeds also makes them learn newer things. Even teachers get to learn a lot answering the questions that come in the inquisitive little minds.

    However, instead of showing a movie only at the beginning of an unit, small length movies relevant to a particular chapter could be shown before beginning a new lesson. Also quiz on several movies will also do a revision sort of thing.

  10. After reading this blog post, I was fasinated by how many different guidelines and tips there are for watching a movie in class. It always seemed that in my elementary classroom, movies were just a “freebie.” No one really paid attention, most of us just went to sleep when the teacher turned the lights out. Most of my teachers would just grade papers or do something else, as if the movie was a babysitter for the class. I really liked reading your tips for how to share a movie effectively in the classroom. I have taken many of these into consideration and will hopefully be able to use some of them in my classroom.

  11. Great advice and right on target. Something else that I learned from (NTTI) National Technology Teacher Institute is that you leave the lights on. Turning the lights off signals shut down time to learning like you’re at the movies. I leave one set of lights all the time so that the students can see my smartboard and they know that the lights won’t be turned off.

    By leaving the lights on, it also allows students to be able to see which means writing activities can take place. My second graders made circle maps while we watched a video about Dr. Martin Luther King.

    Thanks for sharing and enlightening us.

    1. Thanks Ellen! Yes, I don’t turn the lights off when we’re watching a video because I wouldn’t turn the lights off if I was at home watching TV. If I have to I’ll turn off one light because of the glare of overhead lights.

  12. I really enjoyed your post. I am in the process of gathering together my multimedia items. I am struggling with keeping them all organized and easily accessible. Especially short video clips

  13. FABULOUS article! I do much of what you say, but I’m going to do MORE of what you say! I want everyone in my school to read what you have to say. Thank-you for the fine and exciting education you are offering your students.

  14. This is an article that I have posted on my website,, that deals with this same issue. I am glad to see others talking about it.
    “I am of the opinion that they can be used as enrichment pieces but not as teaching substitutes. There are so many great movies that have been made that are accurate and enriching. It seems silly not to give the students the visual that is needed to concrete the information being studied. There are three movies that I use in my Social Studies classroom: John Adams (I do edit the portions of the movie that I feel are not appropriate for students), Into the West, and Glory. These movie give such a great perspective to the content that we study and the movies are so well done. I also feel that students tend to grasp the reality of a concept much more deeply and passionately if they are able to watch a movie about the topic. Please note, though, that movies need to be an enrichment piece to your curriculum and not the curriculum itself, unless you are teaching a film study course. Teach the content, and then give your students the visual to go along with the content. “

  15. I think these are all wonderful tips! I know our district discourages movies-but with your plan, when educational videos are found…learning will be maximized. Plus, students will know they are accountable for what is in the video. I have created several forms to keep my kiddos on task while watching!

  16. I enjoyed reading your article, but I would add one caveat to your first point. You correctly stated that movies cannot be shown as a reward, or cannot be shown while a teacher grades papers, but you failed to mention why teachers cannot show movies as rewards. Copyright law says that teachers cannot show films for a reward. Period. The “fair use” exception to the copyright law states that any movie shown in an educational setting must be tied to the instructional program. As a school librarian, and a parent of school-age children, it made me livid to hear my kids talk about watching “The Princess and the Frog” last week in school. Besides the obvious ethical concerns of a teacher taking time away from instruction to show a movie, the teacher is opening up the school district to liability. Teachers have lost their jobs, and school districts have had to pay hefty fines when abuses like these become known. Your article will help teachers avoid these problems. Thank you!

    1. @Lisa,

      I’ve written about copyright issues many times in the past and spoken about how showing movies with no academic purpose is probably not considered fair use though I don’t think it is as cut and dried as you present it.

      Are you aware of any specific people who have lost their jobs or districts that have been sued as a result of showing movies?

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  18. Thank you Matthew, for this post. It continues to be a privilege to meet the challenges of imparting knowledge and facilitating learning for our students in the classroom. As always, you remain a calm wind in the too often stormy landscape that is called “teaching.”

  19. I was very disappointed in seeing an old analog TV still being used in the classroom, just not acceptable use anymore.
    -The glare on the bubble face of the TV from the lights is irritating.
    -Two tiny speakers of about 2 watts each provide the Analog sound that sounds like mud(distortion), resulting in students having difficulty hearing, not digitally clear. This sound is made even worse if using worn out video tapes, magnetic particles being rubbed off the tape each time it is used. All students listen to digital music and TV today, going back decades to this technology is not acceptable, makes learning so much more difficult.
    -I also get mad at educational companies selling garbage, at one new school the DVD’s were ordered, but the educational company, charging ridiculous prices, just transferred the VHS content onto DVDs, sound and video quality worthless. The librarian said it was good for her, she ordered them, I disagreed, both content and quality not acceptable.
    -30-40 students watching a tiny screen, old 4:3 format, boring
    -I sit in back of class, if I can not see, or hear clearly what is being shown, from the back of class, I do not use lesson.
    -Entertainment movies are shown quite often, rented from movie outlets, or copied onto their own disc, a real problem still

  20. Fantastic advice! Thanks for the specific details. Love your philosophy.

    I do agree with you that students should treat movies as sources for learning. However, we must admit that films do a lot of the imaginative work for the students – which is what differentiates them from written text. Thus I do like to save them for periods of time when I suspect students may be unfocused.

    Glad I found this post!

  21. Speaking as a student, teachers at my school typically give us a sheet of questions to fill out related to the movie. These questions range from topics like, “How did [event a] effect the protagonists response to [event b]? Did [event a] change this response?” to “What was the name of the protagonist’s favorite band?” Is it better for teachers to give these types of questions to students before or after a movie? Giving them to students before watching the film tells us what to look for during the movie, so we can take notes on information related to the questions. Giving these questions to students after the film ensures that we were paying attention to the film, and not slacking off. I’m interested in your opinion on this topic.

  22. I really enjoyed reading this post. On many occasions I have shown a movie that relates to the lesson we are currently learning in class at the end or in the middle of a lesson. Showing it at the beginning make a lot more sense as it is used as an introduction. I will be using the 9 steps to better control the time for watching educational videos. I can relate to stopping the video at particular times to ask or answer questions. I too believe it is better to do it during the process rather than after. I also like that students are allowed to take notes while they look at the movie.

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