Teaching Innovation Awards Winner

University of Galway

Earth and Life Sciences
Dr. John Murray


Digital story telling has proven a powerful tool for encouraging student engagement, particularly when it allows them to take control of their learning and present their ideas to wider audiences. Despite this, the use of student-produced films as a pedagogical tool remains relatively underdeveloped. The History of Life film project was created as an attempt to bridge this experiential gap for science students.

Since 2011, final-year science undergraduates have researched a significant theme related to the evolution of life on Earth and then produced a short documentary film (for a general audience) on their chosen topic. Working in small teams, the students storyboard, script, film and edit their film productions in just six weeks, before uploading them into the public domain on the History of Life Channel on YouTube.

The vast majority of the students who make these short films have no prior training in film-making and specially-created interactive workshops help guide them through the film-making process. There are also no production budgets: the films are made from scratch with smartphones and laptops, and much of what appears onscreen is created by the students themselves.

The value of this multimodal teaching approach is that it engages all of the major learning domains:

  • Cognitive skills are enhanced through acquisition, analysis and communication of knowledge
  • Practical skills are honed through deployment and use of technology
  • The students also develop key transferable skills (including team-working), and they find the overall learning experience enjoyable and novel: positively impacting on the affective domain. Student feedback emphatically reflects this, and many students include links to their films on academic CVs.

The History of Life project is deeply rooted in the area of science communication, education and public engagement. It represents an innovative educational partnership between staff, students and the wider public. Through it, students are actively encouraged to be knowledge generators, rather than just knowledge recipients.

These student-produced films have reached a very large and diverse international audience on YouTube (250K+ views), with many positive and encouraging viewer comments. Several comments also indicate that educators are using these films in their teaching.

A novel (collaborative) assessment approach for the films has been developed, which includes team (peer) evaluation and use of test audiences. Student feedback been invaluable in helping to enhance the entire film-making programme.

This teaching approach could work equally well in many other science subjects, even those with more abstract content (such as physics), where visualisation of concepts might enhance the learning experience.

The History of Life project has been presented locally, nationally and internationally at numerous meetings. Additionally, I have shared all of my teaching materials with staff in universities in Germany, France, Belgium, UK and the USA. The intention has been to encourage this teaching approach elsewhere, in the hope that more students might be afforded the opportunity to be creative and express themselves. Promotion of the initiative through LearnSci’s extensive educational community would greatly assist in achieving that objective!