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Use of Film in a Teaching Environment and Behavior in a Design Faculty

By Michael Dudley
Institute of Urban Studies, University of Winnipeg

Ideas for Pedagogy

I use film as a major component of my Environment & Behaviour course in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba (see assignment description below). The exercise involves a group viewing a film in the context of a pre-selected reading – which they are free to augment with other theories and readings as they see fit. The group then presents on their findings and submits a group theory paper.

The reasons why this seems to work well are practical, pedagogical and theoretical.


  • The University requires formal ethics review for assignments that would involve students observing the behaviour of populations not enrolled in this particular course. Having the students view actors representing people in (often designed) environments is an interesting and fruitful proxy for actual observations, and students obviously don’t need to get ethics approval for this activity.

  • I choose films that are readily available in video stores, and articles that are readily available at the University library or online.


  • Most people are film-goers or watchers, so films are a good common reference point, even in a multicultural class setting;

  • My students are designers, and this is social science content with which they are otherwise unfamiliar. They have told me in the past that their learning styles are ill-suited for standard social-science pedagogical approaches (especially examinations). Therefore having them engage with a creative activity is an easy way to get them excited about the content of the course;

  • Films are an engaging way to apply theory, rather than learning the principles on their own.


  • Environment & Behaviour theory is premised on the notion that all of us negotiate meaning in the environment, and that no two people will experience the environment in the same way; this corresponds to a major tenet of critical media studies, which holds that we all negotiate meaning in media. Each student will interpret a film (and the reading) in different ways, so this makes every film a potentially new learning environment for each session of the course.

  • Environment & Behaviour theory also promotes the notion that environments are comprised of physical, cultural, institutional and social elements. In other words, environments are socially situated and constructed. So too are films and must be viewed in their appropriate contexts.

  • Films do not represent reality, but rather are an interpretation of reality, a creation on the part of the film-makers. As such this interpretive and creative context represents an extra layer of meaning that would otherwise not be available were the students merely analyzing theory or observing public behaviour.

  • These multiple levels (physical, behavioural, social, artistic, interpretive etc.) makes for a learning environment that appears to appeal to a wide range of learning styles.

This is, however only the second year I have used films in my course so I’m hoping to continue to adapt and adjust this assignment for subsequent years. Any suggestions or comments from the Division would be most welcome!

Cheers, Michael Dudley

Date created: 2011
Population and Environmental Psychology Bulletin