The emotional tension of real-life stories and Hollywood movies help this law professor make complex concepts more relatable—and memorable.
Associate Professor of Business Law, Purdue University, Fort Wayne, IN
JD and BA in Criminal Justice
As an undergraduate at Temple University, Kent Kauffman took an honors communications class called Intellectual Heritage, in which the professor screened Ordinary People—a film from 1980 about a family falling apart. “We watched the movie in class and talked about it at length,” he says. Kauffman was amazed at how the movie sparked such a variety of discussion topics related to what they were studying.
Years later, when he became the first tenured business law professor at Purdue University–Fort Wayne, Kauffman drew upon his experience in that undergraduate class to develop a pedagogy that used movie scenes to unpack dense legal concepts. “Film scenes are a nice way to break up what’s going on in class,” he says. “Because I liked movies myself, I thought, ‘Let’s just give it a shot. Let’s see if there are ways to use a film scene for teaching, to make [students] look at things a certain way, and to make it more vibrant in a face-to-face class.’”
The approach has earned rave reviews. To learn more about how Kauffman taps into movie narratives and their emotional tensions to convey technical concepts, read on as we unpack his methods.
Challenge: Legal concepts are no big thrill
Kauffman has found that much of the existing study material for legal concepts can be a little—shall we say—dry. “When I teach alternative dispute resolution, there are a lot of videos related to mediation and arbitration, some created by [top legal organizations],” Kauffman says. “But they’re dreadfully boring—and kind of hokey.”
This is precisely where Kauffman has found that Hollywood movies can lend a helping hand, livening up the material and making classes more memorable by bringing the concepts to life in a realistic and engaging way.
Innovation: Create emotional tension with movie scenes
Kauffman uses both stories and films to teach business law in a way that helps students retain the information better—by tapping into narrative and its accompanying emotional tension to convey technical concepts.
He recalls being inspired by Linda Nilson, a psychology professor from Clemson University and an expert in how students learn, when she spoke at a teaching conference at his campus in 2011. Her talk was all about the positive effects of emotional tension on learning.
Kauffman notes, “In my teaching, I was already using short stories I had written, based on news events, as well as a few film scenes, and Dr. Nilson’s presentation reinforced beliefs I already held. People take in information better and retain it at a deeper level when some kind of emotion is created at the moment of learning.” In other words, narrative actually helps students learn and retain information.
After expanding from stories into more film scenes, Kauffman found that Hollywood films were well suited to enhancing his course materials—and were especially well received in evening classes, to which many of his students arrive after working all day.
“It’s all about creating emotional intensity with regard to learning,” he says. “With humor and suspense and wonder and laughter.”
“Creating a little tension or humor or suspense has been shown to help students retain the material better. It’s all about creating emotional intensity with regard to learning.”— Kent D. Kauffman, JD
Course: BUS L203 Commercial Law I
Description: Survey of the fundamentals of business law; covers the judicial process, ways of organizing to conduct business, the nature of property, government regulation of business, and comprehensive study of the common law of contracts.
See resources shared by Kent D. Kauffman, JDSee materials
Lesson: Create an emotional aspect of learning
Kauffman has discovered that vivid and memorable stories—on paper or on screen—are highly effective for teaching concepts that are dull, such as contract law. For instance, Kauffman uses a scene in Jim Carrey’s Liar Liar to teach about contract law and minors. And scenes from the John Travolta film A Civil Action—in which a family sues industrial companies over pollution in the water—has helped him teach negotiation concepts.
Here are some of Kauffman’s tips on how to incorporate both written stories and film scenes into classes to create an emotional aspect of learning.
Use the textbook as a springboard
Kauffman looks for real-life examples of the concepts he needs to teach and turns them into short stories of two to three paragraphs. “I wrote textbooks, Legal Ethics and Legal Terminology, and part of my writing strategy includes creating learning emotions to highlight key terms that are in the main portion of the texts,” he explains. Then he seeks relevant movie scenes or writes short stories based on true events. “I try to find stories that are interesting and different.”
For example, when Kauffman was looking to convey information on wills and disinheritance in his legal terminology text, he turned to the power of a true story. “There’s a lot of boring stuff about how a parent might disinherit a child,” he says. “You could go through the laws of how to actively disinherit a child, or you could use stories. I wrote a short story about Hollywood icon Joan Crawford and how and why she disinherited her children—and included key terms from the text in the narrative. Crawford’s will was written soon after her daughter published quite an unfavorable exposé about her mother, which then became the film Mommie Dearest. And in her will, [Crawford] wrote, ‘For reasons that are clear to you, you are being disinherited.’”
Kauffman’s Movie Guide for Legal Studies
In 2003, while Kauffman was on family leave from work, he created a book proposal out of his coursework and pitched it to the educational publisher Pearson. The resulting text, The Movie Guide for Legal Studies, now in its second edition, provides a way for other professors to easily integrate key scenes into their courses on legal, judicial, or public policy. For 40 different movies, Kauffman provides a plot summary and other information about the film itself, while also noting which legal terms and themes are touched upon. He includes carefully chosen, 5- to 10-minute scenes for each movie, along with a write-up of a summary of the film, the background for each selected scene, and accompanying discussion points or assignments that could be used with each scene.
Familiar films featured in the book include:
- 12 Angry Men
- The Accused
- Wall Street
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- Lord of War
- The Paper Chase
- My Cousin Vinny
- Changing Lanes
- A Civil Action
- Class Action
- The Client
- The Social Network
- Erin Brockovich
Skip the humor
Kauffman says that a lot of professors try too hard to incorporate humor into their lectures, feeling that on some level it should help with learning. “The problem with that is that humor can fall flat,” he says. “When it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work.” Instead, Kauffman found success in focusing on drama and emotional tension in the stories and scenes themselves—not in his delivery. Scenes from humorous movies, however (like Liar Liar or Lord of War or The Hudsucker Proxy) are certainly fair game, as they have stood the test of large audiences. And if a celeb’s delivery falls flat, it does not reflect on the professor.
Keep it short
Kauffman tries to be efficient with his use of narrative. The short stories he writes are a maximum of three paragraphs, and he tries to limit his movie scenes to 5 to 10 minutes. This is partly because of normal classroom attention spans and partly so he can focus on a particular moment of emotional tension. Running on too long can get students hooked on the narrative itself, and they’ll miss the legal point. For educators teaching courses on legal matters or public policy, his book The Movie Guide for Legal Studies makes this step easy (see sidebar).
Make the content accessible
Kauffman uses Blackboard Learn™ as his learning management system and embeds the stories and film scenes into topics folders on his course’s homepage. These strategies allow students to access them directly and easily.
Incentivize students to help
If students recommend stories or films to him that he then uses in class, Kauffman rewards them with extra credit. This keeps his examples fresh and current. He probably wouldn’t have watched The Social Network, thinking it was most likely a movie about Mark Zuckerberg writing computer code for two hours. But after repeated endorsements by his students, who thought it had parts that would work for his classes, he got around to watching it. Now he uses multiple film scenes from The Social Network in his classes.
Feedback has been extremely positive to date. At the end of each semester, Professor Kauffman uses Qualtrix to conduct anonymous surveys, which include these two questions:
- Did you think the film scenes made the class more engaging?
- Did you think the film scenes helped you learn the material?
“The students are overwhelmingly positive about how the film scenes made it more interesting or made them learn the materials in a more dynamic way,” Kauffman says.
Kauffman has found that students’ grades have gone up, collectively, since he began using stories and movie scenes to highlight course materials. “Dr. Nilson’s research on the use of learning emotions was replicated in my teaching. As a result of my short stories and targeted use of film scenes, student engagement increased, and grades did go up as well,” he says.