Lights, camera, action: First-year students film their research

It’s lights, camera, action for a group of first-year seminar students at Carleton University who have broken academia’s essay-and-assignment mould by making documentaries on their research.

Petra Watzlawik-Li, an instructor from the Centre for Initiatives in Education, offers the documentary project as part of the first-year seminar course, Language, Identity and Education, which she taught last year.

Previously, Watzlawik-Li says she had students do presentations on their research and papers at the end of the year.

“I found we were running out of time—you use so much of the class when you do one presentation at a time,” she explains. Instead, Watzlawik-Li says she maximizes time by allowing students “to make creative documentaries about their topics.”

In the first term, students in the seminar completed assigned readings, were introduced to the course material and produced essays that would become the core content of their documentaries.

“I think because we did the essays in the first term, they still got the essay writing (part of academics), but then, by making the film, they applied the material rather than just writing about it and then forgetting it,” Watzlawik-Li says.

Many students were initially nervous or didn’t know what to expect, she continues. But with help, equipment and resources from Television and Media Production (supervised by Tim Cathcart-Black) of Instructional Media Services the students produced documentaries that were 10 to 30 minutes long.

The evaluation process also included peer feedback—every classmate received a clicker, and there were 15 prepared questions dealing with the creativity, technical and information aspects of the documentary to answer.

Student feedback showed many of them felt valuable experience was gained from learning how to interview people, Watzlawik-Li says, as well as learning how to negotiate within a group.

Kourtney Hall, who took the seminar as a first-year psychology student, agrees. Hall’s group produced a documentary on the language and communication differences between males and females, focusing specifically on relationships.

“I enjoyed it, though I was really nervous at first,” Hall says. “I’m not a huge fan of group work … but everyone was always there, and it seemed like we were on the same page.”

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