Jul 10 2011

Students Improve Research Papers By Adding Video

Film composition can help breathe life into traditionally staid research projects.

Film composition can help breathe life into research papers.

All too often, students write research papers for a very limited audience. When students reimagine their ideas for film and other media, they must communicate through words, images, audio and special effects.

Lesson Description: This lesson – a five-week project that will result in a collaborative research paper and short documentary film – teaches students how to become better writers by helping them develop carefully crafted, visual stories that focus on increasing audience understanding of a particular topic. Begin by having students write in a journal on issues about which they are passionate. After completing this exercise, have students share what they wrote and brainstorm research project topics as a class.

Next, students should choose a partner, pick a topic and narrow down an essential question for their project. Over several weeks, students should research and develop an answer to their essential question, which they will write about in their paper and explore in their film via interviews with subject matter experts and others.

In the project's third week, have students watch both short- and long-form documentaries to learn composition skills that will aid them in creating their own films. As a group, discuss the techniques that made the documentaries effective and compelling, including how interview subjects were introduced to viewers and how the filmmakers' pacing and visual choices heighten viewer interest in the subject matter.

Upon completing the papers, have students storyboard or compose lists of the shots that will form their documentaries. Next, have them use digital video cameras to film their subject interviews, record diegetic sound (audio) and capture supplemental "B-roll" footage that will be intercut with the interview footage. They should then use video editing software to create title sequences and edit their footage into 5-minute films.

After uploading students' work to an online video community, conclude the project with a class screening and discussion of all of the films.

Subject Area: This lesson was developed as a 12th-grade English elective class on mass media and film production, but it could be adapted for other grade levels and subjects.

Curriculum Standards: This lesson meets the following New York State P-12 Common Core Learning Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy:

  • Write informative or explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization and analysis of content;
  • Use technology to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others;
  • Conduct short and sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation;
  • Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.


Grading Rubric: Films should be evaluated for overall quality in meaning, development, cinematography, sound, style, flow and editing mechanics. Having students create the grading rubric can increase their understanding of the documentary genre and enhance their storytelling skills.

Teaching Tips

  • Encourage students to use as much student-generated media as possible. It's easy to get B-roll from YouTube, but it cuts down on student design decisions.
  • Conference regularly with your filmmakers.
  • Go over visual composition basics – the "rule of thirds" and mise-en-scene, for example – before filming begins.
<p>James Woodson/Getty Images</p>