“Film can be a powerful motivator,” Using Social Impact Documentary in Higher Ed

Documentary films offer a creative gateway for students to connect with the topics they are studying. From higher ed courses in communications to global studies, social impact films provide more than a simple source of information for students — the character-led stories immediately build empathy in the viewers, which in turn gives educators a springboard for further discussion and critical thinking.

We talked to Colleen McEdwards, Coordinator, Social Impact Media Specialization, at Saybrook University, to learn more about the experience of using SIMA’s social impact films in her media classes.

As an educator, what do you look for in these films?

I look for a foundational social issue and the ways it is illuminated through character, structure, narrative, production technique and so on.

What trends did you notice in the way that your students evaluate and select their chosen’ film?

Students relate immediately to story and character. They immediately key-in on what’s important to them. The wonderful thing about SIMA’s films is that they lend themselves so genuinely to broader context and application. The support resources help me as an educator nudge the conversation and analysis beyond the personal. But that initial connection is what makes this so powerful as an educational tool.

What immediate impact did your students take away from this process?

I had small numbers, but those who did felt immediately energized by the themes in the film and easily related the issues to those they have also been following.

What lasting impact have you seen from this?

Stay tuned on that!

What advice can you give other educators who are new to using documentaries in the classroom?

I think the quickest path to engagement is the telling of a good story. It’s as old as time. Documentaries in all their forms help educators engage students. They also challenge me to add supplemental contextual materials to help understand, say, the differences between Fatah and Hamas in the Middle East. We all end up digging a bit deeper and reaching a higher level of critical thinking when gathered around a film.


Well-chosen documentaries can bring the world to students in multiple ways. Film can be a powerful motivator. In our visual and video-oriented culture, these media also help educators meet students where they are — where their interest lies — which helps make the educational experience meaningful and transferable.

Try for yourself with our 7-day free trial to over 220 award-winning films here.


Post By Gemma Bradshaw, SIMA Academy Editorial Contributor