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Film Festivals as High Impact Learning

Over the last few years, the term “high impact learning” has become a popular phrase in higher education. A great deal has been written on how to achieve high impact learning and what instructional tools are the most effective. For me the two most influential elements of the high impact learning conversations are that students must be actively engaged in the learning process and that we move the learning process outside of the boundaries of the classroom. If you want students to be engaged in their learning process and you want to move beyond the classroom, film festivals present a wonderful opportunity.

In 2004, myself and a colleague came up with the idea of taking undergraduate students to the Sundance Film Festival. The original goal was to provide our students with an immersive educational experience. Neither of us had ever attended Sundance but we were convinced that if we could just get our students there something special would happen. We have returned to Sundance every year for their festival since 2004 while also adding Ebertfest and Edinburgh to the festival list. Attending film festivals with students continues to be one of my most rewarding and engaging teaching experiences.

Festivals provide students access to talented individuals and allow the students to frame the interactions with their own levels of curiosity. You could never duplicate in the classroom the excited and spirited exchange when a group of students engaged Werner Herzog in a discussion of "Grizzly Man" (2005). John Waters was very generous with my students when we rode the bus between theaters in Park City. And listening to Haskell Wexler discuss the importance of "In the Heat of the Night" (1967) with students continues to be one of my most cherished Ebertfest memories. 

The immersive nature of the festival means that the learning never ends and takes place in a variety of settings. The learning takes place while waiting in lines, traveling on buses, during film Q&A sessions, over meals; where two or more are together there is the opportunity for learning. This learning outside the classroom can be exhausting but it is seldom boring. During the festival there are no students, there are no teachers, we are all active participants in the experience. Under normal conditions most of us may avoid attempting to see four to six films in a single day but the energy of a festival makes seeing multiple films in a day not just a possibility but a goal. We don’t want to miss anything. 

As film festivals begin to resume with an in-person experience I would encourage you to think of ways to get your students out of the classroom. Festivals enhance your students' learning experience in ways that could never be duplicated in the classroom. When the experience is over you will feel that your students have come away with heightened appreciation for film and a strong desire to have other festival experiences. 

Taking students across the county or around the world for a film festival is no easy task. The logistics of travel, housing, and ticketing can seem overwhelming but the payoff for the students is worth the effort. Your students will never forget it!

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