Lucy Morris

Thesis: What Helps us Learn? Science Communication via Documentaries


Documentary films are frequently used in science education today. But how do these documentaries communicate science? Are some more effective than others at communicating the concepts and facts about science? Do the varying devices used by documentary makers differ in their ability to communicate factual information? This thesis focuses on whether the filmic technique of an on-screen visualised narrator increases correct fact recall in the short-term and also in the long-term after viewing of a science documentary. Empirical research on documentary and effective communication is very limited and a study was designed that used two tailor-made documentary films about the reproductive cycle of the royal albatross. Participants watched either a film with an on-screen narrator or without and completed a survey to asses their retained (short-term) knowledge. Some participants also volunteered to take part in a follow-up (long-term) survey, which was completed online four weeks after the initial viewing, and survey. The results clearly show that participants who watched the documentary with the on-screen narrator answered more questions correctly in the short-term survey recall test. Participants appeared to also retain this information over long-term although the result for this survey is not statistically significant and was severely compromised by low and unequal sample sizes. This study shows that an on-screen narrator provides for better retention of facts from a science documentary in the short-term and suggests that this filmic device is particularly useful for use in documentaries seeking to communicate science.