Using film to learn adult psychopathology

Dr Nuno Nodin, Department of Psychology



Adult Psychopathology, a popular Y3 optional module in Psychology, recently underwent a revision affecting its learning outcomes and assessment format. As part of this change, the ability to identify mental health conditions based on presenting symptoms according to DSM-5 criteria and to understand associated factors became key learning outcomes. For the module’s exam (100%) students are now expected to analyse case studies in some level of detail. This type of case study and DSM-5 style diagnosis can be particularly challenging for students.


The activity and rationale

The module’s formative activity invited students to pick a character from a film (list provided) and write a case study which should include a DSM-5 diagnosis based on symptoms presented by said character and a discussion of the mental health risk/maintenance factors present in the case. Students were provided with detailed guidance on how to prepare their submission. Their case studies were reviewed by members of staff and general feedback provided (mark band; comments about strengths and points for improvement).

While audio-visual materials are extensively used in education, less often are feature films used pedagogically, and even less so as part of activities in preparation for summative assessments. The narrative nature of film, depicting people in the context of their lives and relationships, provides invaluable material that is close to that of real-world scenarios. This allows students a rich understanding of mental health conditions in context. It is also an ethical pedagogical material as it mostly portrays fictional characters in publicly available content (as opposed to case studies based on real people).



Feature films have a wide appeal and are extensively used as entertainment. This means that more students might feel compelled and motivated to complete the activity, compared to more traditional academic tasks. Additionally, students have an element of choice, being able to pick a film/character/mental health condition of their preference, hence appealing to a broad student profile.

The films and characters were chosen based on how suitable they were for the activity (e.g. how accurately they portrayed mental health). However, some attention was also dedicated to diversity and representation in respect of gender, social background, nationality and ethnicity in the characters that students can choose from. For example, the films proposed for the activity come from four different countries and one is non-Western.

Content warnings were provided for all films. Because all of the selected feature films included some elements that could be problematic for some students (e.g. sexual assault, drug use) one TED Talk was included as an alternative as it was devoid of any such elements.

Finally, all but one of the films listed were available on Box of Broadcasts (BoB), which allowed students to access the films at no cost, which made the activity even more inclusive. A link to all films available on BoB plus the TED Talk were made available on a Moodle electronic reading list.



Psychopathology case analysis is an important skill for psychology students, consolidating key learning outcomes. Understanding how people develop and experience psychopathology has extensive real-world applications, particularly for anyone aiming to work in mental health, the case of many of the module’s students. The activity also facilitates consolidation of analytical and critical skills, both relevant transferable skills. Finally, it provides structured feedback that students can use for exam revision.


Students seem to appreciate the activity:


 Student uptake:

 Compared to the previous year (different formative activity, while still linked to the exam; feedback also   provided), 28% more students chose to submit the activity (2019-2020: 31.4% submitted; 2020-2021: 59.4%)


  Module assessment (student quotes):
  • ‘an original way to make us understand and analyse case studies regarding clinical diagnosis, very much like real life diagnosis’
  • ‘The formative assessment to practice for the exam is a good idea, and watching a movie and diagnosing a character was an entertaining way to learn’
  • ‘Very useful to have a formative assessment for a module that is 100% exam in order to check understanding on how to answer an exam style question. Word count and film aspect made this an enjoyable assignment to write’


   Activity assessment:

     14 students (7.8% of module students) answered to a short survey about the activity:

  • 85.7% considered it very or extremely approachable
  • 71.4% considered it quite or very useful
  • Sample quotes:
    •  ‘Unique approach and was a good way to get myself to engage with lecture materials’
    • ‘the freedom to pick something interesting to you and then evaluate a fictional character.’
    • ‘I wish every course was like that.’



See other case studies on our Assessment and Feedback page