Popular Culture in the Classroom: Using Audio and Video Clips to Enhance Survey Classes

STUDENTS OFTEN APROACH history survey classes with a significant degree of dread. Nevertheless, at least one history class is required for graduation from most, if not all, universities, and most students elect to take survey courses to fulfill that requirement. It has been my experience that students rarely enroll in an American history class eagerly, because they anticipate a semester of lengthy lectures in large, impersonal lecture halls, and essay exams that test their comprehension of information that often seems distant and without relevance to their lives. Too frequently, students realize their worst fears in survey classes, and as a result, they are less than attentive during lectures. However, the increased use of technology in the classroom has opened a number of new avenues through which to reach an often uninterested student population. PowerPoint, in particular, allows the instructor to supplement his or her lectures with a brief outline, pictures, and in some cases, audio and video clips, and recent studies indicate that the use of such technology is on the increase in college classrooms.[1] The purpose of this article is to suggest a new way to use technology, particularly audio and video clips embedded in PowerPoint presentations, to more effectively reach students in American History survey classes.

Texas Tech University allows its Ph.D. candidates to teach two sections of either History 2300, United States History to 1877, or History 2301, United States History since 1877, per semester. When I received my first teaching appointment, for History 2300, in the fall of 2003, I was only two years removed from the undergraduate experience, and only four years had passed since I had taken the course myself. Therefore, in order to distract the students from my own shortcomings and provide them with some additional learning tools, I decided to include brief audio and video clips in the lectures. Had I been assigned two sections of United States history since the Civil War, I might have drawn from a wealth of audio and video material recorded at the time of the event on which I was lecturing. There are, of course, clips of speeches, radio broadcasts, and video from the Civil Rights movement, World War II, and a lunar landing, just to name a few.

In preparing audio and video clips for the History 2300, however, I was forced to be more creative. In addition to the occasional dramatic reading of an important speech, I included relevant excerpts from songs that the students might hear on the radio as they drove home from class and clips from videos that they might have rented that evening. It was my expectation that they would later see an historical term, think of the relevant clip, and remember our discussion of the term. I also hoped, perhaps unrealistically, that they might hear a song or see a movie that I used, think of their history class, and remember an important concept. Initially, the clips were intended only as learning aids. I soon found, however, that some of the students looked forward to the clips solely for their entertainment value. Not wanting to abandon the use of clips, I was faced with several questions concerning their effectiveness. For how many people in the class did using the clips increase learning, and what number was sufficient to justify the use of the clips? What type of clips did the students find most useful? Should I remove the clips from the lecture? Or keep them on the theory that it was really not all that bad to entertain the students while they were learning history?

Fortunately, I was accepted into the Teaching Effectiveness And Career enHancement (TEACH) program at Texas Tech University. The TEACH program is a university-wide fellowship that annually sponsors approximately twenty graduate students who attend seminars on technology and teaching techniques in the classroom. As a TEACH fellow, I was responsible for creating a poster presentation on a topic of my choice, and I decided to use the resources of the university to evaluate the use of audio and video clips in my survey classes. In preparation for the project, I examined some of the literature on the use of technology in education at the university level. A good number of the articles I found indicate that most history departments are concerned about the proper use of PowerPoint. In an article published in The History Teacher, Michelle DenBeste notes that, “Technology can be mere entertainment, a waste of time for student and professor, or even pedagogically harmful,” and argues that, “the real question is how to use it in ways that are beneficial and which promote both teaching and learning.”[2] Her answer is that while it is harmful to include too much illustrative material in a presentations because it might give students an excuse not to listen to the lecture, PowerPoint can be useful as a vehicle for more easily presenting multi-media lectures.

The literature also indicates that creating a positive classroom atmosphere by improving the attitudes of the students is an important aspect of successful teaching. For example, Charles Bonwell, in Using Active Learning in College Classes: A Range of Options for Faculty, asserts : “Although faculty often do not consider student attitudes as central to planning their course, in most disciplines they are important.”[3] The most effective teachers are those who “work at making their subject matter come alive for the students.”[4] It follows that instructors who teach classes in which the students are less likely to have a positive attitude, such as mandatory survey classes, must work that much harder to bring the subject matter to life, perhaps even overtly designing the course so that it is entertaining for the students.

With Bonwell’s theories in mind, I began to re-evaluate the presentations for my two sections of History 2300, American History to 1877. Each presentation, designed for a fifty-minute class, was limited to approximately five audio clips, most of which last fewer than ten seconds. There were several reasons for the brevity of most clips, but the most important is that the students’ minds are likely to wander off topic during lengthy interruptions to the lecture. Additionally, if the clips ran too long, I tended to get uncomfortable standing silently in front of the class. There is also the possibility that the students will not respond well to certain clips, and it is always best to leave them wanting more of a good clip than confusing, or boring, them with lengthy, ineffective clips. Finally, by only using a brief portion of the entire song, movie, or other copyright-protected work, one can avoid any doubt concerning the legality of the clips.[5] Ten seconds does, however, seem to be long enough to break the monotony of the lecture. Research shows that the average attention span for students is twenty minutes; so there is at least one clip every fifteen minutes, just for good measure.[6]

When possible and applicable, I also include brief video clips of less than three minutes. Each clip is designed to serve as a learning device and is associated with an important historical concept. After discussing the concept, I play the clip, and then comment on the meaning of the selection. As is the case with the audio clips, the discussion following the selection serves several purposes. Students have an opportunity to ask questions concerning the relevance of the clip, and the ensuing clarification undoubtedly reinforces the class’s understanding of the topic. Equally, if not more, important, as the class becomes more comfortable with the process, the students offer critiques of the selection. Some students suggest other clips that might be more applicable, which indicates that the students are thinking critically about the information they have been given and making their own connections between historical events and songs with which they are familiar. As mentioned before, while each clip is meant to be used as a learning device, its value as an attitude enhancer should not be under-estimated.

Although creating the clips is time consuming, the long-term reward, in my opinion, more than justifies the effort. The most difficult part of the process of creating clips is identifying a song, speech, movie, or television program that is applicable to the lecture. While searching for potential clips, it is important to remember that only ten seconds of any song should be used, and as such, a relevant clip might come from a song that has no apparent connection to the topic. For example, I use the title line from Lone Star’s “I’m Already There,” a love song, to speak for the Native Americans in their conflict over land rights with Anglo Americans. Certainly, the Sioux would not have sung a love song to the invading white settlers; taken out of context, however, “I’m already there, take a look around,” accurately describes the Indians’ relationship to the land that the Anglos hoped to settle. The most important criteria for selecting a clip is, of course, its relevance to the lecture, but it is also important to keep the audience in mind. I have found that the most successful clips are taken from songs, movies, or television programs with which the students are already familiar.

Once the potential clip has been identified, it is relatively easy to edit the media. While it is most economical to use songs or movies that I have already purchased, several websites offer downloadable music for a reasonable price or unlimited video rentals for a relatively low fee. As for capturing and editing the media, Microsoft’s Sound Recorder, software that is included with Windows has proven adequate for audio clips.[7] For about fifty dollars, I purchased a simple USB device that connects to RCA jacks on most VCRs or DVD players and allows me to transfer video to my computer. Editing software was included.[8]Once I have decided on clip material, and acquired the song or movie, it only takes approximately two minutes to create an audio clip, and about ten to create a video clip.

The audio clips used in the presentations fall into one of three categories. The first category is primary source material. That is, recordings done by participants in the event at the time of the event or recordings of someone reading a document related to the event. Examples might include a recording of a Martin Luther King Jr. speech, the Hindenburg news report, or the reading of an overland trail pioneer’s diary. While actual recordings are, of course, not available for the first half of American history, it is not uncommon for publishers to include in their supplemental material a sound file of an actor reading a famous speech, sermon, or passage from a diary. Although it usually is important to keep the audio clips brief, primary source material often exceeds the ten second limit.

The second category involves using the name of the artist or the title of the song represented in the clip as a mnemonic device. For example, a clip from the song “Carry on My Wayward Son” by Kansas, might be used to supplement a discussion of Bleeding Kansas, or Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” could be used to reinforce the students’ memory of the inventor of the cotton gin. Clips in this category never exceed ten seconds, but often elicit the most curiosity because the connection to the material is less obvious than that of the other two categories. The discussion following such clips not only helps the students understand the connection between the clip and the event, but also reinforces their memory of the topic.

The third, and most commonly used category, relates the content of a popular cultural artifact in the form of an audio clip to an historical concept. For instance, “Under the Sea,” from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, supplements a lecture on Germany’s use of U-boats in the World Wars. Damn Yankee’s “High Enough” augments the discussion of Francis Gary Powers’ ill fated U-2 flight over the Soviet Union. When discussing the limitations of water power for nineteenth-century factories, I play a clip from Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby.” Because only the words “Ice, Ice Baby,” are relevant to the topic, I also include a few seconds of lead in music which lengthens the clip so that it is not too short.

The third category is not limited to popular music. Clips from movies or popular television programs can also relate to historical concepts. The theme from Rawhide is used in the lecture concerning cattle drives, and various clips from The Simpsons and South Park add to the class’s discussion of several important topics from women’s rights to the consumer culture of the 1920s. One particular instance in which the boys from South Park run out of money is used when I discuss the failure of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society because of funding restrictions. Again, clips in this category are strictly limited to ten seconds

Video clips also fall into one of three categories. The first is, again, primary source material. The class on American history after 1877 provides several opportunities to use such clips. A sample might include actual film footage of the Civil Rights protesters in Birmingham, Lindberg’s arrival in Paris, or video shot by reporters during the Vietnam War. This category also includes artifacts from contemporary popular culture, such as a clip from the film The Great Train Robbery or the 1950s television series Leave it to Beaver. All of the video clips are limited to three minutes, due in part to the danger of losing the class’s attention, but also because of the large size of the video files.

The second category, most useful in a class on the period of United States History to 1877 because of the obvious limitations of contemporary technology, includes dramatic video that accurately depicts or re-enacts an historical situation. Because the clips are brief, it is possible, and necessary, to use only the scenes that are most relevant. For example, a scene from The Patriot, in which the British army abuses loyal colonists, is used to illustrate one of the reasons the American Revolution was successful. A particularly gruesome scene from Glory depicts the fierce fighting and horrific conditions soldiers faced during the Civil War.

The third category includes clips that relate a situation in a recent movie or television program to an historical event or concept. The scene from Independence Day in which the aliens destroy the White House is played during the lecture on the War of 1812 where the students are told of the British burning the White House during their siege of Washington D.C. An episode of South Park, in which the Confederates win a re-enacted battle, is used to illustrate Confederate momentum early in the Civil War. In some cases, using clips from today’s popular culture allows me the opportunity to discuss the persistent influence historical events have on the students’ lives. In the case of South Park’s Civil War re-enactment, the class has the opportunity to discuss popular culture’s continuous efforts to re-fight the war. Clips in this category are usually less than two minutes in length but sometimes require additional explanation and almost always elicit an enthusiastic response from the class.

In order to evaluate the usefulness of the clips, I developed a survey that gauged not only the ways in which the students used them, but also the ways in which the clips affected the students’ attitude toward the class. The survey included three questions on the usefulness of audio clips, three similar questions on the usefulness of video clips, two questions on the presentation of the clips, two questions which directly evaluate the students’ use of the clips as learning devices, and four open-ended questions which ask for specific preferences.[9] The final three questions were optional, and solicited responses concerning the students’ gender, academic classification, and attendance. I gave the surveys to both of my sections of History 2300 and received sixty responses.

All of the students provided responses to the last three questions. To make the process of tabulating the results more simple, I combined the surveys from both sections. There were thirty-two females and twenty-eight males, and most of the students had missed between one and five days of class. As is the case in most survey classes, the majority of the students were underclassmen. There were twenty-eight freshmen, eighteen sophomores, thirteen juniors, and only one senior.

Responses to the first fourteen questions suggest that, at least from the students’ perspective, the audio and video clips are useful devices to enhance learning. While only twenty-three percent of respondents indicated that they had used the clips to study for exams, ninety-seven percent of those who completed the survey believed that the clips should remain a part of the lecture. Responses to the open-ended questions provide justification for this disparity. One student’s response to question twelve, “How have the clips affected your perception of this class,” is typical: “I’ve never found history very interesting. The…clips made me want to come to class, and even more, PAY ATTENTION!!” Certainly, the fact that almost one quarter of the students use the clips as learning devices is not insignificant, but the numbers suggest that the clips are being used primarily as attitude enhancers. Responses to questions two and five, which ask students to evaluate the way they perceive the clips, indicate that both the audio and video clips primarily “improved [the students’] overall attitude toward the class” rather than serving as learning devices in the traditional sense.

The results of the surveys indicate that the clips which relate a historical concept to a modern song or video clip were the most helpful. When asked which of the three aforementioned categories of clips were most helpful, students overwhelmingly preferred contemporary clips over historical clips. While only fifteen percent of the respondents favored audio clips of speeches or broadcasts, sixty-five percent indicated that the audio clips in which the lyrics of a more modern song were used proved most helpful. Likewise, the video clips that tied an historical event to a fictional contemporary situation were significantly more popular than actual footage of an event.

Figure 1

Students also seem to use video clips and audio clips differently. Video clips were used more often as traditional learning devices. While only thirty-three percent of students stated that the audio clips helped them remember or understand a concept, sixty percent indicated that the video clips were indeed learning devices. Additionally, when asked to rate the helpfulness of the clips, two students indicated that the audio clips were not useful, but none believed that the video clips were without merit. 21
The popularity of the video clips confirms the assertion that students are increasingly becoming visual learners. Earlier in the semester, I gathered some information on the students’ learning styles. Approximately seventy-five students completed an online survey developed by Barbara Soloman and Richard Felder for North Carolina State University. The results of the survey indicate that the students were overwhelmingly visual learners, as opposed to verbal learners. Of those who completed the questionnaire, over seventy-nine percent were visual learners, which means that almost four out of five students, “remember best what they see–pictures, diagrams, flow charts, time lines, films, and demonstrations.”[10]

Figure 2

Gender also affected the ways in which the students perceived the video clips. Forty-seven percent of male respondents indicated that the videos were primarily tools for attitude enhancement while fifty-five percent of females used the videos to either help them remember the lecture or understand a concept. The way in which the students used the videos, however, seems to be the only category in which there is a significant difference between male and female students.

Academic classification appears to be the most important factor in the way the students used and perceived the clips. Although there was little disparity between freshmen and sophomores, the responses of juniors were often quite different from the underclassmen. Upperclassmen used the clips as learning devices in a much higher proportion than freshmen and sophomores. Perhaps the most interesting example of such differences is provided in the students’ responses to the eighth question, which asked the students if they had used the clips to study for exams. About seventeen percent of freshmen and sophomores had used the clips in preparation for a test, but over sixty percent of juniors had done so. Responses to other questions also indicate that juniors used the clips as learning devices rather than attitude enhancement. Over seventy percent of both freshmen and sophomores indicated that the audio clips served them primarily as attitude enhancers; however, almost two-thirds of juniors believed that the clips served as learning devices in the traditional sense.

Figure 3

The disparity between juniors and underclassmen came as quite a surprise. I had planned to abandon the clips in upper-level classes, but the results of this study suggest that juniors and seniors could benefit the most from the use of audio and video clips. In fact, juniors were most likely to suggest that there were not enough clips in the lectures.

Benjamin Bloom’s work might help explain the differences in the way the students use the clips. In an attempt to classify the stages of cognitive development, Bloom developed a hierarchal chart to explain the progression of student learning techniques. Bloom’s chart, first published in Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Cognitive Domain, places knowledge at the bottom, progresses through understanding, analysis, application, synthesis, and evaluation. Bloom suggests that “the learning environment must give major emphasis to the more complex objectives if significant growth is to take place.”[11] Assuming that the more rigorous academic environment at the university level does indeed “give major emphasis” to the higher forms of learning, juniors, would be more likely to employ higher order thinking and to make abstract connections between the clips and the lecture.

Figure 4

The results of the surveys indicate that although a significant number of the students use the audio and video clips as learning devices, most students perceive the clips as attitude enhancers, or for cynics, entertainment. I have, however, come to appreciate the entertainment value of the clips because the students are, even if they only want to find out what crazy song will be played, more involved in the lectures. The results of Soloman and Felder’s learning style survey also indicated that most of my students were active learners as opposed to reflective learners, and I suspect that they reflect a larger trend. Soloman and Felder define an active learner as one who prefers to participate in the learning process and contend that, “Sitting through lectures without getting to do anything physical but take notes is hard for both learning types, but particularly hard for active learners.”[12] The clips, and the brief discussion following the clips, allow the students to relate historical concepts to familiar media, comment on the selection, and take a brief, but often needed, break from note-taking.

If the goal of today’s history teacher is to educate the MTV generation, why should one not bring a little MTV into the classroom? As the results of this study indicate, students respond well to audio and video clips that relate popular culture to historical events. Even those who remain devoted to the idea that entertainment has no place in the classroom might agree that the use of clips is justified by the benefit to the twenty-five percent of students who use the audio clips as learning devices and 60 percent of the class who perceives the video clips as learning tools. It is important to note, also, that most professors will occasionally deviate from their lectures with an interesting, if insignificant, fact, entertaining personal anecdote, or joke in order to capture the attention of the class. What, then, is the difference between a well-placed gag and a humorous audio or video clip? Both are intended to help the students relate to the pertinent information, and both have entertainment value. Audio and video clips, however, have the additional benefits of more obviously breaking the monotony of the lecture, providing the students a more familiar frame of reference in which to understand a concept, and, when video is used, of supplementing a largely auditory lecture with visual evidence. Although they might require more out-of-class preparation by the instructor, audio and video clips, humorous or otherwise, are effective as both learning devices and attitude enhancers. Perhaps with the carefully regulated assistance of The Little Mermaid, Pink Floyd, and Stephen Spielberg we can increase our students’ appreciation of both history and history classes.


1. Dennis Trinkle, “History and the Computer Revolutions: A Survey of Current Practices,” Journal of the Association of History and Computing 2, no. 2 (1999). In his article, Trinkle summarizes the results of a survey which can be found online at, .

2. Michelle DenBeste, “PowerPoint, Technology and the Web: More Than Just an Overhead Projector for the New Century?” The History Teacher, 36:4, p 1.

3. Charles Bonwell, “Enhancing the Lecture: Revitalizing a Traditional Format,” in Using Active Learning in College Classes: A Range of Options for Faculty. Fall 1996, 41.

4. Ibid.

5. .

6. Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish, “The Change-Up in Lectures,” in The National Teaching and Learning Forum, January 1996, 5:2, .

7. Because I have a PC, as opposed to a Mac, the music files I download are Mp3’s. The Mp3 format allows more information to be stored in a smaller file, allowing more files to be stored on one’s computer. Microsoft’s Sound Recorder, included with the Windows software package, will only play and edit WAV files, which are substantially larger than Mp3s. I use Music Match Jukebox, ($20.00 at the electronics store of your choice) to convert the files from Mp3 to WAV. There are also a number of websites that offer free Mp3 converters. Once I have opened Music Match, I select “File” and then “Convert Files.” I then chose the song I want to convert, select the destination folder, and click “Start.” Be sure that the “Destination Data Type” is WAV. Having converted the file, I open Sound Recorder by clicking the “Start” button on the bottom left of the computer screen, choose “accessories,” then “entertainment,” and then “Sound Recorder.” Once I have opened Sound Recorder, I select “File,” and then “Open.” I then find, and double click on, the newly-converted WAV file which is in the destination folder I selected in Music Match. The “edit” tab in the Sound Recorder program allows me to delete music before or after any point in the song. After I have edited the song down into the desired clip, I re-save the file, and then covert it back to an Mp3, using Music Match. Because the clips are usually quite small, however, it is not completely necessary to convert the new clip, in the form of a WAV file, to Mp3. Having created a clip, I insert it into a PowerPoint presentation by selecting “Insert,” then “Movies and Sounds,” and finally “Sound from File.”

8. Video editing is a bit more difficult, and I have still not mastered the process completely. Because of budgetary restrictions, I opted to buy, for about $50, a simple converter with RCA jacks on one end and a USB plug on the other. For just over $100, hardware is available that creates better video. My converter, made by Pinnacle, plugs into most DVD players and VCRs and almost all computers made in the last seven years. Video editing software, Studio 8, was included with the converter. I might advise anyone using this program to shut down all other programs because it seems to use inordinate amounts of memory. Once I have connected the VCR to the computer through the converter, I simply push play, open Studio 8, and the image that is on the television appears in a small window in the video editing program. The features of my video editing software are fairly self explanatory. I have, however, found that the highest quality video is the most appropriate for viewing on a PowerPoint presentation. Each minute of video that is produced at the highest quality is about 7 megabytes of information, so even on days in which I use video clips, a single 32 megabyte flash drive provides more than enough storage to save a lecture and the accompanying audio and video clips.

9. .

10. The survey can be found at . After completing the survey, the students were directed to a second page, , which explained the results.

11. Donald Krathwohl, et. al., Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, New York: Longman, 1964. p 11.