Crossing the Theory-Practice Divide

Crossing the Theory-Practice Divide

Back to main article


In the practical film-making course discussed in this article, students followed a Practice-as-Research approach to investigate a media-studies-related research question and present their findings in an interactive narrative. Relying on self-directed learning and inquiry-based learning approaches, students received scaffolding in the form of a lecture, a tour of IDFA’s DocLab, and a Master Talk by Jonathan Harris, as well as assignments and feedback conversations. The latter two and auto-ethnography by two students served as data for this article’s case study, following a Production Studies research approach.

The Practice as Research course yielded both what Blessinger and Carfora refer to as epistemic knowledge and epistemic practice; it resulted in learning about content and in learning media practice.1 In terms of content, the students learned about narrative techniques related to suspense films, the visual design of Dutch hip hop videos, different documentary film styles, and the forms and functions of interactivity. In terms of practice, they learned about the everyday challenges in filmmaking, be it fiction (including challenging scenes) or documentary (waiting for the right shot). Many of these challenges are too specific to teach on a theoretical level, and they show the epistemic boundaries of theory and the added value of Practice as Research.

Based on their evaluation of a number of interactive narratives, students learned to consider how to speak to users to seduce them into their own narratives, both in terms of interactivity and interface design, while also managing users’ expectations. In addition, they learned what it means to work with limited resources and around some of these limitations (or ignore them).They also gained experience in organisation and teamwork. Here, their practical knowledge was expanded.

However, students also expanded their academic skills, including analytical skills. Most notably, they explicitly aimed to teach audiences, thereby developing dissemination skills. While Nelson’s definition of Practice as Research focuses on practice as method and outcome,2 our results suggest that Practice as Research also supports the development of academic skills. This makes Practice as Research an added value for media students wishing to gain practical experience in relation to theory.

In this course, the self-directed and inquiry-based learning strategies worked well. Outside of the confines of rather strict academic guidelines, students are not afraid to develop ambitious projects and come up with creative solutions and expressions. The glass box scaffolding3 seemed to have worked well to introduce students to new narrative forms. The amount of black box scaffolding4 could be increased by introducing the various tools and platforms to students in the form of an intensive workshop rather than in the brief tutorial given this time.

For the student-authors, being involved in this project meant being in the twofold position of both reflecting upon the course from the inside – doing their Practice as Research projects – and the outside – studying Practice as Research projects – which added a dimension to acquiring knowledge. As they had to write their own reflections at the end of the course as well as analyse reflections from other students, they obtained a better understanding of what they had actually learned but also of why a Practice as Research approach is useful for students.

Being given the opportunity to co-author an article gave them an insight into the writing process for an academic journal. This also reflects a Practice as Research approach as they learn from doing the co-authoring. They learned, for instance, to consider carefully the reviewers’ feedback while making sure that any changes would not distract from the main points of the article. Thus, a valuable lesson was learned in how to maintain one’s own integrity as an academic and stay true to one’s ideas, while also being open to other people’s ideas. It was also valuable for the teacher to obtain this inside look from students. Discussing the data and results gave all of the authors a greater and more complete understanding.

Developing an interactive narrative to communicate this research proved a challenge and illustrates the difficulty of bridging the theory-practice gap. The authors struggled to design a narrative that would serve both the online and the offline reader. Facilitating interactive navigation also means that the different elements of the argument needed to be connected through links rather than text. This entailed a move from ‘telling’ to ‘showing’ connections. For this article, the authors explored the possibilities of the VIEW platform. They invite other researchers to continue this exploration.

More research into the added value of Practice as Research for BA students is needed, of course, but the results presented here suggest that Practice as Research can help overcome both the epistemic boundaries of theory and bridge the theory-practice gap for BA media students, in order to teach them new knowledge, forms of dissemination, and practices to prepare them for the job market.


Many thanks to the eighteen students who participated in the practical course 2017-2018 for sharing their experiences and work and allowing us to use these for this article. Thanks also to two anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback.


Willemien Sanders holds a PhD in Media Studies and is a lecturer in the Department of Media and Culture Studies, Utrecht University. Her research interests include, but are not limited to, documentary film and non-fiction film and television production. For EUscreenXL (2013-2016), she was involved in developing tools for contextualizing audio-visual content and publishing online with audio-visual material. She is currently investigating documentary impact production. She is a co-chair of the Media Production Analysis working group of IAMCR. In addition, she is a freelance critic for the Modern Times Review.

Daniel Everts is currently a third year Bachelor of Arts student in Communication and Information Studies at Utrecht University, where he is also enrolled in the Humanities Honours Programme. His main focus is on contemporary media developments in the fields of film and television. He is currently writing his BA thesis on environmental discourse in contemporary Dutch documentaries. His paper on localization practices in the contemporary television industry is due to be published in the student-run magazine for audio-visual culture, BLIK, come summer of 2018. Daniel has been involved in the creation of multiple documentaries (academic and otherwise) in the roles of director, D.O.P, editor, researcher, interviewer, and music composer.

Bonnie van Vugt is a third year Liberal Arts & Sciences student at Utrecht University. She focusses mainly on philosophy, film, media, and culture. She is currently writing her interdisciplinary thesis on how to criticize films as an art form, in collaboration with students from Film Studies and Artificial Intelligence. She is also enrolled in the Humanities Honours programme, in which she uses (documentary) film to present her philosophical / socially critical research. She recently started volunteering at the EYE study collection centre.

Appendix: Course assignments

The course included the following assignments.

Assignment 1: Lachman’s Five E’s

At the very beginning of the course, students reflected on existing interactive projects using Lachman’s discussion of the Five E’s model of experience design. According to Lachman, the model ‘has particular meaning for digital documentary creators’ (p. 7) because of the uniqueness of their work, their independence from established media practices, and the relationship with questions of outreach and success of a project. It seemed a good starting point to bridge reflections on existing projects with reflections on their own projects. Students analysed their own experiences with three interactive narratives, chosen from a range of projects available to the public. These included:

Are you happy?; Bear 71; The Big Issue: A Web Documentary on the Obesity Epidemic; Bistro in Vitro; Do Not Track; Filming Revolution; Fort McMoney; A Game of Shark and Minnow; Gaza/Sderot; Hidden Wounds; Highrise; Hollow; Immigrant Nation; Journey to the End of Coal; Pine Point; Prison Valley; Refugee Republic; Solar System; Universe Within; The Whale Hunt.

They answered questions such as: ‘How was I attracted to this narrative (or not)?’; ‘How was I brought inside of it?’; ‘How did I interact with it?’; ‘How did I terminate my engagement with it?’; and ‘How may I return and engage with it in the future?’

Assignment 2: Presentation

In the third week of the course, students presented their research interests/ questions, their anticipated sources, and the basic arrangement of their narrative, including arguments for their choices. They received peer feedback on their ideas. In addition, a pitch before an industry professional was scheduled but, unfortunately, this had to be cancelled.

Assignment 3: Assessment criteria

In order to discuss and reflect on the question of how to assess the quality of the practical course results, students formulated five criteria for assessment, founded on arguments using two of the course readings and referring to two projects they had discussed in Assignment 1. This was meant to promote their reflections on their own work based on their earlier reflections and experiences.

Assignment 4: Reflection report

Part of students’ final assignment consisted of a report in which they reflect on what they have learned. More specifically, they were asked to discuss and account for the choices they have made with respect to their interactive narrative. They were also asked to reflect on their own functioning by addressing questions about what issues they encountered and how they dealt with them, what they learned about their studies in relation to practice, and themselves as practitioners.

  • 1 Blessinger and Carfora, ‘Innovative Approaches in Teaching and Learning,’ p. 5.
  • 2 Nelson, Practice as Research in the Arts, p. 8–9.
  • 3 Hmelo and Guzdial, ‘Of Black and Glass Boxes: Scaffolding for Doing and Learning.’
  • 4 Hmelo and Guzdial, ‘Of Black and Glass Boxes: Scaffolding for Doing and Learning.’


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.