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January 17, 2019

Lesson Three:  Are you a good eyewitness?

Lesson Description

In this lesson, students participate in a memory exercise to help understand the limitations of memory and accuracy of eyewitness identification.  Students will act as witnesses or police in a crime investigation.  Teacher conducts a direct and cross exam of eyewitness and class weighs value of eyewitness testimony from the perspective of a juror. 

Students will be able to

  • recognize the limitations of memory and eyewitness identification accuracy.
  • examine accuracy of memory recollections by roleplaying witnesses, police and jurors.

C3 Framework for Social Studies Standards
D2.Civ.10.6-8. Explain the relevance of personal interests and perspectives, civic virtues, and democratic principles when people address issues and problems in government and civil society.

GRADES:  9-12

DURATION: One class period

MATERIALS:  Memory exercise, The Original Selective Attention Task Video online at and Diagram of crime scene (see appendix)


1.  Introduction:  What is memory?  How does memory work?  Is our brain like a video recorder?  If you observed an event could you remember everything that happened?  Why or why not?  Today we will experience how our memory works as we roleplay witnesses, police and jurors.

2.  Ask students to follow directions in the video, The Original Selective Attention Task Video (Invisible Gorilla video) at   

  • Did you see the gorilla?  Why not?
  • What limits our ability to recall evens accurately?
  • In the invisible gorilla movie, our attention was focused on counting passes and you may have missed seeing the gorilla.  Our mind may not remember all that happens in an event because our brain is engaged in another way.

Extension Activity:  To learn more about how memories can be altered watch Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus discuss her research on Ted Talks.  Loftus studies false memories, when people either remember things that didn't happen or remember them differently from the way they really were.   View Professor Loftus on Ted Talks published September 23, 2013 at
3.  Activity:  Are you a good eyewitness?
Adapted from Lesson 11-4:  Being A Good Witness, Lawyers in the Classroom @ Constitutional Rights Foundation (need permission to use drawing)
1.  Pair students and hand out to one student the crime scene diagram turned upside down.  This person will be acting as a witness to a possible crime.  At signal, witness turns paper over and views scene for 15 seconds.  After time is called ask witness to turn paper over.
2.  Partner will act as a police officer and question the witness about what they saw. Police record notes on paper and will report to class.
3.  When interviews with witnesses are done, ask a first police interviewer to give their report.  Teacher records observations on board.  Teacher should not ask clarifying questions as it may suggest information. 
4.  Ask the next police interviewer to share what their witness saw.  Teacher circles on board facts that had been shared earlier and writes in a separate space any additional facts or facts that contradict earlier reports. 
5.  Repeat for all police reports.  Witnesses do not talk. The board is filled with uncategorized observations. 
4.  Ask class, What was observed by our eyewitness?  Do we know what happened?  When?  Where?  Who?  Do we have a description that helps us accurately identify any suspect?  Are witness memories the same?  How is it witnesses remember things differently?  Will the eyewitness testimony in court be convincing to a jury? 
5.  Students can reexamine the diagram to determine the accuracy of their witness memory and police report.
6.  Now let’s pretend the witness is testifying at trial.  Ask a student to roleplay the witness by answering questions in court.  Teacher roleplays the prosecutor in a direct exam and the defense attorney in cross examining the witness.  Class acts as jurors observing the eyewitness testimony.
Direct exam of witness (volunteer student) by prosecuting attorney_(teacher)

  • Good day.  Please state your name and address for the record.
  • Where you were on the day in question?  What time was it?
  • Can you describe the location?
  • What did you see happening? 
  • Can you describe the individuals? features? clothing? personal items?
  • Can you identify in this courtroom the person(s) you saw that day? 
    • students can identify a pretend defendant
  • Let the record indicate the witness has identified the defendant in this case.

Cross exam of witness (same student) by defense attorney (teacher)

  • Good morning.  You have identified the defendant today as the person you saw, is that correct?
  • Now isn’t it true that you were standing across the intersection about some 30 feet away? (Teacher nods head up and down to cue a yes response)
  • And during this time of day the intersection is very busy with traffic, correct?
  • And isn’t it true, you were not wearing any glasses at the time?
  • When you saw the gun you were afraid, correct?
  • Is it possible that as soon as you saw the gun you turned away for safety?
  • That will be all, thank you.

6.  Class discussion with students who listened as jurors.  Pretend you are now in the jury room and deliberating whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.  You must all agree on your decision.  In your deliberations consider the following questions:

  • What does the witness testimony prove in this case? 
  • How important is the eyewitness account?
  • Is the eyewitness account accurate?
  • What factors may limit the witness’s recollection? (sensory limitations due to traffic, no corrective lenses, and emotional response)
  • As a juror in the courtroom you observe the credibility of the witness.  Do you think the witness is believable?  what about the in-court identification?
  • If this was the only evidence presented by the prosecution, how many of you would vote guilty? not guilty? Convince each other to vote your way. 
  • What other information would you want to have presented to help you decide the case?

6.  Conclusion:  This lesson has asked you to examine your own ability to remember events and the role of eyewitness testimony in court.  What will you remember about this lesson?