How to Make Classes More Active, and Why It Matters

Longtime professor Cathy Davidson has made it her mission to encourage the practice of active learning. And she says the stakes in improving classroom instruction are higher than many people realize. It’s not just about test scores and whether people learn, she argues, but there’s an ethical issue that sometimes gets lost in discussions about teaching.

The latest book she co-authored – The New College Classroom – is surprisingly lively reading for a how-to textbook. It essentially contains recipes for various active learning techniques. But it’s also packed with examples and context, reminding readers how moments in the classroom, when done well, can transform students’ lives.

For example, an active learning technique she cites in the book was developed by Samuel Delany, who was also a well-known science fiction writer. He encouraged each student to raise their hands each time they asked a question, and if someone called out didn’t really know the answer, they were encouraged to recommend someone else in the class who might know. His message was that classroom rituals are a training ground for power dynamics that students face in the real world. As Davidson puts it, he told students, “Don’t you realize that every time you don’t raise your hand, you’re learning how not to ask for a raise? You learn how to take it. You learn that you are invisible. You learn that you don’t count. You learn that your opinion doesn’t matter. It’s not just that you don’t raise your hand because you don’t know the answer.”

Davidson’s book also argues that colleges in particular have a responsibility to update teaching methods to meet the changing demographics of students and the changing needs of the workforce.

Davidson has spent her career promoting innovation in education. Case in point, back in 2003 at Duke University, she led a groundbreaking experiment on the use of iPods in education. Apple’s iPod had just launched, and Duke was one of the first to experiment with putting free lectures online for people to listen to on these digital music players. Many lecture recordings can be found online these days, which they believe can assist in the “flipped classroom” active learning technique, in which students are asked to preview the recorded lectures and use class time for more active discussions.

She now serves as the Chancellor’s senior advisor on transformation at the City University of New York Graduate Center and co-wrote the book with Christina Katopodis, a postdoctoral fellow at the university.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, edited slightly for clarity.

EdSurge: Why are there so many old-fashioned lectures in college when research shows that mixing in more active techniques works better?

Cathy Davidson: First, let me go back a little and tell your audience about a wonderful study Scott Freeman did for the National Academy of Science publications in 2014 that is a meta-study of 225 separate learning studies. And in that study, he and his co-authors discovered that no matter what … there was no measure by which traditional learning, by which I mean lectures and what we call seminars, [is as effective.] Active learning wins.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carl Wieman, Professor of Physics and Education at Stanford University, has written a book on how to better teach science. He is a big activist and advocate for active learning. He said traditional learning is basically like bloodletting in the past, where people knew for a hundred years that bloodletting didn’t work, but it took a hundred years for people to finally give up bloodletting and turn to other forms of medicine.

One active learning technique you describe in the book is called popsicle sticks. How does this work?

It is great. Everyone got a certain number of popsicle sticks… so you could give each student two popsicle sticks.

That is, when a student makes a comment during that lesson, they give up one of their popsicle sticks. They make a second comment, they give up the second popsicle stick, and they’re out of popsicle sticks, so they can’t talk anymore.

And the reason is that educational sociologists have figured out who speaks the most in a class. And the person whose identity is closest to that of the professor is the most likely to speak. The popsicle stick is the easiest way [to counteract that], and it’s kind of gamey. So it’s fun. It doesn’t wag its finger. [But] it regulates or balances who is speaking in a classroom. And it makes you think, “Is what I’m about to say worth enough to consume this popsicle stick?” And then, when some people have lost their popsicle sticks, the teacher or professor can say things like, “Okay, who’s got another popsicle stick, because it’s going to be quiet around here.” And encourage those who have popsicle sticks to join in .

If you had one lesson you hope people will take away from this book, what would it be?

Trust your students. Much of our education system is based on the idea that students hate school, don’t care, just want to go to frat parties – the percentage of students who actually live in this mythical world where everyone is in their dorm and nobody has a job and all they care about is athletics and Greek life, that’s a minority of our college students. Almost 50 percent of students today go to community college, where it’s a whole different world. But if you trust them to take care of their future, and you can earn their trust to take care of their future, higher education is an amazing experience.

When you assign students a term paper and they have to work it through to completion, teach them work skills. … Most of us in higher education don’t do that [appreciate that]. We believe [the important thing] makes students remind that 76 things in our field will be on the final exam in this course. But by making horizons for the rest of their lives, you can help students understand how useful even studying for an exam is.

Listen to the full interview with more active learning techniques, in the podcast.

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