How to Make Classes More Active, and Why It Matters

Longtime professor Cathy Davidson is on a mission to advance the practice of active learning. And she says the stakes to improve classroom teaching 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 education.

The latest book she co-authored – “The New College Classroom” – is surprisingly lively reading for a how-to book on teaching. It contains what are essentially recipes for various active learning techniques. But it’s also full of examples and context that remind readers how classroom moments, when done well, can be life-changing for students.

An active learning technique she cites in the book, for example, was devised by Samuel Delany, who was also a famous science fiction writer. He encouraged all students to raise a hand each time he asked a question, and if someone called upon did not actually know the answer, they were encouraged to recommend someone else in the class who might. His message was that classroom rituals are a training ground for power dynamics students face in the real world. As Davidson puts it, he told the 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’re learning to take it. You’re learning that you’re invisible . You learn that you don’t count. You learn that your opinions don’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 techniques to meet the changing demographics of students and the changing needs of the workforce.

Davidson has spent his career encouraging innovation in education. A classic example: Back in 2003, she led a pioneering experiment at Duke University using iPods in teaching. Apple’s iPod had only recently come out, and Duke became one of the first to experiment with publishing free lectures online for people to listen to on these digital music players. These days, you can find plenty of lecture recordings online, which she says can help the active learning “flipped classroom” technique, where students are asked to watch pre-recorded lectures and use class time for more active discussion.

These days, she works as a senior adviser to the chancellor on transformation at the City University of New York’s graduate center, and she co-wrote the book with a postdoctoral researcher at the university, Christina Katopodis.

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, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: Why is there so much old school lecturing going on in high schools when research shows that mixing more active techniques works better?

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

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carl Wieman, who is a professor of both physics and education at Stanford, wrote a book on how to better teach science. He is a huge activist and advocate for active learning. He has said that traditional learning is basically like the blood vessel was in the past, where people knew for a hundred years that the blood vessel didn’t work, but it took a hundred years for people to finally give up the blood vessel and go to other forms of medicine.

An active learning technique you describe in the book is called Popsicle sticks. How does it work?

It’s a great one. Everyone has given a certain number of Popsicle sticks … so you can give two Popsicle sticks to each student.

This means that during that class session, if a student makes a comment, they give up one of their Popsicle sticks. They make another comment, they give up the other Popsicle stick, and they’re out of Popsicle sticks, so they can’t talk again.

And the reason for that is that educational sociologists have found out who talks the most in a class. And the person whose identity is closest to the professor’s is the one most likely to speak. Popsicle stick is the simplest way [to counteract that], and it’s a bit gamey. So it’s fun. It’s not finger-wagging. [But] it regulates or equalizes who speaks in a classroom. And it makes you think, ‘Is what I’m about to say valuable enough to use this Popsicle stick?’ And then when some people have lost their Popsicle sticks, the teacher or the professor can say things like, “Okay, who still has a Popsicle stick, because it’s going to be quiet in here.” And encourage those who still have Popsicle sticks to participate.

If you had one takeaway that you hope people get from this book, what would it be?

Trust your students. So much of our education system is built 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 the mythical world where everyone is in their living room, no one has a work and all they care about is athletics and Greek life is that it is a minority of our college students. Almost 50 percent of the students today go to community college, where it is a completely different world. But if you trust them to care about their future, and you can earn their trust that you care about their future, higher education is a great experience.

If you assign students a term paper and they have to complete it all the way to completion, you are teaching them job skills. … Most of us in higher education do not [appreciate that]. We think [the important thing] makes the students remember that 76 things in our field in this course that will take the final exam. But if you make the horizon the rest of their lives, you can help students understand how even studying for an exam has a use.

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


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