How to Make Classes More Active, and Why It Matters

Longtime professor Cathy Davidson is on a mission to promote the practice of active learning. And she says the stakes for improving 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 teaching.

The latest book she co-authored—“The New College Classroom”—is a surprisingly lively read 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 of how classroom moments, when done well, can be life-changing ones for students.

One active learning technique she cites in the book, for instance, was devised by Samuel Delany, who was also a renowned science fiction author. He encouraged every student to raise a hand every time he asked a question, and if someone who was called on didn’t actually know the answer, they were encouraged to recommend someone else in class who might. His message was that classroom rituals are a training ground for power dynamics students face out 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’re learning how to take it. You’re learning that you’re invisible. You’re learning you don’t count. You’re learning your opinions don’t matter. It’s not just that you’re not raising 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 her career encouraging innovation in education. A classic example: Back in 2003 she led a groundbreaking experiment at Duke University to use iPods in education. Apple’s iPod had only recently come out, and Duke became one of the first to experiment with putting out free lectures online that people could 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 recorded lectures in advance and use class time for more active discussion.

These days she works as the 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 research associate 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-fashioned lecturing going on at colleges, if research shows that mixing in more active techniques works better?

Cathy Davidson: So let me first back up just a little bit and tell your listeners about a wonderful study that Scott Freeman conducted 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 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, who’s a professor of both physics and education at Stanford, wrote a book about how to teach science better. He’s a huge activist and advocate of active learning. He’s said traditional learning is basically like bloodletting was 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 go to other forms of medicine.

One active-learning technique you describe in the book is called Popsicle sticks. How does that work?

It’s a great one. Everybody’s given a certain number of Popsicle sticks … so you might give two Popsicle sticks to every student.

That means in the course of that class session, if a student makes a comment, 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 again.

And the reason that is is because sociologists of education have figured out who speaks most in a class. And the person whose identity is closest to that of the professor is the one most likely to speak. The Popsicle stick is the simplest way [to counteract that], and it’s kind of gamey. So it’s fun. It’s not wagging your finger. [But] it regulates or equalizes who’s speaking in a classroom. And it makes you think about, ‘Is what I’m about to say valuable enough to use up this Popsicle stick?’ And then once some people have lost their Popsicle sticks, the teacher or the professor can say things like, “OK, who still has a Popsicle stick, because it’s getting 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 educational system is structured on the idea that students hate school, don’t care, just wanna go to frat parties—the percentage of students that actually live in that mythical world where everybody’s in their residence hall, nobody has a job and all they care about is athletics and Greek life is, 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 care about their future and you can earn their trust that you care about their future, higher education is an amazing experience.

If you assign students a term paper and they have to manage that all the way to completion, you’re teaching them work skills. … Most of us in higher education don’t [appreciate that]. We think [the important thing] is making students remember that 76 things in our field in this course that are gonna be on 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 utility.

Hear the full interview, with more active-learning techniques, on the podcast.