Setting Students' Minds on Fire

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

March 06, 2011

Last fall, President Obama warned that the United States could not succeed in a global economy so long as it ranks as low as 12th in the percentage of young adults with college degrees. "We've done OK in terms of college-enrollment rates," he explained, but "more than a third of America's college students" fail to earn degrees. (The actual figure is closer to 50 percent.) Obama proposed "a college-access and -completion fund" to reduce the financial barriers to obtaining a degree.

The money may help. We all know students who juggle classes and full-time jobs. But money alone won't solve the problem. In Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities (Princeton University Press, 2009), William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson report that one-third of students from even privileged socioeconomic backgrounds—top half of the income distribution, at least one parent with a college degree—fail to graduate. Such students quit not because they lack funds, but because they lack motivation and interest.

Perhaps poorly motivated students don't belong in college. But Obama, who has said that he merely went "through the motions" when he was a student at Occidental College, knows better. No one can say that the future president of the Harvard Law Review (and of these United States) was not college material. The uncomfortable truth is obvious to anyone who has attended college: Classes are often boring. Joseph Glover, provost of the University of Florida, recently alluded to this while justifying his university's reliance on online courses: "Quite honestly, the higher-education industry has not been tremendously effective in the face-to-face mode if you look at national graduation rates." He called online courses "the future of higher education."

Others advocate a different approach. Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard, has promoted a shift from "a teacher-oriented system featuring lectures delivered to passive audiences" to a "learner-centered process in which students become more actively involved in their own education." After showing students dozing in lecture halls, the 2005 PBS series Declining by Degrees also championed active learning. And impressive initiatives have popped up throughout the nation. At my own college, scientists have designed a lab in which teams of students are attempting to discover a way to genetically re-engineer a crop-devouring caterpillar.

In the late 1990s, I initiated an active-learning concept that, with the subsequent work of hundreds of scholars, has evolved into Reacting to the Past, which engages students in elaborate games based on classic texts. Each game lasts a month or more and consists of hundreds of pages of rules and roles. In one, students portray democrats or oligarchs in Athens after its surrender to Sparta, in 404 BCE. Another game is set in Rome in 1633: Jesuit scholars who endorse Aristotle's physics contend with supporters of Galileo's views. Yet another takes place among the Ming Empire's top academic advisers in 1587, examining whether the Analects of Confucius promoted human rights or justified imperial power. Over the past half-dozen years, Reacting to the Past has spread to more than 300 colleges and universities.

Students have been influenced in unexpected ways. Paul Fessler, a professor of history at Dordt College, in Iowa, devoted the last month of his Western-civilization class to a game set amid the French Revolution. The sessions were heated and involved, and it soon became clear that the semester would end before several key issues could be resolved. Fessler offered to extend the class. Instead students volunteered to come 30 minutes early for the remainder of the semester. Fessler was floored; his class started at 8 a.m.

"Every student felt a strong personal investment in their roles," explained Nate Gibson, a student in the class. "We read more in the weeks of the game than we had at any time before in the class. We plowed through the game manual, our history texts, Rousseau, you name it. We spent hours writing articles. I spent several all-nighters editing my faction's newspapers, and the other editors did, too. It had become more than a class to us by that point. The early-morning sessions were the only way to honor the sacrifices that everybody had made."

Nancy Reagin and Martha W. Driver, professors at Pace University, had a similar experience. Their students played a Reacting to the Past game set in Puritan-era Boston. One day Reagin received an e-mail from a resident assistant: "Can you please pour some cold water on these students? All they talk about is this game." The dorm was becoming "obsessed" with it. Students debated late into the night whether Anne Hutchinson was a heretic. The students seemed to enjoy the nonstop discussion, "but it's driving everyone else on the floor nuts," the RA reported. How do you party when half the dorm is talking Puritanism?

For the next game, Reagin's class took on Henry VIII and the Reformation Parliament. "You will not believe the number of postings our class had" on the course Web site, she said. Access was restricted to the 25 members of the class, but "over the course of three weeks, we had 618 posts and 13,998 hits." That's more than 500 hits per student.

When absorbed in intellectual games of this nature, students find the customary diversions of college—beer pong, World of Warcraft, Facebook, fraternity hijinks—less compelling. The ideas, texts, and historical moments on which academic discourse depends become a part of their lives, and the friendships they forge in the heat of prolonged competition can transform their class into a community.

Active learning is one of those academic buzzwords whose meaning has been dulled from overuse. (Some professors even regard taking notes as active learning.) But research shows that the strongest gains come from pedagogies that feature teamwork and problem solving. Experience also suggests that teams work harder when they're competing against one another, and that students learn more when they're obliged to think in unfamiliar ways. Money alone won't improve graduation rates. After students make it past the bursar, they need to attend classes that set their minds on fire.

Mark C. Carnes, a professor of history at Barnard College, is among those who have developed the Reacting to the Past method. He is writing a book on active learning in higher education.