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A Look at Active Learning | Social Learning Amplified

 

In episode 6 of Social Learning Amplified, Eric Mazur invites Professor Cathy N. Davidson and Christina Katopodis, PhD from The City University of New York (CUNY) to talk about their new book, The New College Classroom. They discuss active learning, changing their classrooms, and creating an environment that is truly conducive to learning. 
 

Eric Mazur:

Welcome to the Social Learning Amplified podcast, the podcast that brings us candid conversations with educators. We're finding new ways to engage and motivate their students inside and outside the classroom. Each episode of social learning amplified will give you real life examples and practical strategies you can put into practice in your own courses. Let's meet today's guests.

Welcome to Social Learning Amplified. I'm your host Eric Mazur. And our guests on the episode today are Cassie Davidson and Christina Katopodis, both from the City University of New York. Cassie is the author of more than 20 books, including the New Education, and Now You See It. She's Senior Advisor to the Chancellor on Transformation at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. She's also Founding Director of the Futures Initiative and distinguished professor of English. She's a sought after speaker and writes regularly for the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Christina is postdoctoral research associate and associate director in transformative learning in the humanities initiative at the City University of New York, and is the author of over a dozen articles on innovative pedagogy, environmental studies, and early American literature. I'm so happy to have both of you here today. Thank you so much for joining.

Cathy-Davidson-Photo1 (1)Cathy Davidson: (photo left)

Great to be here, Eric. Thank you.

Christina Katopodis: (photo below)

Thank you for having us.

Eric Mazur:

Well, we're here today to talk about your new book with Harvard University Press that appeared, I think at the end of August, entitled The New College Classroom. For those of you who haven't seen it, this is an inspirational book that offers practical tools on how to transform a traditional classroom into an active learning environment. I found it incredibly exciting to see how you structured your book into two parts, changing ourselves and changing our classroom in the changing ourselves part. And, and I couldn't agree more that we must begin with changing ourselves. You address the question why change? Now, I, I'd love to hear from both of you why it is so critical to change now.

Cathy Davidson:

Christina Katopodis

First of all, I mean, right now, and this was not what our intention was when we began the book in this post pandemic time, so many students are wondering why higher education matters anymore. And we know we have a kind of a crisis nationwide, actually worldwide in students dropping out of college. active learning is a great antidote to that. We know that when students are engaged, the two most common reasons people drop out of school are financial. And after that, it's, they don't know, know why they're in school. So active learning makes that connection, and we wanted to write a book that showed people how to, not just how to think theoretically about active learning, but how to do it.

Eric Mazur:

Now, that problem has of course always been true, right? We always had that problem. So you know, Christina, why is it more critical now? You mentioned the pandemic, Cathy, but when you wrote the book, there was no pandemic yet <laugh>. So why is it even more critical now than let's say 50 years ago or even a hundred years ago when the same problems were there too, to some degree?

Christina Katopodis:

Sure. Yeah. I would just add to what Cathy said, that our students are so different also, and the world has changed, right? it is changing at an exponential rate. And so I think it's so important to have a pedagogy that prepares our students for this challenging, changing world, to make them adaptable, flexible, innovative, original thinkers, creative thinkers, not just critical thinkers like both, and creative and critical thinking and problem solving to take on the world's biggest challenges.

Cathy Davidson:

It's, it's always interesting to me that the modern university was created partly in answer to industrialization. And so you actually have the solidification of fields. You have the first graduate schools, the first professional schools. Now, information scarcity and, and professionalism is not the the problem. It's what you do about a world where information is everywhere and it's not always accurate. And how do you give students the tools to really think, is this real? Is this fake? What is going on here? And to actually have the discretion and the tools to make, to make those kinds of judgments, not just receive content from a professor.

Eric Mazur:

What is it that inspired you to write The New College Classroom?

Cathy Davidson:

Oh, so many things. Do you wanna go first, Christina?

Christina Katopodis:

Well, well, I was working with Cathy as a, a research assistant at the time. I was a doctoral student at the graduate center at CUNY studying American literature. And she was on tour for the new education, and I was teaching as an adjunct at, in two different states. I was teaching as an adjunct at Hunter College in Manhattan. And I would commute early in the morning to go to New Jersey to teach at New Jersey City University. And you know, three different classes plus a dissertation and all of these things going on. And I was just talking to Cathy about what I was doing in my classroom, some things that I had to come up with on my commute because I just didn't have a lot of time. And that's a common issue among adjuncts who are stretched really thin sometimes teaching at multiple campuses. And Cathy can probably tell the rest of the story better than I could.9780674248854-lg-1 (1)

Cathy Davidson:

<laugh> I will, because she's gonna be too modest. I'd already started the, what I called my how we know trilogy, which the first volume was, and now you see, which is about the neuroscience of learning, the second's, the history of modern higher education and what's where we want, what we need to do. And then I really wanted to do a kind of almost instructional manual for how you take these theories and ideas and put them into place in the classroom. But I thought it would be ridiculous for somebody who'd had a long and distinguished career to tell somebody who was really having to enter what is a very, very difficult time in higher education from scratch. It felt patronizing and wrong and irrelevant. And Christina had won every imaginable teaching award, was a brilliant young scholar, and so that's why she's not gonna tell you this.

So I asked her and felt very honored that she was willing to co-write with me. And we actually began the book before the pandemic when I was a senior advisor at the Mellon Foundation, working in this beautiful office overlooking the garden, and then the pandemic hit, and we made a resolution to write every day on Tuesdays and Thursdays on Zoom. So 90% of the book was actually written remotely. And I think that's important because all of the techniques that we have for in the classroom are also important outside the classroom and vice versa. It's not about distance, it's about emotional difference, pedagogical difference, engagement, and all of those kinds of issues. And I know I'm talking you, Eric, and the, and you, you know, you're one of the founders of this whole idea of how we can make the classroom not be one way communication, but really interactive, truly interactive. Yeah.

Eric Mazur:

So, so you really wrote the book together. I mean, it was not that, you know, you split up the book and one person wrote one part, the wrote another part. You, you were, you were actually writing together.

Cathy Davidson:

It was incredibly exciting. We would write together, we would then edit offline, and we would show each other the edits. We would discuss the edits. So I don't think there was a word that we each didn't go over together. And some of the things are more Christina's area of expertise. Some are mine, but the writing was entirely a partnership during a terrible time. I think it was really a, a lifesaver in many ways to have this continuing project during a very, very isolating time.

Christina Katopodis:

It absolutely was. And I mean, it's funny because in conversation with our editor, we would start finishing each other's sentences, and that was the point where we were really writing together. And I think, you know what Cathy said that this book was really a lifeline through a very dark time. not just in the pandemic, but also with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. I live very close to the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, where a lot of the protesting was happening. You saw a lot of police and right gear. It was a very scary time. And to come together with this mission of making this a book that is hopeful about the possibility for transformation in higher ed and really believing that transformation is possible, that yes, we can change starting with our classrooms and with some activist pedagogy that's engaging students to be citizens of the world that we can train these generations of students to change the world, to make it more equitable. And just, and to have that, what I've, I've been thinking of it as a radical optimism, right? Like being hopeful in a time that is very difficult is a choice. And making that choice together every day and lifting each other up in writing this book really gave me a lot, a lifeline through the pandemic for sure.

Eric Mazur:

That's, that's just wonderful. Now, what's your ambition for this book? If, if we, you know, push a clock forward 10 years, how would you like to look back on what the book has contributed to the educational landscape?

Cathy Davidson:

My small ambition is that every single person who's teaching in every single field, this is the small one learns one technique that they can adapt tomorrow. the thing about the reason we began with changing ourselves, we've talked about changing it before, changing our classrooms, is very few college professors were trained in pedagogy. Very few have read the Science of learning. Very few read have read about neuroscience. We simply, we have a structure that rewards us for doing what our mentors did and for caring forward what our mentors did. If this even breaks the cycle enough, so somebody thinks, Hmm, maybe I'll try this think pair share thing, or an entry ticket or an exit ticket, which take very little time and they always work. I mean, that's what's astonishing. I've had so many people terrified say, I, I'm gonna try it tomorrow.

And then afterwards say it worked. You know, you give people an index card or a chance to say what they want to say with no penalty. And a guided question, everybody has a chance to speak. And it's a, it's a experience we rarely see in higher education. And this is the bigger ambition because we're in a profession designed through all of its structures to replicate itself. So we know that those three students who raise their hand in the class, we've got sociologists of education who've documented this, are the ones who are most like the professor by gender, by race, by educational level of their parents by income level. And that's very field specific too. So you have people in, in your field, the hard sciences often say, we need more women in the hard in technology and science, but we have a system that's about hierarchy and self replication.

So my, the hugest ambition is that this actually works to the point that different people feel they can go on to be college professors and the people who feel that way now. And for everybody else, the 97% who do not go on to get PhDs of college graduates who do not go on to get PhDs, they learned a way to speak up in situations where they might not normally speak up as one person says learn how to ask for a race. They learn how to ask for a race. They learn how to have a voice and ask for a race.

Eric Mazur:

Now, we, we briefly touched upon the pandemic, and I think the pandemic has sort of lifted the veil of the future a little bit and, and shown that the physical, I mean, there have been a lot of people have complained about this, but I think that, that in some instances it's shown a lot of promise too, and, and shown that the constraints of a physical campus can possibly be lifted. We've been talking mostly so far about the pedagogy in the classroom. I'd like to touch upon two other things and, and hear your views, namely, how do you see the physical classroom evolve? And secondly you know, two of your chapters in the second part of your book, Changing Our Classrooms touch upon something that I think resonates very strongly with me, namely the other side of pedagogy, which is the assessment. You know, you have a chapter on, on feedback, feedback that really works. And then there's another wonderfully titled chapters, "Grades, yuck," you know, and I think assessment practices are because they completely broke down. So I'd love to hear your views and, and maybe we'll begin with Christina on how those two other aspects, the physical classroom and, and assessment will, or should, or can evolve.

Christina Katopodis:

Yeah. just really quick answer to your first, the first part of your question. I think that online learning can really be accessible. and, you know, we're very aware, particularly in teaching in New York about the inaccessibility of certain physical campuses especially, or in that rush between classes, trying to get her one place to another and the elevators are broken. things like that. that online education really affords a lot of accessibility and flexibility in instruction that I think is really exciting for the future. and as far as un grading or alternative assessments go, I think, you know, my, one of my ambitions for the book is for un grading an alternative assessment to take off because it's really about students feeling empowered about the evaluation criteria, like the criteria by which they're being evaluated, that they have a role, they're in the driver's seat of their own education, and they have autonomy and control over what they're learning and how, and how they're being evaluated.

That it's not a punitive system, that it is truly an empowering one where students can do some self- evaluations, peer evaluations, and really feel that this isn't just a guessing game of what is the right answer, but feeling that they know the skills that they need, the proficiencies that they need, and they get that practice in the classroom through active learning to really be part of a system that is hopefully changed and transformed where grades are no longer this ranking and rating system we've had, that we've had since birth. Really, we've been ranked and rated since we've been born. 

Cathy Davidson:

If it's useful, I'd love to give a simple example cuz when people hear un grading, they freak out. They say, oh my God, it's all over this. They have no standards. And I had the pleasure to be on a, a keynote with Carl Wieman at the Nobel Prize Future of Learning conference last year, and he's a Nobel Prize winning physicist, who's also a professor of education who does this wonderful thing where he does a flip classroom. And he asked students for the next assignment to go back and think about what they got wrong when they, when the classroom was first flipped, when they walked in, and they were giving their answers and then worked gradually to a correct answer. But before they even start the next assignment, they do a self-evaluation of what they got wrong, wrong and actually think about why they did what mistakes they did.

So they're not just learning a new answer, they're really thinking through how their brain worked, what, what misinformation they had, why they came to the wrong conclusion, and then they're learning something new. But that's an incredibly powerful tool that when you just slap a grade a B onto a or a 94 onto a an exam, you're not telling students why, nor are you giving them the power to think, why didn't I do better? What did I do wrong? And at that seems like it's a radical act to have students actually think about why they're getting something wrong. and it's definitely not un rigorous. In fact, I would say it's a higher level up of rigor when you yourself learn how you're learning and take charge of that.

Eric Mazur:

Absolutely. And and I think we have a long way to go with grading, because unfortunately, at the end of the semester, most of our institutions still demand a grade. So even if we, you know, use specifications grading or un grading or mastery grading or whatever, at the end, we have to sort of, of collapse and undo all the good work and turn it into, you know, a single meaningless letter that I think most of us ignore anyway, because we know that it doesn't really represent what our students are capable of. Right. So you know, most of your book is really focused on, on active learning. Why is it that you've chosen that as your, your main focus?

Cathy Davidson:

It works <laugh>. We have a meta study that was published in the, in publications of the National Academy of Science in 2014 of over 225 studies of learning. And Scott Freeman and the other authors of that meta-study of studies conclude that if this had been a pharmaceutical study traditional learning would be taken off the market by any metric they could come up with in these 225 separate studies. Active learning was a more effective way to learn. It's also a more equitable way to learn. First generation students are empowered. but so are the, the students who had all the educational benefits, possible, private schooling, educated parents, all of those things, they benefit too. It's, it's, it's kind of hard not to be a advocate for active learning. If you've ever taught somebody anything outside of school or ever had to learn a skill outside of school, you've done active learning. No one learns tennis by listening to a lecture on tennis. Nobody, you know, you might, that's where you begin, but no one stops there. So it's just a better way to learn.

Eric Mazur:

Yeah, I, I like your comparison, comparison to the pharmaceutical industry Christina, why hasn't that, you know, the traditional approach to teaching been taken off the market? I mean, why is it so incredibly difficult to move the mountain, so to speak?

Christina Katopodis:

I think it comes back to what Cathy was saying earlier about like the lack of training, right? That, like in my ambitions for this book, it's that, you know, someone would hand it to a first time adjunct so that they have something to start with. and don't just replicate the same ways in which they were educated because it, it's really like you get thrown in, right? And you have this degree, you're ready to use it, but none of your learning it for your degree included teacher training. So you go back and replicate the way that you were taught. And that is most often the traditional banking model that Paul rails against in pedagogy of the oppressed of depositing information for later use, rather than actively practicing what you are learning. And so you just end up replicating what was done before. And so I think that's why it still stuck around.

Cathy Davidson:

It's one reason too, why for every method, we tried to have, have the research studies behind it, cuz we know that young faculty and even senior faculty are gonna face opposition. And we wanted to give them evidence and ammunition for, for why they're doing what they're doing.

Christina Katopodis:

And just a quick example, we know that on average professors talk 87% of the time in class, even in discussion based classes. So that 13% that students get, that's probably okay in a seminar of 12, but the average class size 25, 35 students, there are some students are definitely not talking in a raise your hand call on you type of method, a lecture of 200 students. Absolutely. Most people are not talking. And that's not how you learn to be an active participant in society. And so it goes back to that activist element of active learning, right? It's moving, it's active, it's energized. Every single person participates at least once in every class. And that teaches them, like Cathy said, as Samuel Delaney said, to ask for a raise to ask for more. Not just to replicate the same systems of oppression in which we were raised, but to do something, imagine a better future.

Eric Mazur:

Well, in closing a longish question, but maybe a very short answer from each of you. Can you give us an example of your most reliable active learning technique? One that anyone can have in their pedagogical hip pocket at all times?

Cathy Davidson:

You know what I'm gonna say, Christina? I was taught how to do, think, pair, share by a second grade teacher, think, pair share. I often, you can do it with index cards, you can also do it in the, in the chat online. you pose a question, very, very brief qu open ended question. It can be anything from, you know, what's the answer to this qua to this, this equation to what did you read this week that stuck with you most? And you wanna talk about in class students? Write it down and then you, I usually do it with 90 seconds or a minute. then they turn to someone next to them and each take turns reading what they've written on that card. It's sometimes the only time a student gets to actually listen to another student instead of just to the professor and speak.

And then I love to have students synthesize that and, and say their answer to the, to the class. Because we know it's in the process of synthesis that real learning happens and articulating that synthesis, that real learnings happens. I've done it to 6,000 intellectual IB teachers in the Philadelphia 70 Sixers auditorium. That was hilarious seeing everybody think pair sharing on the jumbotrons. I've also done it with the top 100 performing CEOs of the Cisco conglomerate. the chairman of the board happened to be a trustee at Duke and he and I did it with our trustees and he asked me to come do it for his CEOs. And I've done done it with middle school kids in Chicago and it works every single time and nobody ever believes that. That's my, that's my go to always. We travel with index cards everywhere we go.

Christina Katopodis:

<laugh>. I, mine would be asking students what do, what are your learning goals? What do you wanna get out of this class as a whole, as this out of this semester from this class? Here is this opportunity for us to learn together. How could this course change your life? And I'm serious. I seriously believe that there is something from this course that you could take with you for the rest of your life. What do you want that to be? And then I adjust the rest of the class to meet their learning goals. I make edits and changes. I listen and I respond. Or on a small scale, what do you wanna take away from today's discussion? What do you wanna talk about today? And you know, most oftentimes that has to do with the reading the course content. but sometimes it also means talking about what's happening in the world that is related to our class. And it gives them an opportunity to connect the course content to their lives.

Eric Mazur:

Well, I'm quite sure that our listeners will be able to take something from our discussion and it will change. They are experience as as educators. Thank you for listening. And thank you to our guests, Cathy Davidson and Christina Katopodis. You can find our podcast and more on perusall.com/sociallearningamplified - all one word. Please subscribe to make sure you don't miss any episodes. I hope you will join us again on our next episode. Thank you both.

Cathy Davidson:

Thank you.

Christina Katopodis:

Thank you.

Eric Mazur:

Social Learning Amplified is sponsored by Perusall, the social learning platform that motivates students by increasing engagement, driving collaboration, and building community through your favorite course content. To learn more, join us at one of our introductory webinars. Visit perusall.com to learn more and register.

 

 

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