Last week, I had an opportunity to visit a few sessions at the Reacting to the Past conference held on the Barnard campus. Faculty from many different disciplines gathered to rehearse the games they have developed to engage their students in past events and times. All of the games are set in the past, and students, after reading classic texts and doing their own research, are assigned roles. The students are responsible for conducting class sessions that will illuminate the topic from the past that they are studying.

The annual conference of faculty practitioners of this curricular method was first held 16 years ago. Each year, more faculty join the group of founders in testing the games they have produced. I had the mistaken notion that I would be watching a play. Not the case! There are readings that provide the context, but the students decide how to portray the characters. It was more like immersive theater, where the audience interacts with the characters.

The most enjoyable part of the experience was seeing the joy and enthusiasm the professors bring to this pedagogical method. They are convinced that their students learn more, become better writers and speakers, are better at critical thinking than students who learn in a traditional classroom. Many of them told me that their introduction to Reacting to the Past completely changed their approach to teaching.

This is not simply their opinion. The Reacting to the Past pedagogy has been tested in randomized trials that show the undergraduates enrolled in these courses, compared to other undergraduates in general education courses have a better appreciation of multiple points of view on controversial subjects. They also have superior speaking skills. Professors using this method also report that many students especially enjoy the competitive game aspect of these courses as well.

The featured games of this year’s conference ranged widely from “The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 BCE” to “Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-1889” to “Kentucky 1861: Loyalty, State and Nation” and many others. It was easy to imagine that students would be totally involved in designing a narrative as well as an experience that is rich and meaningful.

José Antonio Bowen, author of Teaching Naked, gave the keynote address, emphasizing how technology can be used to enhance these interactive experiences, but his main point was that technology can free the professor to develop the deeply engaging and personal experiences in the classroom because the more routine aspects of learning have been dealt with through technology.