I just spent a couple of days at the Reacting to the Past  16th annual institute at Barnard last week. Reacting was first developed by Mark Carnes (who has now written an excellent Harvard University Press book about this pedagogy) and it has now grown enormously and is used at hundreds of schools in many different disciplines. While I was a fan before, after playing, I certainly understand much more deeply both how these “games” work and what the benefits are.

Hearing both from students who have played and from research studies about outcomes, it is clear that these experiences lead to better academic learning, more engagement, more motivation and confidence and perhaps most interesting for the first-year seminar—better relationships and wider friendship patterns.

It is hard to describe, but every student is given a substantial book that includes historical essays, primary texts and other background information that students must read. Each student is assigned a role with an accompanying “role sheet” of several pages that includes biographical information, victory objectives to work to achieve in the games, and specific strategy advice. The first class or two might be background on the period, then introductions are made in roles and the game begins.

The game I played was Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89 ( find out more from the author Gretchen McKay, who discusses the genesis of the game here). This game, based in the discipline of art history, includes students playing artists, critics, and dealers. We started with learning to talk about art with formal, visual analysis, and subsequently gave presentations trying to persuade others why and how some art was better than others. Learning to discuss the merits of art is the key to this game, and is achieved through lots of debates and organizing of shows (and who would and should show together). The culmination of the game is the final show in 1889 at the World Exposition, where buyers (new players) showed up within a crowd. We all had to persuade others to buy “our art” using the language of art we had just learned. We alternated between faction meetings, which afforded time to make connections, and more formal debate periods, which included speeches and presentations followed by audience questions (in roles). It was indeed a rapid see one, do one and teach one.

The benefits of this approach are far reaching.

Better Academic Learning
We know that the human brain remembers more when we read with purpose. I always suggest that faculty put more than “read chapter 2 for Tuesday” on the syllabus, because just a little added purpose improves retention: read the chapter and (for example) find an argument you hate, an insight that broadens your perspective, or a relative who has the problem described. Reading any text with a purpose improves learning, and Reacting immediately puts students in that frame of mind. I was reading to find arguments for or against something.

In Reacting, students then make presentations (everyone has to make at least one speech and write papers) supporting or attacking positions. Writing to persuade is, of course, one of the core skills we teach in college and something that students often find difficult. Reacting is all about persuasion and persuasive communication.

In the game I played, set in Paris in 1888, I learned a lot about the art of the period. I sat in a darkened room through multiple presentations about paintings—much like I would have in any art history class. These, however, were presentations from other students, and all of the content I expected to learn was there. Yes, some presentations were better than others, and they were not presented “fairly” or with an academic perspective. But we were all learning to see together and because we all had a bias, due to our assigned roles, we were again, looking with purpose. Of course, the student who presented each painting learned his or her works in more depth.

In short, the reading, discussion and papers are the standard currency of academic learning, but they were placed in a different context that made the entire process more engaging.

Engagement, Motivation and Confidence
Reacting gives students license to act out in class. This is fun, but also intense. For many students, the potential to “win” provides motivation, but there is also a potent energy of learning in this environment. People are laughing and yelling and interrupting. Even I was surprised at how freeing it was to be in a role, and how it changed my classroom persona and participation.

Another interesting benefit is that each character is given unique information. So you know (in your role) something others do not. This is power, of course. But it FEELS great the first time you say something in class and others get excited.

So the cycle starts with the motivation not to be embarrassed in front of your peers, but then you immediately feel the joy of success and eventually mastery (very much the micro-rewards that video games use). How often will students give a research paper to loud cheers from other students?!? In the guise of a role, however, I presented research (original for me) that bolstered the position of my faction and the (partisan) audience roared. This was a good feeling, and reinforced the idea that –when I read carefully and prepare, there is a reward.

Friendship Patterns
One of the most interesting outcomes I learned about is that first-year students who play RTTP games end up with much broader friendship patterns in their second semester. Games are organized into factions (in the Athens game, for example, they include Oligarchs, who generally don’t care much about Socrates, the Socratic faction who are his devotees and want him to either be martyred or spared, the Radical Democrats who find him a threat, and the Moderate Democrats who while they really want every one to get along, can’t abide by Socrates’ anti-democratic ideas) and students then have to work together.

Initially, I was skeptical to hear that students often have trouble disengaging from the role (and need to be told they can’t talk about the game on weekends sometimes!), but after playing (even an abbreviated game) I still knew most of my colleagues by their roles, “Hi Monet, so what is your real name?” I am sure that for years to come, I will remember our Renoir, Seurat, Van Gogh and Gauguin in their roles.

Reacting is about relationships. On the surface, this is helping students build relationships in roles, but there is an extra benefit that these students now do indeed know each other. There are multiple benefits to getting first-year students into working groups that have this level of energy.

Job Skills
Leadership, writing, oral communication, working with others to solve a common goal, persuasion and responding to changing conditions are all, of course, widely desired job skills. Some students may need you to make this connection, but students themselves articulated that a common interview question is “can you describe a situation when you worked in a diverse group and took a leadership role to solve a problem?” Employers may not be expecting an answer about saving Socrates, but this may indeed be the only answer a student can muster from college.

But don’t take my word for it: the research about the benefits of playing Reacting games is already quite compelling. The most complete evaluation of Reacting came from a FIPSE grant allowing a psychologist, Steve Stroessner to compare Reacting and non-Reacting sections within and across half-a-dozen colleges. Students who played Reaching games demonstrated
•      An elevated self-esteem. Reacting students both showed a higher self-esteem compared to students in non-Reacting sections and a higher level of self-esteem at the end of the semester compared to the beginning of the semester.
•      An increase in empathy – compared to a decrease (!) for students in the control sections
•      More external locus of control, i.e. level of belief that outcomes often are influenced by forces that are external to self.
•      Greater endorsement of the belief that human beings are malleable, contributing to a belief in the possibility of incremental change, that people can change over time and across contexts.
•      Enhanced verbal and rhetorical skills – Reacting students demonstrated a greater ability to make an oral argument.
Steven J. Stroessner, Laurie Susser Beckerman, and Alexis Whittaker “All the World’s a Stage? Consequences of a Role-Playing Pedagogy on Psychological Factors and Writing and Rhetorical Skill in College Undergraduates,” Journal of Educational Psychology (2009).

You can find more articles about the efficacy of Reacting here:

Faculty who try these games overwhelmingly find that they work. In 2013 a survey of 100 faculty found that faculty were clear that students in Reacting games achieved AAC&U LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes and found that the faculty overwhelmingly assert that it helps achieve those outcomes. Percentage of faculty who agreed on outcomes that Reacting develops:
97% – Providing academic challenge
96% – Engaging with “Big” questions
96% – Connecting knowledge with choices and actions
91% – Developing students’ ability to apply learning to complex problems
91% –  Teaching the art of inquiry
85% –  Fostering civic learning
82% –  Fostering Intercultural Learning
79% – Teaching the art of innovation
78% – Fostering Ethical Learning

Many faculty also talk about these games have rejuvenated their teaching. A couple of sample comments:
•      surprisingly, incredibly effective at seducing students into deep meditation on–and creative explication of—primary sources
•      It’s the most rewarding teaching you can do, because students will take ownership of their learning.
•      Reacting has completely transformed my approach to teaching. I find that it forces me as an instructor to be much more invested in my students… I have rethought my role as a teacher: I no longer try to cover “everything” in lectures, but rather I see myself as a coach in helping students navigate through the exciting avalanche of information that is available.
•      For me as an instructor, it’s made teaching fun again.  I’ve begun to revise all my courses around either Reacting games or simplified versions. …Students regularly tell me that they learn more preparing for the simulations than they would sitting through traditional lectures.
•      These RTTP games bring a level of engagement and learning to my classroom that has helped take me back to the level of excitement about entering the classroom that I felt when I was just starting to teach 20 years ago.

Like many folks, I expected Reacting largely to be about history. Indeed, the games take place with real historical figures in specific moments in time, but the skill sets are broad and the subject matter ranges from science to art. This is a pedagogy that will revitalize your classroom, change you and your students—whatever you teach. Take a look at RTTP:

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