"Reacting to the Past" engages students in the present

Photo of students engaged in a history role-playing game

In today’s classroom, it’s fair to say that there’s a certain pattern that students have come to expect. Students sit in their desks furiously tapping away at their keyboards while their professor stands at the forefront, relaying as much information as they can in the limited time that they’re given. However, universities across the country, Auburn included, have started experimenting with an entirely different approach to the student/teacher dynamic. “Reacting to the Past” is a student-centered style of teaching that puts the responsibility of learning almost entirely on the student. Instead of taking notes, students engage with history, literature, etc., as characters within a specific time-period, literally interacting with the past. This teaching pedagogy has seen limited use at Auburn University, but the professors who have given it a try have been elated with the results.

Dr. Sarah Hamilton, an assistant professor in the Department of History, first heard of Reacting to the Past at a conference and thought it would work well in her American Environmental History class. “It was in the Spring of 2016,” Hamilton explains. “It went really well and I asked the students if they wanted to do another one, so we ended up playing two games that semester.” 

Since then, Hamilton has used the games in a number of courses. At the beginning of each semester, she said she spends some time getting the students used to the idea that they won’t be taking a traditional class. One of her students, Jack West, said he wasn’t sure what to expect. “I was fairly skeptical about how much learning and research would actually be required. But students quickly learn to fall into their roles, arguing with their classmates in character within an hour of getting their role sheets,” West said. 

The games utilized in Reacting to the Past frequently pit two teams against one another. A student might have individual goals they want to fulfill, but their primary goal is usually some sort of team objective. An example of this comes from Dr. Anna Bertolet, an associate professor of literature and fellow Reacting to the Past advocate. Bertolet specializes in early modern literature and culture, particularly Shakespeare and Elizabeth I, so she placed her students within the period of the Renaissance. “An example of a game I’ve used in the past dealt with the closings of theatres during the Black Plague. As the plague was beginning to wane, Elizabeth I decided to open a single theatre but was unsure of whether the theatre should show a play by Shakespeare or Marlowe.” The students were then split into teams of Shakespeare Supporters, Marlowe Supporters, and a panel of judges to decide the case. This competitive aspect is a crucial piece of what makes this learning style so effective. It changes the goal of the student from just memorizing and recalling information for a grade, to becoming confident enough in their own research to be able to use what they’ve learned to outsmart their classmates. 

“Playing these games is a unique experience because it forces students to do their own in-depth research, not so they can get a good grade, but so they don’t get roasted by a classmate who did better research,” West said about his experience. 

One of the objectives to implementing this form of teaching is to change a student’s perspective on historical events. History is often presented as facts and it can be easy to forget that the characters of these stories were real people who had no idea how their stories would end. Julia Buechler, another Reacting to the Past student, said, “These {Reacting to the Past} games expose the underlying narratives piece by piece, character by character. By stepping into the shoes of someone from the past, you are able to combat some of the teleological effects of historical studies." 
Both Dr. Hamilton and Dr. Bertolet said they were pleased with the success of Reacting to the Past and plan to continue to employ it in the future. “It’s my dream that one day this learning model will be employed in all first-year English classrooms,” says Bertolet. Hamilton expands, “I like Reacting to the Past for a lot of reasons. The teaching of empathy, the teaching of history as a work in progress, but it’s also really fun that these are classes that people enjoy coming to.” 

With such high praise given from both professors and students alike, it’s easy to see why Reacting to the Past is beginning to catch on at universities across the country. However, its use isn’t contained to only history and literature. This teaching style is also seeing use in philosophy, business, and even science courses. This overwhelming success across different subjects serves as an encouraging example of what learning was always meant to be: exciting. 

Written by Dillan Wright, a sophomore majoring in Professional and Public Writing and minoring in both Creative Writing and Philosophy and Religion.

Last Updated: July 06, 2018