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Teaching 2.0: Make a Class do Cartwheels

Professors Dan Ariely and Cathy Davidson team up for student-led course

Part of the A New Type of Classroom Series
Students in the class co-taught by Cathy Davidson and Dan Ariely explore both literature and social science.
Students in the class co-taught by Cathy Davidson and Dan Ariely explore both literature and social science.

For Cathy Davidson, flipping the classroom isn't enough. She'd prefer, as she likes to say, to make it do cartwheels.

That's the general idea of the new course she's co-teaching this semester with behavioral economist Dan Ariely.

 In "Surprise Endings" -- an exploration of both literature and social science -- the students help select course topics, pick their own projects and ultimately create their own version of the class to be offered free on the Internet. They do lots of work between classes on a public blog, and as of yet haven't told the professors what their final projects will be.

This level of student empowerment is one cornerstone of the course, which Davidson is calling a meta-MOOC because of the product expected at the end. All semester, students are piecing video segments together based on class readings and exercises. Collectively, those video segments will be freely available on the web, much like a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, which is a new style of online learning that's gathering momentum at Duke and across higher education.

"You learn best both by doing and by teaching someone what you know," says Davidson, an English professor and expert in digital learning. "It puts them into the role of teacher, and they learn far better that way."

It's a level of responsibility that Sarah Du, a freshman, hasn't experienced in a classroom before.

"It's a little scary," she says. "You're putting a lot of responsibility in the hands of college students. It's great they trust us with it."

Of course, the students aren't entirely on their own. Ariely and Davidson armed them with a website filled with resources and advise the students as they conduct their group work. A professional videographer and a team of graduate teaching assistants are on hand to assist.

In one recent class, the 32 students wore red, an ode to the upcoming Valentine's Day and its themes of love, romance and relationships, which the class is exploring through readings and blogging.

Davidson has dressed for the occasion as well, with a red blazer over a black skirt and black stockings.

And Ariely? The red-and-black striped smoking jacket from the Hugh Hefner collection is the tamest thing he has on. He is also wearing mismatched, striped socks and orange and blue sneakers. A pair of bright green, oversized heart-shaped sunglasses are perched on his head.

Again, this is not your normal college classroom.

Ariely conducts two class exercises that illustrate the norms and awkwardness of dating. In one, each student affixes a sticky note with a number to his or her forehead; without knowing their numbers, students are directed to seek out the highest numbers -- 5s -- on other foreheads. The 5s represent the most attractive people. The drill shows how people determine their relative worth and attractiveness.

In Ariely's second exercise, each student is given 10 dollar bills and told to pair up with a student of the opposite sex, using the money as bait. The problem is there are 15 men and 13 women, which means that two men will be left dateless -- much like a high school dance.

The students who ended the exercise with money got to keep it.

Later in the same class, Ariely and Davidson toggle between their expertise areas in fielding a far-ranging swath of questions from students. A business professor who specializes in explaining human behavior in plain language, discusses how love influences how people behave. When he pauses, Davidson -- the English professor -- dives in with a literary analogy.

There's an ease in this give-and-take that Davidson and Ariely say comes naturally, in part, because their areas of expertise are so often intertwined.

"Social scientists reflect on life, and people in literature reflect on life," Ariely says. "It's just from different perspectives."