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Active Learning Example: Diocletian’s Tetrarchy

Today I’d like to write about a specific activity in hopes that it might encourage other faculty members to think about how to present material to students that get them actively engaged in the topic, rather than passively listening to a lecture. This is not to say that lecturing is bad; only that there are other ways to present material to engage students and keep them at the edge of their seat.

In my Roman Art and Architecture class, we must cover the Tetrarchy, which was a “Rule of Four,” instituted by the Emperor Diocletian when the Empire was divided in half and two rulers were chosen to rule both halves.  Diocletian built a palace in modern-day Croatia, Split, and it reflected the idea of the Tetrarchy’s rule by four.

Instead of showing the palace and telling them about it, I introduce the idea of the Tetrarchy as a political system, and we talk about how equality and similarity were two important concepts that had to be embraced in order for the rule by four to work. This all comes from a wonderful book Art Forms and Civic Life in the Late Roman Empire by L’Orange that I still remember – and use – from my graduate school days. But I have adapted that book and the ideas engendered in it for my current students and active engagement.

After this brief introduction, the students are sorted into groups. They are given a sheet that describes the Tetrarchy briefly and then they are given this charge:

You are architects for the Emperor Diocletian who desires a new palace to be built that will express the ideas of the Tetrarchy. You must design a plan for a palace, sketch it out onto a large piece of paper, and present your plan to the emperor (the class), explaining how your plan represents the ideas of the Tetrarchy.

It is interesting to me that each time I use this assignment, which I have run about three times since I developed it, the plans are very different. I suppose it should not be surprising, since the students are different and all bring their own notions and ideas to the table when they meet over this in-class assignment. It is not meant to be a research assignment, but rather one in which they are applying information to demonstrate to me that they are grappling with or understanding the concepts. Sometimes the plans don’t adhere to the concepts at all – and we talk about that when the plans are presented at the end of the class period. But often some come close to the idea of equality and similarity in the palace itself, a photo of which is here:

During their final exam period in which the students are asked in part to reflect on their experience and learning in the course, I ask them this question: “I tried to offer you a multitude of learning activities this semester. Which one or ones do you think helped you learn the most? Why? Please explain.” Two students chose this day’s activity as the one that helped them the most after I used it this past spring 2017 semester. My guess is they’ll likely remember it a lot longer, too.

What class you could turn over to students to figure out, rather than just telling them the answer?

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