The Conversational Classroom (Case Study 1)

Retaining Women through Inclusive Pedagogy

This intervention, tested and repeated at the University of Colorado with excellent results, is based on the rationale that students could read their assigned books where the content of the course was clearly laid out. They did not also need for the professor to plan and deliver lectures covering the same material. Instead, they needed access to the professor and each other for asking questions, testing hypotheses, exploring new ideas, etc. In short, professors believed that students needed to engage each other and the professor in intellectual conversation about the material. Therefore, the professors facilitated discussions of the material for each class period. That is, instead of lecturing, professors come to class and ask students if they have questions. In this way, the professor requires that students take control over the flow of information.

The first time he used the Conversational Classroom method, University of Colorado Professor William Waite says that students resisted very strongly; their years of socialization made it difficult to change the way they practiced learning. But, it was also difficult for Waite; he came close to buckling under student pressure. After four weeks, however, students began to take responsibility for their own learning.

Computing faculty today face many pressures to integrate collaborative and cooperative learning approaches in courses, increase active participation by students in classes, and increase the participation of under-represented groups in computing. The pressures come from many sources, such as the emphasis on team work by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, the Joint IEEE Computer Society/ACM Task Force in the “Model Curricula for Computing,” and especially, industry. Research in computer science suggests that when a student’s educational socialization is dominated by individualized learning and homework, they end up with a preference for working alone, tend to procrastinate, are unwilling to support other students, and have a disregard or lack of understanding of team process. This “guide on the side” teaching technique can overcome students’ negative conceptions of collaborative learning.

Although the examinations and homework assignments given were judged to be identical in difficulty to prior semesters when the course was taught as a traditional lecture course, students in the conversational classroom outperformed the prior semesters’ students, both during the pilot semester and a subsequent semester. Not only was student interaction a substantial feature of the course, changing classroom climate (for the better, according to student interviews), but student performance also improved.


This teaching model requires that students take responsibility for their learning. They will resist because of many years of deeply ingrained socialization. Professors also must hold out and resist the demands of students to go back to the lecture mode. It is worth it, according to the professors who have implemented this intervention. Not only do students learn the material better, but the course structure also requires that they engage with the professor and their fellow students, two known factors in increasing the retention of women in computing.


  • Waite, W., Jackson, M., & Diwan, A. (2003). The conversational classroom. Proceedings of the 34th SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, 127–131.
  • Waite, W., Jackson, M., Diwan, A., & Leonardi, P. (2004). Student culture vs group work in computer science. Proceedings of the 35th SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, 12–16.

View related research:

View related case studies:


Authors: Lecia Barker and J. McGrath Cohoon