Active learning classrooms (ALCs) are spaces configured to maximize active, collaborative learning and multimodal teaching, in contrast with traditional lecture-style classrooms. Yale University’s Technology-Enabled Active Learning classroom (TEAL) features 14 round tables that can accommodate 126 students, 14 flat screen displays, 5 projection screens, and 8 whiteboards (Yale instructors can read more about the TEAL and reserve it for class). Classrooms in the Center for Teaching and Learning offer similar flexible learning arrangements, intended to promote active learning, collaborative problem-solving, and other team-based work. ALC designs at places like Yale, MIT, and the University of Minnesota are largely modeled after SCALE-UP, a classroom approach designed by Robert Beichner at North Carolina State University in the mid-1990s.
Early quasi-experimental research revealed that teaching in an ALC can improve student attitudes, conceptual understanding, and passing rates, especially for female and minority students (Baepler, et. al., 2016, Beichner 2007, Walker 2011). Additionally, students have been shown in ALCs to score significantly higher exam marks than their own expectations suggest (Baepler, et. al., 2016). Later studies confirmed the effect of physically different space on teaching styles: active learning approaches significantly improved student exam marks and satisfaction in an ALC over a traditional classroom, while lectures proved more successful in traditional classrooms (Baepler 2016).
More recent studies underscore that teaching methods (active learning) and analog features (flexible seating and whiteboards) have a far greater effect on student motivation, learning outcomes, and collaboration than digital and high tech features (see studies cited in Baepler, et. al. 2016). Students have responded positively to the collaborative seating arrangements and active learning table exercises more than digital plug-ins and displays (Soneral and Wyse, 2017, and Stoltzfus, et. al. 2016). As such, active learning methods in a traditional classroom are still more effective than lectures in an ALC (Baepler, et. al 2016), making method a more valuable measure of learning outcomes than technological privilege.
- As explored in Teaching Excellence at Yale, Heather Klemann (Director of Expository Writing) utilizes smaller tables to pivot swiftly from whole-class to small group discussions, and touchscreens to call up writing workshop activities and engage students in shared writing activities.
- Yale Professor of Physics Simon Mochrie sorts students into groups for hands-on activities, mixed with lectures to supply critical information.
- An instructor of mathematics sets a challenging problem, and tasks student teams to work out the problem on their individual white boards. Teams then share their process, solutions, and how they overcame challenging moments.
- An instructor of public health disperses a case study to student groups through digital displays and laptops at each table. Student groups work through the case study simultaneously, pausing to share their strategies and findings with the whole class.
- An instructor of English copies different quotations from literature on white boards around the room. Students are asked to roam the room and note similarities and differences in tone, style, and imagery. Students return to their tables and discuss their findings. Then students perform a jigsaw, rearranging their groups and sharing their previous groups’ discussions in their new circles.
- Get Creative with the Classroom – Instructors may not have a formal ALC at their disposal on campus, or the ALC they desire may be reserved – but any classroom can be considered an ALC where active learning is possible and pursued. If a formal ALC is unavailable, instructors can consider ways to convert more traditional classroom spaces into active learning environments. A variety of active learning exercises can integrate collaborative and multimodal activities into lecture formats, even in a fixed-seating environment; group work, class discussion, team-based learning, and case-based learning can deconstruct traditional authoritarian structures typically reinforced in traditional classrooms; instructors can consider revised seating arrangements if seating is flexible enough; instructors can implement note cards, polling tools, or posters to offer students additional means for expressing confusion, displaying knowledge, and synthesizing content; or, instructors can consider experiential opportunities that defray the impact of a traditional environment.
- Reserve a Space – If an ALC exists on campus, a first step is likely to reserve the space. Yale features several ALC environments. The TEAL offers numerous round tables, white boards, and monitors, and can be reserved here. Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning also features several reservable classroom spaces featuring white boards, smart touchscreens, and flexible seating / tables. These spaces are all reserved on an application basis. When instructors apply to reserve a space in the CTL or TEAL, they are informed of a decision well in advance of Yale’s general room assignment process, allowing instructors to strategize and plan teaching for their specific ALC.
- Get to Know the Room – Because ALCs typically lack traditional classroom components like a central podium or focal point, instructors should get used to the space before writing lesson plans. They might visit the space, take a tour, observe the class, or watch videos of instructors using the space. Instructors may also consider using Faculty Bulldog Days to observe teaching in the TEAL or a CTL classroom space.
- Consider Active Learning – ALCs are typically more conducive for active learning activities than lecture, which requires forward-facing perspectives for notetaking and visual demonstration. In addition to classic active exercises like jigsaws, think-pair-share, group work, and idea mapping, instructors can also maximize the space for case-based learning, team-based learning, and in-house experiential opportunities like rare book viewing, experiments, and demonstrations.
- Consider the Furniture First – Research indicates that student satisfaction and improved learning outcomes stem from creative use of analog features in ALCs – furniture arrangements, whiteboards, and student collaboration – more than digital technologies (Soneral and Wyse, 2017, and Stoltzfus, et. al. 2016). Instructors can consider how the physical layout of an ALC suggests revisions to their lesson plans, learning outcomes, and content delivery. Where digital technologies can further enhance intended learning outcomes, instructors can consider ways to integrate table plug-ins and display screens around the room.
- Establish Rules of Behavior – ALCs receive positive feedback from students specifically for the communal seating arrangement (see research above); this presents opportunities for instructors, but challenges as well. Instructors should work with students to establish protocols for asking questions, projecting and enunciating when speaking, remaining on task during group work, and use of mobile phones and laptops. Instructors might consider placing these policies in the syllabus and reviewing them frequently in class.
- Consider Accessibility and Diversity – ALCs, while more flexible than traditional classrooms, can present new challenges for students with mobility concerns, ADHD, social anxiety, and more. Instructors can emphasize disability statements in the syllabus. In their statements, instructors should invite students to share privately any challenges to learning they face in the ALC. Greater emphasis on group work and class discussion may also heighten incidents of racial, gender, and socioeconomic tension, as students are sorted in groups, share their opinions, and engage with one another. Again, instructors can emphasize diversity statements on the syllabus, welcoming all perspectives and underscoring the merits of respect and honesty. Instructors can also work with student personalities to strategize the best way to form student groups, ensuring that no group is dominated or, conversely, tokenized. Instructors may also keep in mind that with the open, collaborative environment, ALCs can lead to more tense conversations as topics are explored more democratically than in a lecture. Instructors can mitigate many of these concerns by establishing an inclusive climate and inclusive approach to teaching. In general, instructors should be observant for any students struggling due to an ALC setup.
- Get Creative with Teaching – Instructors who offer unrevised lectures in ALCs see diminishing returns from traditional classrooms, because ALCs are not conducive for lecture (Baepler, et. al., 2016). Instructors can use the opportunity to teach in an ALC as a challenge to reconsider the activities they ask of students; reimagine delivery of content through demonstration, performance, collaboration, and digitization; and construct innovative formative assessments that allow students to create and perform with the space, one another, and the technology.
Active Learning Classroom in Action – Dr. Frank Williams, University of Minnesota
Considerations for Teaching – University of Minnesota Center for Educational Innovation
“Chapter 5: Assignments and Activities” and “Chapter 6: Managing Student Groups,” in A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research, and Practice. Ed. Baepler, P, Walker, J.D., Brooks, D.C., Saichaie, K, and Petersen, C. 2016. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
SCALE-UP – North Carolina State University
Baepler, P, Walker, J.D., Brooks, D.C., Saichaie, K, and Petersen, C. 2016. A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research, and Practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Beichner, R. 2014. History and Evolution of Active Learning Spaces. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 137.
Beichner, R. 2007. The Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) Project. Reviews in PER: Research-based reform of university physics. Ed. E. F. Redish and P.J. Cooney. Volume 1. College Park, MD: American Association of Physics Teachers.
Brooks, D. C. 2012. Space and Consequences: The Impact of Different Formal Learning Spaces on Instructor and Student Behavior. Journal of Learning Spaces 1.2.
Soneral, P, and Wyse, S. 2017. A SCALE-UP Mock-Up: Comparison of Student Learning Gains in High- and Low-Tech Active-Learning Environments. CBE- Life Sciences Education 16.1.
Stoltzus, J and Libarkin, J. 2016. Does the Room Matter?: Active Learning in Traditional and Enhanced Lecture Spaces. CBE-Life Sciences Education 15.4.
Walker, J. D. 2011. Pedagogy and Space: Empirical Research on new Learning Environments. EDUCAUSE Quarterly 34