7 steps to designing an active learning classroom

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7 steps to designing an active learning classroom

Active learning fosters collaboration and student-centered teaching, and research has found that active learning classrooms improve student outcomes, says Ann Forman Lippens, a practice manager at EAB‘s Facilities Forum.

In one meta-analysis of all the studies that had been done about active learning classrooms, researchers found a decline in the DFW rate (share of students who receive a “D” or “F” grade in a course or withdraw), says Lippens. A separate study found that test scores in active learning classes are six percentage points higher than a traditional lecture class with the same material.

So it’s no surprise that colleges are looking to design classrooms and labs that support this evolving pedagogy. But what’s the best way to design active learning spaces?

Writing for EdTech, Eli Zimmerman shares the findings of a CDW white paper to suggest that any institution can create active learning classrooms by following a few simple steps:

1: Involve students, faculty, and staff in classroom design and execution. Designing an active learning classroom should be a collaborative effort, writes Zimmerman. After all, students, faculty, and staff will all be affected, whether the new class design changes how they learn, teach, or maintain the space.

2: Rethink the classroom layout. Active learning classrooms are defined by their flexibility, notes Zimmerman. So instead of a traditional lecture-style layout with a podium in the front of the room, the space should be conducive to movement and should encourage collaboration. This can be accomplished with modular furniture—such as flexible seating or collaborative roundtables—or with digital collaboration tools, writes Zimmerman.

“Classroom layout can have a huge impact on instruction by simply changing traffic patterns and encouraging professors to circulate through the room, rather than standing at the front to deliver instruction,” reads the white paper.

3: Don’t confine active learning to the classroom. “Active learning has to extend outside of the classroom,” says Top Hat CEO Mike Silagadze. “It is not just what happens during the lecture, it’s also what happens before class and then after class.”

For instance, the University of California, Irvine‘s new Anteater Learning Pavilion is one of the first buildings devoted entirely to active learning. The 65,000-square-foot structure boasts 15 smart classrooms and auditoriums. Each space has screens on every wall and at each desk that can link to laptops and mobile devices. And lounges, breakout areas, and plazas dot the building so students can continue their conversations after class ends.

One simple way to make every space an active learning space is to extend the Wi-Fi network to cover hallways, cafés, and public spaces so that students can continue working wherever they feel comfortable, suggests CDW.

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4: Take advantage of existing infrastructure. Institutions don’t need to construct new buildings to make active learning possible, writes Zimmerman. Colleges and universities can identify existing spaces and redesign them to facilitate active learning. For instance, rather than construct a new active learning building, administrators at Indiana University Bloomington decided to repurpose the campus’s old natatorium to house the active learning center.

5: Be prepared to support and manage technology. Adopting new technology—like LED flat panel displays or projection devices—can be intimidating for faculty and staff if they aren’t equipped with adequate technical support, Zimmerman points out.

“When technology does not work, or professors and students cannot connect their devices because of network congestion, they will often quickly give up and revert to traditional methods,” according to the CDW white paper. “Only when access to technology is consistent and predictable will professors be willing to incorporate digital tools into their planning.”

CDW therefore recommends that IT teams integrate a system that can manage both devices and the network. For instance, Massachusetts Institute of Technology‘s Strata Center allows IT teams to “manage network traffic, secure connected devices, and respond quickly to help desk tickets, all from one place,” writes Zimmerman.

6: Train instructors to use active learning strategies. Active learning classrooms only work if instructors know how to use them, notes Zimmerman. He adds that training instructors to use active learning strategies could include online educational resources or intensive training seminars.

“I found it really helpful to look back at how I draft my course learning objectives, and how I can better align them with my pedagogies and assessment practices,” says Lenin Grejo, an assistant professor at Columbia University who attended a three-day intensive training at the university’s Active Learning Institute.

3 steps to design an active learning classroom

7: Create pilot programs. To find the best classroom design and determine which technology is needed, CDW recommends launching pilot programs and seeking continuous feedback from students and instructors. For example, St. Edward’s University in Texas tested new classroom features before expanding the designs to the rest of campus.

“We’re big fans of pilot projects at St. Edward’s,” says Laura Lucas, the university’s learning spaces manager. “We really try and get users to test technology, test different configurations and test different furniture before we try and scale” (Zimmerman, EdTech, 2/26).

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