Active Learning Classrooms: What We Know

Last fall at the POD Network conference for educational developers, I interviewed D. Christopher Brooks for Vanderbilt’s Leading Lines podcast. I met Christopher at a Lilly conference years ago, and we’ve been colleagues via Twitter ever since. I talked with him about active learning classrooms, a research interest of his, and about his work at EDUCAUSE. He had a lot of great things to say (and you can hear the whole interview here), but what stood out the most to me was hearing that active learning classrooms (ALCs) were identified as a top strategic technology in EDUCAUSE’s 2017 survey of higher education information technology leaders. It was the first time ALCs made the top ten, and they entered the list at #1.

Mosiac Classroom, Indiana University

I was excited to hear that, and a little surprised. I’ve been interested in learning spaces for years (my first blog post on the topic was in 2013), but I haven’t found that IT leaders pay much attention to the topic. Sure, they talk a lot about the audio-visual technology that goes in campus classrooms, but flexible furniture and active learning pedagogies aren’t terms I’ve heard much from those designing classrooms on my campus and elsewhere. Clearly, however, something has changed. The EDUCAUSE survey is a sign of that change, as are conversations I’ve had in the last month at my university. I was thrilled to hear a campus planner describe a few classrooms under construction at our education school as “active learning classrooms,” and I’ve been invited twice this fall to share research about ALCs to various campus planning committees.

Given all this interest in active learning classrooms, I thought I might review what we know about ALCs here on the blog. What follows is just a primer on ALC research, and I know I’ll leave out a few key studies. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive literature review, I recommend the book that D. Christopher Brooks co-authored, A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research, and Practice (Stylus, 2016). It’s the book on ALCs, as far as I’m concerned, and I’ll lean on it for our working definition of an ALC.

TILE Classroom, University of Iowa

What is an active learning classroom? ALCs feature “round or curved tables with moveable seating that allow students to face each other and thus support small-group work. The tables are often paired with their own whiteboards for brainstorming and diagramming” (Baepler, et al., 2016). Some ALCs also feature multiple displays, allowing instructors and students to project their laptops around the room, and some include microphones for sound projection. Wifi and power is critical for student laptops and smart phones. Throughout this blog post, I’ve included photos of ALCs I’ve taken while visiting other campuses. Note that ALCs are more or less flexible depending on the kind of furniture used. The Mosaic classroom at Indiana University, for instance, has fixed tables, while the computer science classroom at Wake Forest University features small, movable tables.

Computer Science, Wake Forest University

Why are active learning classrooms useful? In the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), active learning instruction, defined as practice that “engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert,” is known to be more effective than traditional lecturing for student learning and student success (Freeman et al., 2014). This finding seems to be controversial, with lots of faculty members over the years writing essays in defense of the lecture, but the research is clear: If your instruction involves “continuous exposition by the teacher,” there’s a better way to teach. That’s true in the STEM disciplines, and it’s likely true in other fields, too, although there’s not as much research on active learning in, say, the humanities. Active learning classrooms are useful, then, because research shows that the affordances of ALCs facilitate adoption of active learning instruction, which leads to greater student learning (Whiteside, Brooks, & Walker, 2010; Baepler, Walker, & Driessen, 2014).

Consider the Whiteside study, which involved formal class observation of a biology faculty member teaching in an ALC and in a traditional classroom. The researchers found that, “despite the professor’s explicit attempts to conduct the same learning activities in both sections, he behaved quite differently in the two classrooms, lecturing significantly more in the traditional room and conducting discussion significantly more in the ALC… The instructor also consulted (discreetly) with individual or small groups of students significantly more in the ALC than in the traditional classroom” (Whiteside et al., 2010). For instructors interested in practicing active learning instruction, an active learning classroom makes it easier to do so than a classroom set up for lecturing. Space matters.

Physics, Boston University

What makes active learning classrooms work? As useful as the audio-visual technology in an ALC is, some research points to the tables and whiteboards as the most important ingredients in an ALC. Soneral and Wyse (2017) compared student performance on concept inventories across two sections of an introductory biology course taught by the same instructor in two different classrooms. One “high tech” classroom had the full ALC set-up, with screens at every table for projection by students or the instructor. The other “low tech” classroom had the tables and whiteboards, but no screens. The study found no difference in student outcomes between the high-tech and low-tech ALCs. In his Leading Lines interview, D. Christopher Brooks mentioned survey research that corroborates this finding: “What [students and faculty] thought was the most important technology in space were the round tables, because it created a situation that was conducive to them to interact with one another, to talk… Survey after survey, each semester, each semester students were telling us this.”

This is good news for institutions who want more active learning classrooms, but can’t afford the high-end tech in all of them. Building out flat classrooms with good tables, moveable chairs, and lots of whiteboards is a great way to support active learning instruction. I also interviewed Cornelia Lang, associate professor of astronomy at the University of Iowa, for Leading Lines. She teaches regularly in active learning classrooms, and she describes in detail her teaching practices in those spaces in her interview. She also noted that her colleagues in physics and astronomy have figured out what Soneral and Wyse did, that it’s the tables and whiteboards that really enable active learning instruction. Her department is moving to a low-tech ALC model for most of their classrooms as they have the chance to renovate their classrooms.

Krause Innovation Studio, Penn State

I’ll wrap up this brief introduction to research on ALCs by noting that faculty development is often critical to the success of an ALC initiative (Morrone, et al., 2017). Many ALC initiatives, including those at University of Iowa and Indiana University include professional development provided by a teaching center. This is why D. Christopher Brooks and colleagues wrote their book. “Sometimes, it’s overwhelming enough just developing an active learning exercise to work on with students in order to achieve your objectives… This is part of why we wrote the book, to help folks figure out the kinds of things that they can do, the kinds of barriers they’ll going to find in those spaces and to think through how teaching in this space is different than teaching in a traditional classroom.” I’m a little biased, but if you’re going to launch an ALC on your campus, you should reach out to your local teaching center to provide teaching consultations to instructors using the ALC.

If I’ve missed an ALC study that you find really interesting or useful, let me know! And if you’d like to see more photos of ALCs and other learning spaces, visit my learning spaces album on Flickr.

References

Baepler, P., Walker, J., Brooks, D., Saichaie, K., & Petersen, C. (2016). A guide to teaching in active learning classrooms: History, research, and practice. Stylus.

Baepler, P., Walker, J., & Driessen, M. (2014). It’s not about seat time: Blending, flipping, and efficiency in active learning classrooms. Computers & Education, 78, 227-236.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S., McDonough, M., Smith, M., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Morrone, A., Flaming, A., Birdwell, T., Russell, J., Roman, T., & Jesse, M. (2017, December 4). Creating active learning classrooms is not enough: Lessons from two case studies. EDUCAUSE Review.

Soneral, P. &, 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).

Whiteside, A., Brooks, D., Walker, J. (2010). Making the case for space: Three years of empirical research on learning environments. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 33.

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