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9 questions to create a powerhouse active learning classroom

Tricia Whenham
By Tricia Whenham on December 5, 2018
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9 questions to create a powerhouse active learning classroom

Postsecondary students are on campus a lot – perhaps more than anywhere else. The spaces they spend time in matter. Little things make a big difference: comfy seating next to a library window, the ability to fit the whole project team around a table, plug-ins for devices (can there ever be enough?). All these things have a huge impact on how students feel, engage and learn.

With active learning on the rise across a growing number of campuses, it’s getting more and more important to create spaces that fit with new ways of teaching and learning. Because though it’s certainly possible to engage students in a cavernous lecture hall or bare seminar room, everything gets easier when your classroom or flex space matches your practices and goals.

But like Rome, learning spaces aren’t built in a day. The process of going from vision to reality can be filled with tough decisions (and often too much red tape). And even when everything’s finished, there’s no time to relax because the work of making sure your space delivers on its promise is just beginning.

The bureaucratic process of creating an active learning classroom, or sprucing one up, will be different for every institution. But no matter the steps you need to follow, asking yourself some questions along the way can help you keep focused on what’s important.

Designing an active learning classroom


What’s your mission?

Before you start thinking about standing desks or 3D printers, it’s crucial to take stock of your needs and values. Is your faculty big on collaborative project work? Or maybe your student population needs to be able to attend class remotely when they can’t be on campus? Your spaces should reflect the highest priority needs of your students and professors.

If your school’s or department’s philosophy is lived and breathed every day, you’ll just need to figure out how to represent it in the space. But if you can’t easily articulate your mission, you might need to press pause and do some work before pouring time and resources into a new learning space.

What story does your space tell?

If you have an active learning space you’d like to enhance, it’s helpful to look at it with fresh eyes. Imagine that a visitor from another campus walks into your space and is asked to guess your approach to teaching and learning. How close would the perception match the reality? Is your space communicating things that it shouldn’t be?

Even if you’re creating a new space, it’s still worth thinking about the story it will tell before you start. Your design choices can communicate a lot about what activities are important and valued. Imagine the difference, for instance, between a classroom where all chairs face the front of the room and one where student chairs face each other. Asking students to be frank about how they feel in your existing spaces – and how they’d like to feel – can also be a much-needed reality check.

Who can help you achieve your goals?

There’s no way to deny it – remaking or creating new learning spaces can be a beast. You’ll need support from the right people, but if you try to include everyone in every step, the process can grind to a halt.

Try starting with small groups of passionate staff who can kick-start the effort and then spread their enthusiasm. And when you need to get buy-in from a broader range of people, collaborative tools and online surveys can help you collect input from a range of people who will be using the space.

Collaboration while designing an new space


What are the essentials?

Maybe you’ve received a seven-figure endowment and don’t need to ask this question (lucky you!). But for everyone else, decide which tools are a nice to have and which are a need to have. It helps to think about how your courses might evolve in the future – cloud-based technology and modular furniture can grow with you, and remote collaboration tools give more options for blended learning. Think about active learning technology and audio solutions, but also all the other elements that make up your ideal space, like collaborative seating, lighting and movable furniture.

It helps to start with the elements you know are essential for the activities your faculty plans to try and then add or subtract as you go. Here’s a checklist with common elements found in active learning spaces that can help get you started.

Can you work in your in-progress space?

Even if your space is flashy enough to be featured on your admissions brochure, you won’t know how well things are working until it starts getting used by students and faculty. If it’s safe and permitted, consider holding classes in your space as it develops. What you learn can help you fine-tune the design or adjust problem spots.

How will you get feedback?

You don’t need to wait until the last chair is placed or projector installed to give your space a workout. As the space starts to take shape, invite students and faculty to experience it. Try holding a class or committee meeting there, and then ask for their impressions.

If you’re looking to formalize the feedback process, and you’ve carved out time for it, EDUCAUSE developed the Learning Space Rating System (LSRS). It’s an incredibly comprehensive set of criteria that measures how well classroom design supports active learning.

Active learning champions bringing faculty on board


How will you bring the rest of the faculty on board?

Once your space is complete, there will be some professors who can’t wait to start using it. But others might need more nudging.

Make sure to hold meetings there to give all faculty a low-risk introduction. Identify your early adopters as mentors who can give new people the lay of the land. Run specific workshops to train everyone on the new tech, and keep things focused on the pedagogy, not the technology bells and whistles.

Has your space changed teaching and learning?

After the dust settles, you need to see how your space is actually being used. Conduct surveys or have informal chats to find out which active learning activities are favorites or which tools are getting the biggest workout. Build in time for faculty members to observe how others are using the space, either through direct observation or the use of video.

What comes next?

The best active learning spaces are never truly finished. Schedule regular check-ins with stakeholders (including students) to evaluate how well things are working and if changes are needed. Set up a process for making ongoing additions and improvements. Don’t be afraid to experiment with software trials and pilot initiatives – and then watch to see if what happens in the space is what you expect.

It’s no easy task to bring your campus spaces into the 21st-century. But the rewards you get from creating a design that truly equips students with the skills they need will be worth it!

Topics: Higher education Hybrid classroom Hybrid learning