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How to design remarkable active learning classrooms [checklist]

Tricia Whenham
Posted by Tricia Whenham on May 13, 2020
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“Architecture is the story of how we see ourselves,” wrote American architect Thom Mayne. He could have just as easily been speaking about classroom design. Every space on your campus tells students and faculty a story – about what skills are most important, what teaching methods are most valued and what kind of learners you aim to develop.

In the time of COVID, telling that story has become more complex and challenging than ever. Your space needs to be flexible enough to let students thrive in the “new normal” – plus whatever comes next. It needs to help your faculty reinvent the teaching and learning experience – while staying true to what matters most.

There’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for designing an active learning classroom – especially in our new reality. Everything in your spaces needs to stem from your faculty, your students and your campus’s specific circumstances and needs.

Still, common elements are found in most dynamic environments. Whether you’re designing from scratch or retrofitting an existing classroom, consider adding these seven ingredients to the space:

Movable and modular furniture

Choose flexible options that support many teaching strategies and changing health requirements. Tables on rollers or chairs that rotate help you adjust the room for individual work, group collaboration and front-of-room mini lectures or presentations. They also let you spread out students to meet physical distancing requirements and then bring them back together when circumstances are different.

Make sure to test how different configurations work (What are sightlines like when student desks are far apart? How quickly can groups form and reform?). Ask for feedback from faculty members and students.

Modular designs also keep spaces fresh – something that can be a challenge when time and budget is limited. Choose furniture items that make it simple to continue to add and adjust, without a lot of hassle. This feeds the momentum and makes your space a living, breathing entity.

Active learning classroom setup

Collaborative seating

Make it easy for students to work together (as much as distancing requirements allow). Consider circular or triangular tables, or individual desks that can be pushed together. The key is to promote conversation and communication – and send the message that students are going to learn from each other. Even if students can’t sit together right now, choose seating options that will allow for closer collaboration in the future.

Watch out for a simple but common mistake – the overstuffed classroom. If you pack too much into a room, transitions will take too long and frustrate everyone. It should be quick for students to move into productive breakout groups.

Simple conferencing solutions

Equip your rooms with audio and video conferencing tools that enable blended learning (where some students are in the room and others join remotely from homes or dorms). Even if your school isn’t adopting this as a general instructional strategy, adding conferencing capabilities to classrooms means students and faculty don’t have to miss class just because they have a cough or sore throat. Ensure that the solutions you choose capture everything going on in the classroom – not just the instructor.

When choosing audio solutions, look for options that offer full-room coverage, so there’s no need for students to move closer to a microphone to be heard. Continuous autocalibration is also helpful, so IT doesn’t have to make manual adjustments when you change your space. (Nureva audio makes it simple to meet your audio conferencing needs – here’s how.)

Remote learner on a laptop

Helpful lighting

Whenever you can, choose active learning spaces that have natural light and views – it’s actually shown to boost learning. If you’re not that lucky, try to get lights that operate on a dimmer. You could even add lamps to soften the mood. If classroom sessions will be recorded or broadcast over Zoom or Google Meet, make sure that people speaking are well lit – it will help increase engagement.

It’s also possible to use color to your advantage – and not just to make your space attractive (though that’s helpful, too). Try color coding certain pieces of furniture or technology, making it simple to return a room to its standard state after it’s been reconfigured.

Extra working space

Ensure students have enough room to visualize ideas and plans. For a low-tech solution, cover your walls with sticky notes and chart paper. Turning tabletops into dry-erase boards with a little whiteboard paint can give multiple breakout groups ways to share ideas.

For a higher tech solution that avoids the hygiene scares of students gathering too closely, choose online whiteboards and other real-time collaboration platforms that can be accessed anywhere. Software should be cloud-based and available on all the devices your students use the most – laptops, tablets and phones.

Student visualizing ideas on a wall

Student-centered tools

Equip students with options to enhance project work. Consider applications that make it easy for multiple students to edit a document at the same time or collaboration software that gives groups a shared digital space to contribute ideas. Ensure that students still get opportunities to work closely together, even if they’re not they’re in the same room.

Make sure that whatever tools you use, it’s simple for instructors and students to share their screen or present ideas from anywhere. Having students fumble as they plug in their laptop to the flat-panel display or awkwardly come to the front of the room just slows things down. And in the current reality, having students move around to be heard isn’t always advisable.

Access to essentials

Put in more power outlets for student laptops than you think you’d need, and add charging stations for phones. Ensure Wi-Fi will be fast and reliable. Make sure that nothing will prevent students from being prepared to learn.


Classroom audio, evolved

Nureva audio is built for the new reality in higher education. Our systems are quick to install. They automatically adapt to changing classroom configurations. And with thousands of virtual microphones, they let you use every corner of your spaces to be heard – no external mics needed.

Discover Nureva audio

Editor’s note: This post was originally published September 2018 and has been updated.

Topics: Learning Space Design Active Learning