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How to design remarkable active learning classrooms [checklist]

Tricia Whenham
Posted by Tricia Whenham on September 5, 2018
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active learning classroom checklist

“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.

There’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for designing an active learning classroom that will help you create your story. Everything in your spaces needs to stem from your faculty, your students and your campus’s needs.

Still, common elements are found in most dynamic environments. Whether you’re designing from scratch, repurposing an old room or finetuning an existing spot, consider adding these eight ingredients to the space:

active learning classroom furniture

Movable and modular furniture

Choose flexible options that support many teaching strategies. 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.

Make sure to test how different configurations work (What are sightlines like when students present? 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.

Collaborative seating

Make it easy for students to work together. 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.

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.

Download our free eBook to get practical checklists, handy guides and other  resources to help you create amazing active learning spaces on your campus.

Helpful lighting

Whenever you can, choose active learning spaces that have natural light and views – it’s actually shown to increase mood and productivity. If you’re not that lucky, try to get lights that operate on a dimmer. You could even add lamps to soften the mood.

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.

active working space

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.

If going higher tech, an interactive working wall like the Nureva™ Wall helps students use images, templates and more to plan and complete their work. Look for solutions that are multitouch and give enough room so many students can use them at the same time.

Access to information

Choose technology tools that can be accessed both in your space and anywhere. Software should be cloud-based and accessible on all the devices your students use the most – laptops, tablets and phones.

Depending on how your room is going to be used, you may also want to consider recording portions of the class for students to listen to later. Lecture capture tools can help support students who are absent or who just need an extra chance to digest new material.

Easy conferencing solutions

Equip your rooms with conferencing tools that let students bring outside experts into the conversation or call into class when they’re sick. Look for audio solutions that work even when people get up from their desks and that are also easy to move and reinstall if you change your spaces.

active learning tools

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.

Make sure that whatever tools you use, it’s simple for instructors and students to share their screen or present ideas from anywhere in the room. Having students fumble as they plug in their laptop to the flat-panel display or awkwardly come to the front of the room to be heard just slows things down.

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.


Free active learning eBook

Are you developing innovative new spaces for students, or do your current active learning classrooms need a refresh? In this eBook, you’ll find practical checklists, handy guides and other resources to help create amazing active learning spaces on your campus.

Get your eBook

Topics: Learning Space Design Active Learning