By Doug Ward

Evidence is growing about the need to change the design of classrooms.

In a previous post, I wrote about my experiences with room design, student behavior and learning. I found that students were far more engaged when I moved class to a collaborative space, and that they reverted to passive behavior when class returned to the traditional space we were assigned.

The March issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning takes on that very issue in a series of essays that looks at the research on active learning spaces and instructors’ experiences with those types of classrooms. All of the contributors to the issue are from universities or organizations that have led the way in redesigning classrooms, including North Carolina State, Minnesota and Indiana, as well as the nonprofit association Educause.

desks and chairs in The Commons at Spooner Hall
The Commons at Spooner Hall set up for an active learning class.

In their introduction to the issue, the editors, D. Christopher Brooks, J.D. Walker and Paul Baepler, summarize the dominant theories about learning spaces. Those theories include the idea that “a space does not determine behavior, but influences how we act and relate within it in ways that may not be readily observable.” This applies to both students and instructors.

“In large measure, how we configure our new brick and mortar classrooms will set the agenda for how face-to-face teaching continues to change and transform student learning,” the editors write.

Robert J. Beichner, a professor at North Carolina State, offers a brief history of classroom design and pedagogy, from lectures to labs to studios to large classrooms that use an approach called Scale-Up, or student-centered activities for large enrollment undergraduate programs, which Beichner pioneered.

In the introduction to his essay, Beichner addresses an important question about classrooms: Why do we need to change them? His answer: An information-rich, technology-rich society has changed the way students live and think, making it harder for them “to learn from the kind of patient, orderly presentation that their teachers prefer.”

In other words, if today’s instructors expect to connect with students, they have to move beyond the passivity of lecture. A different style of classroom is one way to help with that.

In a concluding essay, Aimee Whiteside of the University of Tampa, mentions the challenges of transforming classrooms and other learning spaces, citing cost and resistance to change, among other elements. She suggests a “read and lead” approach for those of us interested in changing learning environments: researching, sharing ideas, and keeping administrators apprised of the “immense educational value of active learning spaces.”

I’ll write more soon about my experiences with a new style of classroom and about the university’s efforts to make more active learning classrooms available. Meantime, I’d recommend the essays from New Directions for Teaching and Learning, as well as some other recent articles about classrooms and learning.

Among the essays in New Directions for Teaching and Learning 137 (Spring 2014) are these:

  • “History and Evolution of Active Learning Spaces,” 9-16, by Robert J. Beichner.
  • “Coffeehouse as Classroom: Examination of a New Style of Active Learning Environment,” 41-51, by Anastasia S. Morrone, et. al.
  • “Strategies to Address Challenges When Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom,” 63-70, by Christina I. Petersen and Kristen S. Gorman.
  • “Conclusion: Advancing Active Learning Spaces,” 95-98, by Aimee L. Whiteside.

Other recent research on classrooms:


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

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