Redesigning the Classroom for Active Learning

As many are finding out, it can be hard to maintain students’ attention, and attendance. A recent report by Diane Peters for University Affairs finds that new classroom designs are helping foster inter-student collaboration and student-centric learning, which has proved to substantially improve attendance and participation.

More and more professors are reworking class structures to focus on active learning: leaving lecture-like work to be done at home, devoting class time to discussion, group work, and experimental projects. New classroom designs can facilitate this new type of learning, leaving the old industrial-designed classrooms in the past. “I don’t care how good you are, it’s hard to get groups of six working together in a lecture hall,” says Andrew Leger, an associate professor and educational developer with the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen’s University.

Robert Beichner, a pioneer of classroom design, has been experimenting since 1995 with the SCALE-UP (Student-Centred Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies) protocol at NCSU. After four iterations in the past two decades, Beichner has enough data to show what works best.

For instance, seven-foot round tables seem ideal, but D-shaped ones are okay for small rooms; chairs should be on wheels, with no arms, and the optimal space between tables is five feet. Students should have access to screen sharing from laptops and whiteboards on walls or on desks.

This erases some of the hierarchal structures that come with the lecture hall style classrooms that are still the norm of many institutions. Discussion and collaboration democratizes the learning experience for students with an “outside status.” The SCALE-UP protocol has proved to be especially effective with women and minorities in the STEM disciplines, increasing passing rates by 12 times.

This isn’t to say there aren’t downsides to these redesigned classrooms. Traditional classrooms are designed to fit as many students as humanly possible, so space can become an issue when you rearrange. There’s also the issue of costs. (Chairs with wheels cost slightly more, but it adds up quickly.)

The classroom is only one piece of the puzzle. At the end of the day, what really matters in a classroom is the teacher.

About William Enders

A sophomore Design and Technology major at Parsons School for Design, focusing on interactive media and video games.