New classroom designs increase attendance and retention

Rolling chairs are the new lecterns

Innovative new classroom designs foster collaboration and student-centered teaching, Diane Peters reports for University Affairs.

Schools across the United States and Canada have been making the switch from traditional lecture-hall classrooms to active-learning classrooms and labs, which feature tables, desks, and chairs with wheels, white boards on all four walls of the room, and student screen projection capabilities, among other technologies meant to engage students.

At Wilfrid Laurier University's Waterloo campus in Canada, an active learning classroom called the "green room" consists of all of the above features, plus laptops and pods on each round table accommodating up to 40 students. Since the green room opened in 2012, Gavin Brockett, an associate professor of history and religion, has seen his attendance climb from 40% to 90%.

"It's much more fun to have students show up," says Brockett.

The active-learning approach goes hand-in-hand with the idea of a flipped classroom, where students take in lecture-like material at home and then use their class time for discussion, activities, group work, peer instruction, and experiential projects. 

Related: How to find and support your most innovative instructors

Many of the activities are impossible to execute in a traditional lecture hall.

Robert Beichner, a physics professor at North Carolina State University, created the SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies) protocol.

SCALE-UP research shows seven-foot round tables, placed five feet apart, work best for collaborative learning, as do chairs on wheels with no arms along with screen sharing access via laptops and whiteboards.

How to build active learning spaces that support today's teaching strategies

Schools in the United States and Canada that have implemented SCALE-UP-like protocols include Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Minnesota, McGill University, Queen's University, University of Lethbridge, McMaster University, and York University.

At York's new Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence that opened this April, every single classroom is an active learning lab. No lecture halls remain.

In 2014, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that average exam scores went up by 6% for students in active learning classes. Students who learned in lecture halls alone were 1.5 times more likely to fail. 

Beichner's research also found that active-learning techniques are most beneficial to women and black students in STEM disciplines, who are 12 times more likely to fail in a traditional classroom setting than in a SCALE-UP classroom. Collaborative spaces give these often-underrepresented groups more opportunities to overcome sself-doubt and see that their peers also struggle sometimes, says Beichner.

Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, describes a similar phenomenon among the students he works with.  "If you spend some time in class talking to each other, a student with an outside status can realize 'the reason I can't solve this problem is not because I'm stupid, it's because it's a hard problem,'" he says (Peters, University Affairs, 9/28).


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