The new classroom design that improves student outcomes

Colleges are finding value in a new format shaking up the traditional lecture

Ann Forman, senior consultantAnn Forman, senior consultant


Q: What are the characteristics of the active learning classroom?

Forman: The core component of the active learning classroom is creating an environment that fosters more collaboration and interaction through projects and group activities.

There's not always a "front of the room" per se. You've got flexible furniture, maybe screens around the walls so that students can see what people are working on and they can all work off the same document. The professor, rather than standing in one place, maybe kicks the class off and then walks around.

Why is there so much buzz about active learning spaces right now?

The traditional lecture format and accompanying classroom layout is centered around the professor standing at the front of a class and lecturing and students taking notes. It's basically transcription with minimal student-faculty interaction.

We're seeing a move away from that pedagogical approach to one that's a bit more interactive. There’s greater recognition that student learning outcomes may not be maximized by the traditional lecture format.

These layouts are increasingly common. I would say most campuses have at least one or two rooms that would be described as active learning classrooms. There's really a spectrum of how ready professors are to take on the challenge of teaching in a new format. But many of them are really excited about the new layout and adapting their lectures to a new format. 

Do active learning spaces really improve learning?

Yes—the research backs this up. We found in one meta-analysis of all the studies that had been done about active learning classrooms, you see a decline in the DFW rate (share of students who receive a "D" or "F" grade in a course or withdraw). A separate study found that the test scores are six percentage points higher than a traditional lecture class with the same material. Active learning classrooms actually do improve learning outcomes. 

Related: What do students want from technology?

What is it specifically about the active learning setup that helps improve learning outcomes?

The traditional lecture format revolves around people learning by listening or writing. You're still doing that in an active learning classroom, but you're also talking and you're discussing. You're teaching one another and in the process you're learning. So I imagine that has a huge impact on learning outcomes.

And it's not like a section. You're not just discussing a question, you're actually completing projects with a group. There's a very concrete outcome that you're trying to accomplish.

Are some types of courses a better match for this setup?

We're hearing interest in converting all different disciplines to the new format, including subjects like higher-level math classes. You could envision giving students a complex problem to work out in a group. I think the jury is still out on which courses wouldn't translate well to active learning classrooms.

There are some implications of that layout, like what do you do about outlets? Everybody's going to want to plug in their computer. And what do you do about all of the stuff that people are bringing with them to class? Where are they going to store their backpacks and their jackets? Early adopters said you need to provide under-chair storage to avoid creating fire hazards with bags and coats.

Does the advent of active learning classrooms mean that the traditional lecture format is obsolete?

This trend does not mean we are seeing the end of the traditional lecture by any means. It recognizes that there are different approaches to teaching different materials, and that some courses may in fact be better suited to active learning. But that doesn't mean we need to get rid of all of our 300-person lecture halls. The traditional lecture format will always be the most efficient way to consume information. 

Also see: Best practices for rewarding faculty who experiment with learning innovations

What kinds of institutions benefit the most from active learning spaces?

I think everyone can introduce active learning layouts. However, keep in mind that it's going to appeal to a certain type of student—perhaps someone that's more interested in hands-on learning.

How is the active learning space movement rippling across campus?

There are some interesting implications from building active learning classrooms. Some schools are creating almost an antechamber to the active learning classroom. This provides space for people to wait, but also for conversations to continue after class. Indiana University, for example, put up whiteboards in the hallways so that people can continue their conversation as they leave the classroom.

How costly are active learning spaces to implement?

The cost is not insurmountable. In fact, you don’t need to construct a new space to do this—you can absolutely adapt existing classrooms.

One of the biggest takeaways from our research is that it's actually the lower-cost investments—moveable furniture, rubberized floors—that have a greater ROI on outcomes than having multiple projectors or a screen on every wall. Technology changes quickly, it's expensive to maintain, there's the time cost of setting it up.

What's really important is that you are creating an environment and layout that facilitates conversation amongst the students. We don't necessarily need technology for that.

How do you predict that the active learning environment will affect campuses within the next five to ten years?

I think that the broader trend of the university is going toward less clear boundaries of space in general. There's going to be a continued evolution and the need for student spaces that are places you can just kind of set up your laptop and work. Students aren’t chained to the library anymore, they can work anywhere. They may want to just grab a couch in the lobby of their science building. So I think we’ll continue to see institutions push on creating these informal, accessible spaces for students and faculty to work. 

Need to make more room for active learning areas? Try these 3 opportunities to reduce office space


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