What's the most helpful tool in redesigned classrooms? Here's the surprising answer

The tools that make the biggest difference in active learning classrooms are surprisingly low-tech, Shannon Najmabadi writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Nahmabadi cites research showing that circular tables are the hero of the active learning classroom.

In one study by Educause, a room full of round tables changed the behavior of an instructor teaching in the space. Researchers compared student learning outcomes for a biology course in an active learning space to outcomes of students learning in a traditional lecture classroom. The same instructor taught both classes and intended to keep his presentation as similar as possible in both settings.

Also see: Your field guide to active learning classrooms

However, the instructor found that he was unable to teach active learning the same way in the different settings. In the active learning space, he walked around more and lectured less.

Other research has found that high-tech gadgets can't compare with the power of the round table.

A study by researchers at Bethel University concluded that high-tech and low-tech classrooms led to similar learning outcomes.

Round tables make it impossible not to engage with your fellow students, says Alejandro Barrera, a student at the University of Maryland (UMD) who completed a course in an active learning classroom this year. A new active learning center at UMD features small rooms with circular, round tables, as well as other rooms with theater-style seating and other arrangements.

Melissa Hayes-Gehrke, a principal lecturer in astronomy at UMD, thought the center was perfect for her students' learning needs.

"Finally, they made a classroom that’s exactly what I want," she said after seeing the inside of the building for the first time (Najmabadi, Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/29).

Read more: Group tables, swivel chairs, and whiteboards: The low-tech heroes of the active learning classroom

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