Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom (ALC)
Active learning classrooms (ALCs) are student-centered, technology-rich classrooms. They are easily identified with their large student tables and moveable seating designed to facilitate and promote active learning.
Typically, each table is accompanied by a whiteboard and flat screen monitor to display student work and larger rooms frequently have microphones at each table. ALCs also have a teaching station that allows the instructor to select and project and highlight student work from any particular table.
Since 2007, the research and evaluation team at CEI has collaborated with the Office of Classroom Management (OCM) and other central units to conduct an ongoing research on new learning spaces.
These projects attempt to determine to what extent ALCs affect student learning outcomes, student and instructor perceptions, and teaching and learning practices. Several publications resulting from this research are listed in the Research and Resources tab.
In one Biology class, a section was taught in an ALC while another section was taught in a traditional classroom. Students in the active learning space had significantly lower ACT scores than students in the traditional setting, predicting that the course grades they could expect to earn would be lower as well. However, students in the ALC outperformed expectations, earning the same grades as students in the traditional classroom, suggesting strongly that features of the room contributed significantly to their learning. Students’ answers to free-response survey questions confirmed this result by describing ways in which the ALC helped them in their learning tasks. These findings were replicated in a second study.
Data gathered using a classroom observation protocol in two sections of a Biology class indicated that despite the professor’s explicit attempt to conduct the same learning activities in both sections, in fact he behaved quite differently in the different classrooms, lecturing significantly more in the traditional room and conducting discussion significantly more in the ALC.
Pedagogy and space
Two sections of a Family Social Science course taught in an ALC one year apart were compared to isolate the effects of a change in pedagogy. Data suggest that students performed better on assessments in an ALC when the pedagogy was transformed from a traditional model (teacher-centered, lecture-based) to a collaborative and active learning model. We concluded that lecturing in an ALC is not nearly as effective as engaging students in active learning tasks as measured by on-task behavior and student learning outcomes.
Flipping and blending
We compared a large Chemistry course (300+ students) taught in a traditional theatre-style classroom that met 3 times a week to the same course taught by the same instructor that met in a smaller ALC working on problem solving one time a week and watching recorded lectures. The students who met just one time a week in the ALC performed as well or better on the same standardized exam as the students who spent three times as much time in the larger traditional lecture classroom. This meant that the impact of an ALC classroom can be multiplied at least threefold because instead of being used three times a week to achieve a learning outcome, it need only be used once a week to achieve the same effect.
How space interacts with classroom social behavior
Although we have understood that the ALCs promote good outcomes, we haven’t been certain how these good effects have come about. We developed and validated an instrument, the Social Context And Learning Environments (SCALE) survey, to measure social interactions in the classroom.
Recently, we’ve conducted analyses that a) compare the relative levels of each social context dimension present in traditional classrooms and ALCs, and b) predict learning outcome related to some of these dimensions. The findings are pending, but a preliminary discussion can be found in Chapter 3 of A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research and Practice (Stylus, 2016).
Challenge 1 - Room issues
In most classes, there will be when students need to focus on you. Because of their arrangement—round tables spread throughout the room—ALCs lack a central visual focus compared to more traditional classrooms, making it difficult for you to know where to stand when you want to be seen by all the students. In addition, wherever you stand in an ALC, some students will be facing away from you. To overcome these problems, designate a focal point in the room such as the podium or the main screen. Develop a cue for getting students’ attention so that they will know to turn toward this focal point when necessary.
Advancing presentation slides
Being unable to move around the room defeats some of the advantages of the ALC space. To solve this, you might consider purchasing a wireless remote control device that allows you to advance slides away from the computer.
The tables in many ALCs can each accommodate nine students. Groups this size are typically too large for effective collaborative learning, both because students across the table may have trouble seeing and hearing each other and because large groups encourage some students to sit back and “hitchhike” on the work of others. Further, some tables have a raised console that can make discussion across the table somewhat challenging.
To address these issues, you may want to consider splitting students at a table into sub-groups of three to work on activities. (Note that in some ALCs, tables are modular and can be pulled apart to form smaller working surfaces that can easily accommodate sub-groups.) Develop assignments to take advantage of the design of the tables. Such an assignment might consist of two parts: The first part of a problem-solving activity is to be completed by the smaller groups, and the second is a whole-table discussion in which each sub-group shares its findings with the entire table.
Identifying who is speaking
Ask students to always use the microphones provided on each table and begin their question or comment by indicating their table number. You should be prepared to insist on this for the first few weeks until students become habituated to the process.
If you circulate throughout the room during student activities and wish to make a comment to the entire class, you will be facing away from some students, making it very difficult for them to hear you without amplification. Make sure you carry and use the wireless microphone.
Challenge 2 - Noise and distractions
Active and collaborative learning necessarily results in a great deal of student talk, leading to noisy classrooms. Combine that with the potential visual cues from multiple screens installed on the walls of the ALCs and you have an environment that can be overwhelming to some students and can easily lead to distractions and off-task behavior in others. These distractions can be minimized by making sure that student tasks are carefully planned and well structured and by holding students accountable for completing those tasks.
It’s important to remember that noise in and of itself is not an indicator of a classroom problem—noise often indicates student engagement. Be sure to establish a cue or signal that lets students know that you need their attention and that they should stop talking. This might involve dimming the lights or a key phrase spoken over the microphone. Modulating between the uncontrolled chaos of group work and the more controlled atmosphere of whole class discussions can be difficult, and helping students know that you need their cooperation with this can help with the issue.
Staying on task
With any active learning strategy there is a risk that students will get off task and talk about things other than solving the intended problem or discussing the issue at hand. To prevent this, try circulating through the room so that you can monitor student work. Make sure that the activities you have assigned are challenging and take the full amount of time you have allotted to complete them. Hold students accountable for satisfactory completion of tasks by calling on groups randomly to report or by assigning points to the activity. Clickers are useful in this regard. If students realize they are accountable for high quality work, they will be less likely to breeze through the activity and spend the balance of the time socializing.
If you suspect that students are becoming distracted by their devices, you can limit the number of laptops at a table or ask students to close the lids of their laptops when appropriate to help ensure that their attention is on you. If you choose to allow students to use their laptops, consider incorporating structured tasks to keep students on track. Some instructors provide students with “gapped handouts” (lecture outlines that contain spaces for note-taking) to encourage student engagement with the content. Others incorporate frequent questioning during didactic portions of the class period.
ALCs aren't right for all students
Be alert to the possibility that some students might find this learning environment over-stimulating or difficult to navigate socially. As you would in any course, talk to students who seem to be struggling with the course and decide what accommodations, if any, might be appropriate.
Challenge 3 - Group work
ALCs were designed specifically to support student group work. However, it’s important to remember that the arrangement of rooms—round tables with students facing each other—will not, by itself, lead to effective student collaboration. In order to make best use of the affordances offered by the ALCs, instructors must design assignments and activities with group work in mind, while students must be taught how to work effectively together.
6 tips to encourage productive group work in the ALCs
1. The more intentional you are, the better student groups will function.
Provide students with clear expectations on collaborative work as well as resources on collaboration and teamwork, including roles and responsibilities in the team and strategies for how to work with challenging personalities and cultural considerations.
2. Create student groups purposefully.
Students do better problem solving in heterogeneous groups. Students can be assigned to groups randomly or they can be intentionally grouped for differences in expertise, e.g., experience with technology, and other variables such as age, gender, or year in school.
3. Take advantage of the table organization.
When photocopying handouts for everyone, provide only one copy per (small) group of students. This strategy forces individuals to collaborate and is a good way to improve group cohesion. Likewise, you might require small groups of students to share a single laptop computer during class; sharing laptops has the added benefit of minimizing the distractions of technology by discouraging off-task behavior such as web surfing or viewing social networking sites.
4. Have students groups review difficult lecture material immediately after it is presented.
In a Biology class, for example, one professor discusses a number of cell biology experiments and then has the students work in their groups to diagram the experiments and teach each other about the methods used and main findings. This kind of activity offers an opportunity for students to identify confusing parts and ask questions about the harder ideas they can’t resolve in their groups. Be ready for challenging questions.
5. Grade on both individual performance and group performance.
For example, students might first take an online exam individually and then retake the exam or a portion of the exam as a group during class. Individual scores can be raised by a predetermined percentage or number of points by the group exam score.
6. Teach students how to work in groups effectively.
Instructors too often provide little or no guidance to students on how to work together. Knowing how to work effectively in a team is not something that comes naturally to anyone. It is hard work, and it is especially essential in a collaborative process. Besides attention to the recommendations above, have students reflect together on the quality of their team work regularly and provide feedback on how well they are doing as a team. Learning effective team work is a process, not a one-time experience.
For additional help on developing team projects, see the UMN Faculty Guide to Team Projects.
Challenge 4 - Student engagement
A key part of making ALCs work is making sure that students are engaged in what is going on in the classroom. Below are some tips from experienced ALC instructors.
Establish a comfortable atmosphere
• Ask students to wear name tags during class at the beginning of the term. It helps you and the students learn everyone's name and makes for a friendlier environment. Make them easier to distribute by having different color tags for each table.
• Find ways to have fun in the space, like playing music or educational videos as students enter the classroom. Help make it more engaging to students by giving them a say in what you play as an incentive. Consider a pre-class poll about the upcoming material or something in the news.
• Take advantage of the fact that the other students at a table will often listen to conversations between you and a student. Sometimes you can initiate a table-wide conversation by simply consulting with one student.
Help students take ownership for their own learning
• While you don't want to give students the answers to all of their questions, only asking them more questions in order to lead them to the answer will frustrate them. This will discourage them from asking any questions at all. Look for the middle ground in answering student questions.
• Take advantage of students' tendency to listen to their peers more critically. Ask that students explain things rather than you doing so.
• At the end of an activity, have students pass their notes to the person beside them to summarize the purpose of the activity and then return the notes. Have students read the best summaries. This gives students an opportunity for reflection and compels them to share what they think were the main ideas. It’s also feedback for you to see if they learned what you intended for the day.
• After groups have completed an activity, ask students what they learned and add their responses to the lecture slides. This helps demonstrate to students that their contributions are an important part of the class.
Hold students accountable both as individuals and as a group member
• Randomly call on students so that they all need to always be prepared. If student tables are numbered, you can use a random number generator to pick a table to respond.
• Give weekly quizzes so students can assess what they have learned.
• Make sure students are aware how much time remains for an activity by projecting a timer. This also helps make class time more efficient.
• Begin visiting groups immediately to make sure that students don't delay starting an activity.
Challenge 5 - Technology
Many of our classrooms are now equipped with laptop connections and projectors. One of the features that makes many ALCs special is the ability to project not only from the instructor station, but also from any of three laptops at each table, to the whole room or to the table's dedicated monitor. Although we may not think of them as "technology," the abundance of whiteboards in the ALCs also offers critical teaching and learning opportunities. It takes some practice and planning to make good use of these features.
3 possible uses
1. Call on student groups to project the outcomes of their work (such answers to questions, resources they have found, or collaborative writing) to the whole room; this will increase student participation and engagement. It will also allow you to assess how students are progressing and places student work at the center of your teaching.
2. As you move around the room, talking with groups as they work, project particularly good work so that the whole class can see it. Or, if a group has encountered a specific problem that others are likely to encounter as well, project it so you (or they) can work through it with the class.
3. Ask teams to use the whiteboards to brainstorm a process before committing to it, to create a quick mind map, or to work through a math problem. Invite students to rotate to their neighbor’s boards to view how another group worked with the material or solved a problem.
Using the space and technology effectively will require changes in your course, and you probably won't get it right the first time. Often it is not an easy, seamless conversion to teach effectively in an ALC. It takes time, support, and experience to truly consider your curriculum and how to redesign it to effectively teach and maximize student learning in an ALC. Creating and preparing course material (lectures and in-class activities) for the semester in advance will make the transition to this teaching style less stressful.
Rather than starting with the material that you want to cover during the semester, begin planning your course with your desired outcomes in mind.
Key questions to ask
• What do I want my students to know and be able to do as a result of this class?
• What are the assignments that would allow me to see that my students have achieved the outcome?
• What do I have to do in and out of class to prepare students to achieve the goals?
• How can I use the space and technology to help achieve learning objectives?
Finding a balance between the length of an activity for a potentially complex concept and achieving learning outcomes can be challenging. The length of the activity should be proportional to the length of the class itself. In general, this teaching style is better suited to longer classes. Longer activities or ones that require interaction between teams (e.g., commenting on others' solutions) will also be more successful in a class with more instructors or TAs or other kinds of infrastructure support.
Activities that work in an ALC are ones that:
• support the lecture
• can be completed relatively quickly
• provide detailed written instructions with time limits clearly indicated
• require students to work together and be accountable to each other (i.e., cannot easily be completed by an individual)
• are able to be broken down so that students can work on pieces and then integrate them
• require students to take different perspectives or come up with alternative approaches
• take slower students into account in estimating length of time
• use technologies to enhance the activity rather than complicate it or add no value
If you are teaching a class with multiple sections, collaborating with the other instructors on planning can help make your life easier and improve the course itself. Whether you are teaching with others or not, there are lots of places to turn for help. Consider joining the Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom Program or please feel free to contact CEI below and let us connect you with the right people for your inquiry.
Research and resources
Walker, J. D., & Baepler, P. (2017). Measuring Social Relations in New Classroom Spaces: Development and Validation of the Social Context and Learning Environments (SCALE) Survey. Journal of Learning Spaces, 6(3): 34-41.
Baepler, P., Walker, J.D., Brooks, D.C., Saichaie, K., & Petersen, C.I. (2016). A guide to teaching in the active learning classroom: History, Research & Practice. Stylus.
Baepler, P., Walker, J.D. & Driessen, M. (2014). It's not about seat time: Blending, flipping, and efficiency in active learning classrooms. Computers & Education 78: 227-236.
Baepler, P., Brooks, D.C., & Walker, J.D., Eds. (2014). Active Learning Spaces: New Directions in Teaching and Learning no. 137. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Cotner, S., Loper, J., Walker, J.D., & Brooks, D.C. (2013). ’It’s not you, it’s the room’ (Or, are the high-tech, active learning classrooms worth it?). Journal of College Science Teaching 42(6), no pagination. (Picked as Editor's Choice, Science, Vol. 341, 23 August 2013.)
Brooks, D.C. (2012). Space and consequences: The impact of different formal learning spaces on instructor and student behavior. Journal of Learning Spaces 1:2. no pagination.
Walker, J.D., Brooks, D.C., & Baepler, P. (2011). Pedagogy and space: Empirical research on new learning environments. EDUCAUSE Quarterly 34(4), no pagination.
Whiteside, A.W., Brooks, D.C. & Walker, J.D. (2010). Making the case for space: Three years of empirical research on formal and informal learning environments. EDUCAUSE Quarterly 33(3).
Brooks, D.C. (2011). Space matters: The impact of formal learning environments on student learning. British Journal of Educational Technology. 42(5), 719-726.
• To find an active learning classroom at UMTC, visit the UMTC Office of Classroom Management website and use the "filter features" dropdown option. There you will also find a brief overview of ALCs. To find an ALC at UMD, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
• For a practical view on how to develop and implement team projects in your classroom, visit UMN’s Faculty Guide to Team Projects.
• For help designing a course, see CEI’s resource on Aligned Course Design. [***********coming soon*************]
• To see one of Minnesota's ALCs in action, view this Foundations of Biology Class Video.
• UM ALCs were inspired by the work done at North Carolina State University and their SCALE-UP project.
• The Mosaic Initiative at Indiana University supports innovative classroom design, faculty development, and research into learning spaces.