5 Questions to Consider When Designing an Active Learning Classroom

Active learning strategies are becoming more and more common in higher education classrooms, and that’s because they’re proven to work. For example, one of the more comprehensive studies found that students in active learning classrooms had higher exam scores and grades by half a letter. In addition, failure rates in active learning classes were lower. Those are some pretty good results, which is why we wanted to offer a few ideas on how design plays a role in active learning.

Active learning

Active learning is an instructional technique that gets students more engaged in the learning process. The technique is all about having students perform learning activities in the classroom — mostly in groups, but sometimes alone, too. In this hands-on approach, teachers introduce an activity (writing, reading, group problem solving). Once the class gets going on the activity, the instructor acts as guide, posing and answering questions throughout class. These activities help students construct their own knowledge, motivating them to develop thinking skills and paying off with better content retention.

Designing for active learning 

Because active learning has been so successful, the need for designing classrooms that support it is in high demand. To help flesh out these design needs, there are several questions we ask our clients.

1. How many students should the room accommodate?

Active learning classrooms were originally designed for bigger classes, (referred to as TEAL and SCALE-UP), as a way to improve learning and retention in large lecture classes.  It’s common to see active learning classes of over 100 students. Active learning principles can apply to all class sizes and that’s why it’s important to assess room size first.  As a general rule of thumb for classroom design, we plan 25–30 square feet/person.

In addition, we also need to understand the potential group sizes faculty think they may need to accommodate in their classrooms. Studies show that group sizes of 3-5 are best. Any fewer and it’s not a group; any larger and students may be likely to sit back and not engage. If there is a specific group size desired, then the table configuration can be designed to be flexible and accommodate that particular need. For example, a five foot long rectangular table to accommodate two students is very common, but push two tables together and you’ll have table ready for a group of four. A large round table for 3 groups of 3 is common in rooms with fixed monitors and power/network connections.

2. What is the predominant learning activity the room should support?

Our goal is to provide classrooms that support a wide variety of learning activities — and we can do that to a large degree. However, a room optimized for lecture-based learning is not the same as a room that is optimized for problem-based, group learning.

Active learning classrooms typically favor collaboration-based learning models. Students need a design that allows them to have group discussions, think-pair-shares, brainstorms, or peer reviews. They also need to be able to separate to do solitary writing activities. Wheeled tablet arm chairs or moveable tables provide students the most ability to change their postures and group sizes throughout class.

North Dakota State University STEM Building
At the North Dakota State University A. Glenn Hill Center (shown in photo) students are working in pairs to solve a short problem.

Even with all this collaborative learning, we know that lecture is still popular as a content delivery method. We need to be able to support lecture-based learning with good sight lines to boards and screens. To make a lecture-style, tiered classroom flexible for active learning, we can incorporate two tables per row of chairs so that students in the front row can turn around and gather in a small group with the students sitting behind them.

3. How can students make their thinking visible?

Classrooms can give visibility to students’ thinking in a number of ways. Vertical writing surfaces can be incorporated on as many walls as possible. Students can sit or stand around the marker board while solving a group problem. Studies show that we are more active in the conversation when we are standing.

Freestanding moveable marker boards can also be used to make thinking visible and also provide some separation between groups. Additionally, handheld whiteboards are a good option and allow students to solve a problems at their tables, and then report out to the larger group with visual aids.

More and more we are also including monitors on the wall to allow students to work out problems on their device during and after class. These monitors can be setup to push instructor content out to all the monitors (helping with sight lines to content). In addition, they can be setup to pull content from the students to share with the whole class.

Teachers also use clickers technology to engage students by quizzing them in the middle of class. Faculty can quiz the students at the beginning of class to ensure they comprehend the key concepts from the reading or flipped lecture. If there isn’t clear understanding by the majority of students, the instructor can give a mini lecture on the specific topics and then quiz again.

Metropolitan State University Science Education Center

4. How flexible should the furniture be?

An instructor once shared with us, “if you fix the furniture, you fix the thinking.” We not only strive to create a design with flexible furniture to support a variety of learning activities over the course of one class period, but also a variety of teaching styles over the course of the semester.  With the ideal design, students and instructors should be able to shift from lecture to group work to individual work all within one class period.  The Steelcase Node chair is one example of furniture that has many benefits in an active learning classroom. Faculty and students can move from lecture to group work in a matter of seconds. Swivel seats mean students can easily shift their attention to any part of the room. Student gear fits on the extra-large tablet arm and what isn’t needed during class is stored right in the base of the chair. 

5. What type of technology will the students need?

If student monitors are desired in a classroom to help making thinking visible, we need to provide a way for students to connect to these monitors. The most fool-proof way is to have a fixed table with an HDMI connection in the table to the monitor. We can also provide an HDMI port at the wall for the students to connect to. And finally, wireless connections are becoming more stable. Click Share and other platforms allow students to connect their device without the hard-wired connect (just be sure to collect the Click Share device when the students leave class).

Get started designing your active learning classroom

Designing an active learning classroom starts with asking a few questions and understanding the needs of your organization. There are many ways to create an active learning classroom and it doesn’t always require a big renovation. It can be done as a pilot in one space, or in stages, tweaking the design after testing. The good news is, because we know active learning works, even the smallest design change will be worth the effort.

BWBR’s Wolfe Receives Highest Honor from National Institute

Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CID, FCSI,  CCS, CCCA, CSC, an architect and specifier at BWBR, received the Distinguished Membership Award Sept. 8 from the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) at the Institute’s annual convention in Austin, Texas. The award is the most prestigious honor bestowed by CSI, given to individuals who have performed distinguished services to the construction industry in the fields and activity related to construction documents.

Wolfe, a design professional with more than 40 years of experience in the architecture industry, is a member and past chancellor of CSI’s College of Fellows. A leader in the world of architectural specifications, he was nominated for Distinguished Membership by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter for his service to the industry in numerous fields and advancing the mission of CSI at local, regional, and national levels.

“We’re fortunate at BWBR to have someone of Sheldon’s caliber on staff,” said Pete Smith, AIA, president and CEO of BWBR. “Few people graduate from architecture school thinking they want to be a specifications writer, yet Sheldon’s role at the firm is so vital to the quality of the facilities that are designed and built. His professionalism and expertise is unmatched, and this is a well-deserved honor.”

This high honor for Wolfe follows previous recognitions he has received, including the Ben Small Memorial Award for Outstanding Stature as a Specifications Writer presented by CSI’s national organization and the John C. Anderson Award of Excellence presented by the Minneapolis-St. Paul CSI Chapter. A graduate of the University of Minnesota with Bachelor degrees in architecture and science, Wolfe holds a U.S. Patent for a combined truss strut and hub connector for domed structures.

CSI is a national association dedicated to improving the documentation, management, and communication of building information as used by the construction community. Founded in 1948 by specification writers of government agencies who came together to improve the quality of construction specifications, it now includes private sector professionals concerned about communicating design vision in construction documents, contractors interested in delivering high quality facilities, and material suppliers with unique solutions to construction challenges.

BWBR Makes Best Managed List for Fourth Year

Announcing its annual list of an elite group of architecture and engineering firms, PSMJ Resources, Inc., named BWBR to its 2016 national Circle of Excellence. The honor recognizes the best managed A/E firms in the nation, representing the top 20 percent of participants in PSMJ’s annual A/E Financial Performance Benchmark Survey.

“In the design field, there are many avenues through which a firm can be recognized. To be honored for the way we operate as a business is a high compliment,” said Pete Smith, AIA, president and CEO. “To now be listed by PSMJ in four years, it’s an even greater recognition for the dedication and commitment the employees at BWBR have to making what we do for our clients successful.”

PSMJ Resources, Inc., an international management consulting firm for the architecture/engineering/construction industries, released the list of firms based on 13 key performance metrics that demonstrate outstanding achievements in profitability, overhead, cash flow, productivity, business development, staff growth, and turnover.

BWBR, a 94-year-old design firm based in the Upper Midwest, provides architectural, interior design, and planning services. PSMJ’s recognition comes on the heels of the AIA Minnesota Firm Award given to BWBR in 2015 as well as named in 2016 for Best in Business for architecture by Twin Cities Business magazine.

As one of the most prestigious firms in the region, BWBR serves institutional and corporate clients in nine market sectors, with health care, higher education, high-tech, office, and wellness making up a majority of work.


Smarter and Better: Making the Classroom Work for Learning

On a recent tour of the newly opened A. Glenn Hill Center at North Dakota State University, a facility supporting science, technology, engineering and mathematics, it was striking to see the energy and activity in the classrooms. Contrary to the image of a professor standing at the front of the room delivering a lecture, students were clustered in groups throughout the room. Conversations were lively. And the professor was mobile, moving in between the clusters to engage as well as teach.

More than the future, the Hill Center represents where education is going today. Beyond an accommodating space for students to listen to a lecture, effective design is about creating a place that encourages collaboration, engagement, and better learning. Discovering that nexus means understanding the way students learn and instructors teach.

Student learning styles

The three most common learning styles are familiar to many of us and we can probably relate to one of styles described below. In reality, we all learn using a combination of these methods.

  • Visual learners (65%) – It’s no surprise that most people like pictures when they learn. Diagrams, graphs, photos and gestures all appeal to this group.
  • Auditory learners (30%) – Students in this category prefer verbal instruction, sound, music, etc. A great lecture with inspiring music will win this group over.
  • Kinesthetic learners (5%) – This is the hands-on group of learners, which means they like role-playing, trying things out and doing an activity. (Bradford, 2011)

Even more important for creating a successful classroom design is to plan for how instructors teach because they determine the activities that actually happen in the classroom.

Higher education teaching styles

The most common pedagogy or ways instructors teach can be broken down into three categories as outlined on Teach.com. Classroom design should enhance all these teaching methods to provide the ideal learning environment.

  • Direct instruction – In this teacher centered-approach, instructors use the lecture format to share their knowledge and expertise. This method can be very successful especially when teaching basic and fundamental skills.
  • Inquiry-Based learning – Instructors teach by facilitating hands-on learning and student exploration when using this method. This is a student-centered approach which encourages learning through experiences like field observations and experiments.
  • Cooperative learning – This is another student-centered approach which uses group learning activities such as debates and laboratory assignments. Students develop a strong sense of community and learn from their peers with this approach.

Active learning most successful

While it’s interesting to review all the teaching and learning styles, research shows student-centered education, which incorporates active learning, to be the most effective approach.  In addition, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) published a study providing insights into some high-impact teaching practices. These practices have shown a positive association with student learning and retention.  As we think about designing our classrooms, we proactively address these high-impact practices, while still keeping other styles in mind.

Modern classrooms combine technology with flexible seating to create an active learning environment.
Modern classrooms combine technology with flexible seating to create an active learning environment.

Classroom design characteristics

Classroom design does matter. Research supports the role of learning spaces as an important component alongside pedagogy and technology. With the wide variety of learning and teaching styles active in our colleges, classrooms need to be strategically designed with several emphasis areas to create an impactful learning environment.

  • Flexibility – Classrooms should support multiple activities by instructors and accommodate different teachers throughout the day/week. They also need to support future pedagogical approaches. Classrooms need to enhance a variety of learning activities – such things as lectures, hands-on assignments, group activities, audio/visual presentations, and more. Often flexibility requires a large footprint for a classroom, moving chairs and or tables around during class takes a bit more space (25-30s.f./student).
  • Comfort – One of the most important characteristics of a good classroom plan is to make sure it is designed for people of all sizes and as a place that feels comfortable. Comfort comes in many forms, but chairs, desks, lighting, daylighting, temperature all contribute to student comfort.
  • Inspiration – It almost goes without saying, but students and teachers need a setting that inspires them to learn. Natural daylight, natural materials, and good design can be sources of inspiration.
  • Collaboration – More than ever, designing a classroom that allows students and instructors to connect with each other is critical to success. Students learn better when they work together. Classrooms need to encourage cooperative learning by providing enough space for students to collaborate and giving them the tools to share their knowledge (make their thinking visible).
  • Visible Thinking – Learning is a process. Students need to be able to demonstrate their knowledge to their peers and teachers. This allows instructors and fellow students to correct assumptions and help improve learning. Classrooms can make this visible through white boards and monitors for sharing content.
  • Technology – All classrooms need to support the ubiquity of technology in a seamless, invisible way.

Student-centered design

Leveraging space as a tool in facilitating learning offers an opportunity to expand student and educator engagement. This means we need to break out of traditional design assumptions for how classrooms used to be viewed in higher education. Classrooms are no longer prescribed spaces to only serve one teaching style. As institutions strive to meet the changing needs of students and educators, they will benefit when they consider all learning and teaching styles along with strategic design features to help create the ideal student-centered classroom design.