Active Learning Classrooms Break The Mold

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More universities and secondary schools are breaking the mold of the traditional classroom.

Instead of having a podium with rows and rows of chairs lined up in front, these new learning spaces may have several round tables where groups of students sit together. The teacher wanders around the room and more closely interacts with the students.

It's called "flexible learning" or "active learning" and the University of Minnesota has already converted most of its lecture halls into these new type of active learning spaces.

J.D. Walker is a researcher with the Office of Information Technology UMN. He has been studying active learning spaces for almost a decade.

He tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson that both students and teachers like these teaching spaces better than traditional classrooms, and that students achieve more in them.

"Student engagement was noticeably higher in the active learning classrooms," Walker said. "Students outperformed expectations of how much they would learn in active learning classrooms."

Hobson also speaks with UMN Professor Sehoya Cotner about her experience teaching in these spaces, compared to traditional classrooms.

Interview Highlights: J.D. Walker and Sehoya Cotner

Walker on why the active learning classroom layout is superior

"The idea of these new classrooms is really to reconfigure the learning space in such a way as to make it more conducive to a family of teaching and learning techniques that put the student at the center of the learning process."

"It changes the role of the teacher in the sense that these rooms are not really conducive to presentation mode teaching. It's hard to lecture in these rooms. They really are much more conducive to teaching and learning techniques that have students working in groups, solving problems, applying concepts to examples, and things like that."

Walker on the different outcomes from traditional vs. active learning classrooms

"We have done a lot of research on these rooms, about seven years now. A couple of the studies that we ran were comparison group studies in which there were two sections of the same class, one of which was taught in a traditional lecture-style hall, and the other of which was taught in an active learning classroom. And we held as many variables constant as possible between the two sections of the class. So the two sections were taught by the same professor, using the same materials, using the same tests and papers, and even the same teaching and learning techniques in the classes. And when we looked at the outcomes of these studies, what we found was that student engagement was noticeably higher in the active learning classrooms. We found that in the active learning classrooms, students outperformed expectations of how much they would learn compared to the traditional rooms. And finally, we found that in the active learning classrooms, the instructor actually behaved differently than he or she did in the traditional lecture halls, even though they were trying to do exactly the same things, they lectured more in the lecture halls. They spent more time consulting with student groups in the active learning classrooms.

Cotner on why she was opposed at first

"Initially, there was data coming out that was really based on student perceptions and faculty enthusiasm for the rooms. And I think you can positive students perceptions of any new technology, and I was a little skeptical that maybe, this was a technology for technology's sake thing, just another shiny new ball pole that we were grasping onto."

Cotner on becoming an active learning classroom convert

"I'm a bit evangelical about the rooms now. I started teaching in the active learning classroom in 2009, and I was excited about it. The end of my first week was pretty miserable. I actually cried. It was really a rough transition. But I learned a lot about teaching in these rooms, and now I love them. I mean, the students come in and they see this is not business as usual. The rooms are decentralized, which I think leads to greater sense of accountability on the part of each student. In terms of low-hanging fruit, it's just really difficult for students to fall asleep and completely disengage in these rooms. I've asked them before to point to the center of the room, and everybody points in different directions. They don't know where the center of the room is, which means they don't know where I'm gonna crop up at any minute, and I think that kind of keeps them on their toes."


  • J.D. Walker, researcher in the Office of Information Technology at the University of Minnesota.
  • Sehoya Cotner, associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota.

This segment aired on May 8, 2014.


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