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University of Minnesota

A better classroom

February 17, 2012

Advanced learning classroom.

Photo by Patrick O'Leary.

New classrooms change the behavior of teachers and students

By Bill Magdalene

An active learning classroom contains an array of circular tables. Each table seats up to nine students with wireless laptop computers. Students can display their work on large screens around the edge of the room, which is also lined with erasable marker-boards. To encourage student engagement, the tables are equipped with microphones and a lamp to signal when someone needs help or wishes to speak to the entire room.

When the University of Minnesota opened its Science Teaching and Student Services building in fall 2010, it established itself as the national leader in active learning classrooms. The building has 10 such spaces, besides traditional classrooms.

The latest study by U of M researchers J. D. Walker, D. Christopher Brooks, and Paul Baepler confirms the strength of active learning classrooms: students perform better, and teachers end up using more active, student-centered techniques.

The study
In spring 2011, a professor taught two sections of a large introductory biology course with a broad sample of undergraduates. One section was taught in a traditional classroom. The other section was taught in an active learning classroom.

The professor maintained the same teaching approach in both sections, yet found that in the active learning classroom she spent more time away from the podium consulting with individuals and small groups. Students in the active learning classroom ended up spending more time engaged with each other. And the students outperformed (i.e., got better grades than) those in the traditional classroom.

The researchers also investigated a case where a professor taught a course twice in an active learning classroom. The first time was lecture-based. The second time took advantage of the room's technology by being team-based and student-centered. Students in the second edition of the course outperformed those in the first.

Perceptions and challenges
When asked, students said they preferred the new classrooms in terms of how they promote engagement, how flexible they are, and how well they fit course content.

Students did note that the table groupings felt awkward at first. Some said that the same features that encouraged engagement could enable a climate of social diversion. And close-knit groups at individual tables could weaken the sense of wider classroom community.

A professor noted that while active learning classrooms are harder to lecture in (because the speaker's back is always facing some students), they produce richer discussions.

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Active learning classrooms