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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Active Learning Classrooms Break The Mold

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.”

Guests

  • 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.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. And many colleges and universities around the country are in the midst of final exams today as they wrap up another semester, and many of those exams will be taken in lecture halls, with a podium up front and desks throughout. But is that the best layout when it comes to learning?

Well, more and more schools from kindergarten right up to college are saying no. They are moving to what are called active learning spaces. The University of Minnesota is out front on this, and we're joined now by J.D. Walker, who's a researcher in the Office of Information and Technology there, also by Sehoya Cotner, an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota. Welcome to both of you.

SEHOYA COTNER: Thank you.

J.D. WALKER: Thank you, happy to be here.

HOBSON: And J.D. Walker, let me start with you. Tell us what these spaces actually look like and how they're different from traditional classrooms that have a lectern at the front and desks throughout.

WALKER: Well, the active learning classrooms at the University of Minnesota feature round tables that seat nine students at each table. Each of the tables has microphones and laptop connections for the students to use and view screens and white boards for each of the tables.

There's an instructor podium usually more or less in the center of the room, where the instructor can project from.

HOBSON: And what's the point of that? Why is that so much better than the traditional classroom?

WALKER: Well, 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 a student at the center of the learning process.

HOBSON: But how does it change the role of the teacher?

WALKER: Well, 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.

HOBSON: And you've done a lot of research on this. Do they work? Are they really that much better?

WALKER: We have done a lot of research on these rooms. We've been studying them for 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 as possible constant 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.

HOBSON: And that would better? You think that's better for them to be consulting with student groups, than to be lecturing?

WALKER: That's what the rooms are really designed for, and I think that's part of the mechanism whereby the active learning classrooms achieve the results that they do in terms of student engagement and student learning.

HOBSON: Sehoya Cotner, let me bring you in. You were very skeptical about this idea at first.

COTNER: I was. I was. I was definitely thinking that this might be another example of something that we were sort of jumping on the bandwagon with.

HOBSON: Why? What were you worried about?

COTNER: I think 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 student perceptions of any new technology, and I was a little skeptical that maybe this was a technology-for-technology's sake.

HOBSON: But you have come around.

COTNER: I really have.

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: And why is that?

COTNER: I'm a bit evangelical about the rooms right now. The rooms are decentralized, which I think leads to a greater sense of accountability on the part of each student. 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 going to crop up at any minute, and I think that kind of keeps them on their toes.

HOBSON: J.D. Walker, let me go back to you, because I've talked to teachers about this who say, look, every year somebody comes up with a new idea of what would be the best way for us to lay out our classroom and the best way for students to learn, and if we jumped on every single one of them, we would constantly be renovating and buying new furniture and all of that. How do we know that this is the one?

WALKER: Well, the movement toward active learning spaces began at least 15, and possibly 20 years ago. So these rooms have been around for quite a while, and a lot of research has been done on them, not only here at Minnesota, but at other schools. So I think the research base is there to establish that these rooms really do alter the relationships between instructors and students and among students themselves in a way that conduces to student learning.

HOBSON: And do you think that that is true across age groups, that people in elementary school would benefit from this, people in high school would benefit from this, just as people at the University of Minnesota might benefit from this?

WALKER: I don't see why not, frankly. And, in fact, I think that there is a movement in pre-, in secondary and pre-secondary education toward creating spaces that conduce to active learning techniques, much as there is in the post-secondary world.

HOBSON: So if this is the way that people should be teaching, what happens to poor schools in poor school districts that can't afford to upgrade?

WALKER: This is a good question. Active learning classrooms are definitely expensive. They cost much more to build than a traditional lecture hall does, and they don't seat as many students per square foot. There's no question about that. One thing that is true about these new style classrooms is that it seems as if students don't have to be present in class as often as they do in traditional lecture halls.

So, in one study we ran, students came to class only a third as much as they did in a traditional lecture hall. Some of the materials were moved into an online format, through video lectures and things of that nature, and we found that students achieved learning outcomes that were at least as good - and in some cases better than - the traditional classroom.

So that would be a way of implementing these new classrooms, while gaining efficiencies at the same time.

HOBSON: Sehoya Cotner, do you agree with that, that this offers students the ability to learn outside the classroom, and that might be better?

COTNER: I do agree with that. I also would comment that there are things that we have learned from our work with our active learning classrooms that could be translated on a smaller scale, or definitely on a less-expensive scale to other teaching environments. I think a lot of what we've learned about these rooms suggests that you can make positive gains with active learning classrooms without spending as much money on the technology.

HOBSON: I would think that one problem is if you've got students spread all around, having their own conversations around the room, it would be harder to make sure people are staying on task. Has that been a problem for you?

COTNER: It is a problem if you're not actively working the room. Sometimes I feel like a little human pinball, bouncing around those tables. However, the students do a little bit of self-policing themselves, because they want their groupmates to participate. I do a lot of things where the groups are accountable to the whole class, and if they're not all working on a project, then they're going to look ridiculous.

So I guess they've got that fear of public humiliation to prompt their peers to be engaged constantly.

HOBSON: J.D. Walker?

WALKER: Some students are going to be off-task in any class no matter what the technology used or the configuration of the classroom, and if anything, I think fewer students are off-task active learning classes because of the group dynamics that exist, the self-policing aspect that Sehoya pointed to.

HOBSON: J.D. Walker is a research associate at the Office of Information Technology at the University of Minnesota, and Sehoya Cotner is associate professor of biology there. Thanks to both of you.

COTNER: Thank you.

WALKER: Thank you very much.

HOBSON: And if you go to our website, hereandnow.org, you can see a slideshow. You can see just what these active learning spaces look like. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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