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5 Reasons why active learning classrooms are the future of HE

Universities are complex systems, with many factors contributing to effective learning. Yet, for centuries, lecture halls have been the standard design for learning spaces. There is a professor that lectures in front of the classroom, which usually has fixed furniture. Students ask questions after the lecture is delivered. This is how we do it, right? However, this setting is in “danger” of disappearing altogether.

The reason is simple: universities need to change from traditional to more innovative classrooms if they want to stay relevant. Now more than ever HE is receiving students with different expectations of what a learning environment should look like. For example, information has to be readily accessible and technology an integral part of the learning experience. Students need to develop critical thinking skills and practice what they learn.

According to the Educause 2018 NMC Horizon Report on Higher Education, American HE institutions are moving towards classrooms that “resemble real-world work and social environments that foster organic interactions and cross-disciplinary problem solving.” In other words, HE is moving towards active learning classrooms (ALCs).

Take for example the Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) at North Carolina State University or Spaces to Transform, Interact Learning, Engage (TILE) at The University of Iowa. Some of the commonalities in these classrooms are the support for discussions, just-in-time teaching, and enhanced class presentations. Flexible furniture, building design and incorporated technology are just some of the factors that make up the active learning classroom.

5 Reasons why active learning classrooms are the future of HE

ALCs are here to challenge our assumptions that more seat time in a traditional lecture setting in HE equals better learning outcomes. In fact, it must just be the opposite. Here are what instructors and HE administrators should know about them:

  1. The learning space has an impact on behavior

    More traditional classrooms were designed primarily for lectures in a time when learning was considered to be a simple stimuli-response connection. Nowadays, we know a lot more about the psychology of learning. For example, different parts of the brain are involved in making complex connections that lead to learning. More importantly, active involvement during class has a major impact on knowledge retention as students learn from the instructor and from their peers.

    Read more: How learning shapes a student’s brain. Literally

    The environment can also influence the faculty’s behavior during class. Take for example this study in which the instructor behaved differently in ALC versus traditional classrooms. Although the instructor tried to conduct the same activities, it turns out that he interacted more with ALC students and lectured more in a traditional environment.

  2. You can start with the basics

    Although ALCs are usually on the high tech end, it’s not a prerequisite. That is why this should not be an obstacle to experiment with active learning instruction. Universities can make these changes and start small by retrofitting spaces.

    For example, you can have chairs that can be moved around and smaller tables or desks for groups. There can be interactive whiteboards, or more traditional whiteboards around for idea-sharing and presentations. Besides, students can use devices such as laptops to access their courses via a learning management system.

  3. ALCs drive student performance

    As many teachers already know, active learning is not a fad. Evidence shows that it increases student performance in comparison to traditional lecturing. While this is true for STEM teaching, it is clear that students of all areas benefit from an active learning environment.

    The reason is simple: active learning drives creativity and innovation. Students need hands-on practice and to develop their critical thinking skills. Above all, ALCs encourage even the most reluctant ones to take ownership of their own learning.

    Read more: Giving students a V.O.I.C.E. in your classroom

  4. Technology is an integral part of ALCs

    Students actually prefer to learn in a technology rich environment. That is to say, they are used to having fast internet connection and to choose between different devices for learning. They also prefer to have quick access to information as they work on projects.

    Take for example the Technology-Enabled Active Learning Classrooms, a concept created at MIT, which has been adopted by other universities as well. Their design allows for instructors to frequently showcase student work or give feedback on tasks. This has been a success for the MIT Physics department as students learned concepts much faster with the use of technology. Keep in mind that this type of classroom was first implemented in the late 90s!

  5. They solve the problem of large classrooms

    ALCs can be a solution to large and crowded lecture halls. Some universities use blended learning to solve this problem. For example, students can learn on their own and spend less time in lecture halls. Instead, their instruction time is used for discussions or practice. This reduces the amount of space needed for lectures, while students are primarily responsible for their learning process.

    Big classrooms tend to give students the feeling that they can easily blend in. It’s also harder for them to speak in front of many people instead of a smaller group. ALCs give make them feel as if the classroom is smaller and they have more opportunities to ask questions, listen, and learn by doing. It is a simple solution to engage even the most introverted students.

    Read more: 5 Reasons e-learning is perfect for introverted students


There is enough evidence to conclude that a great learning environment supports collaboration, the effective use of technology and fosters creativity. Flexible furniture, readily available devices, interactive whiteboards, and spaces for group discussions are what the classrooms of tomorrow are made of.

That being said, ALCs do not diminish the role of the instructor. On the contrary, the instructor’s job is even more important as this type of classroom encourages more faculty-student interaction — both offline and online.

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