Interactive lecture halls enhance higher ed

Active learning in the large classroom

Students enrolled in media ethics at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this fall walked into a lecture hall that looked radically different than two years ago.

Gone is the stadium-style seating. Now the room, used for a wide range of courses, has 100 rolling swivel chairs with adjustable tables and nine mounted video screens. After associate professor Lois Boynton gives a mini-lecture or shows a video, student teams of four to six work on an ethical journalism dilemma. Then they regroup to present their conclusions to the full class.

“I love the open teaching space,” says Boynton, who taught in the hall, Greenlaw 101, before it was renovated. “We can all see each other and interact much more effectively than in a lecture hall with fixed seats.”

Outfitted with moveable chairs through a grant from the furniture company Steelcase, the room is part of a wave of lecture halls that have been transformed into active learning classrooms on campuses in the past five years.

Colleges and universities have been redesigning smaller classrooms into interactive spaces for nearly a decade. So reconfiguring the traditional lecture hall can be seen as the next logical step in this pedagogical movement.

“Even though we’ve been teaching in lecture halls, what we’ve done is lower the cognitive load,” says Adam Finkelstein, academic associate and educational developer for teaching and learning services at McGill University in Montreal. “The lecture hall gives you the suggestion of a behavior for students to quietly sit there and take notes—or not even take notes, but to sit there very passively. By shaking this up with an active learning classroom, you come into a room with round tables, and the suggestion is to talk and work in groups.”

Research has shown students learn more effectively in active learning settings. The largest study of this pedagogical approach, published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that undergraduates in STEM classes in active learning environments averaged test scores 6 percent higher than those in lecture courses. Students in lecture classes were also 1.5 times more likely to fail than those in an interactive setting.

“The research is pretty clear that active learning is a more effective way to teach certain types of content,” says Lisa Stephens, senior strategist for academic innovation for the State University of New York system. “Students tend to retain information better when they’re actively engaged with exercises around that information.”

Challenges of space creation

Despite proof of active learning’s benefits, lecture halls in many schools remain untouched, largely because of cost and the space needed to build new facilities. Institutions must either rip out existing lecture halls or construct active learning classrooms as components of new building projects.

Inspired by the popularity of small, active classrooms at Cornell University’s College of Engineering, officials decided to create a larger interactive lecture hall—a project that wound up being part of a $75 million renovation of a 60-year-old academic building. When it opens next summer, the facility will include an interactive lecture hall, seating up to 84 students, connected to two adjoining rooms, each accommodating 23 students.

Five smaller active learning rooms will have long tables for group activities or rolling Node chairs, manufactured by Steelcase, for easy transitions from one teaching mode to the next.

“There will be three very different types of teaching spaces and people are going to have to experiment to see what types of teaching works best for that professor in that class,” says Kathryn Dimiduk, director of the engineering college’s James McCormick Family Teaching Excellence Institute. “It’s going to take a while to get all settled out, but it will give a lot of flexibility to be innovative in teaching.”

Other higher ed institutions have been able to repurpose large spaces on campus.

Two years ago, The University of Arizona converted a former journal reading room in its science and engineering library into an interactive classroom that can accommodate 260 students sitting at round tables. Although the room had 10 columns that could not be removed, 24 monitors and six short-throw projectors and screens were installed so students could see the content presented by the professor from any vantage point.

As students work in small groups in the introductory courses, the professor relies on a team of graduate assistants and undergraduate preceptors to roam the class and help guide the assigned activity. The assistants “are essential to the success of the collaborative active learning in very large institutions,” says Jane Hunter, director of academic resources and special projects.

High-tech or low-tech?

While some institutions have invested in complex collaboration systems in their interactive classrooms, other schools believe that overrelying on technology can hamper this new learning environment.

At Cornell’s College of Engineering, existing active learning classrooms feature several traditional low-tech whiteboards and a screen on the walls; a projector can connect to any computer in the room. “The most important thing is that the students are interacting with each other and exploring things with each other,” Dimiduk says. “You do see rooms at other schools that have technology at every table, but that’s more expensive, and it’s harder to convert those rooms.”

The college’s new interactive lecture hall will be based on the same model, with two large screens and seven short-throw projectors serving pairs of tables that seat six students. The collaboration system will allow the professor to select content from any one of the projectors and share it on the front screen for the class to see.

At the University of Louisville’s School of Medicine, two 180-seat active learning classrooms built in 2014 rely more heavily on tech. Each of the 30 tables in the rooms has two monitors, one controlled by the professor, the other by students. Students work on case studies by conducting research online to find journals or videos that suggest solutions for medical conditions.

“A white board doesn’t give the breadth of knowledge that the internet does,” says Kent Gardner Jr., director of instructional technology at the medical school. “Our students are investigating medical cases from all over the world.”

And virtual meeting platforms can connect active learning classrooms with students working on projects off campus. “An instructor might give a joint course with an instructor at another institution and they’ll connect to the other classroom virtually,” says Finkelstein, of McGill. “It basically allows for high-definition videoconferencing on one of the big screens in the room.”

Future of large, interactive classrooms

As more institutions build active learning classrooms, a coalition of educators from several institutions has created a Learning Space Rating System to rank spaces on a score between 1 and 100. The system awards points for assigning students to groups to work on problems and for providing training for faculty on new teaching strategies.

It allows campuses to identify their best spaces and enhance lower-ranked rooms accordingly, says Finkelstein, a member of the team currently revising the rating system so these spaces can be compared to similar facilities at other institutions.

For now, he adds, what system users want to look for is the distance between the highest and lowest scores on campus as well as how many rooms are on the higher end of the scale.

While interactive lecture halls are changing pedagogy on college campuses, some faculty have resisted giving up their traditional teaching style.

In 2014, the University of Minnesota constructed $69 million Robert H. Bruininks Hall, which houses 14 active learning classrooms—plus two lecture halls, included at the request of faculty, that can be converted into active learning spaces. Yet that hasn’t happened since the facility opened, says David Langley, educational program specialist at the university’s Center for Educational Innovation.

“Lectures have been around since the Middle Ages, and people will continue to do that. But there are a lot of ways to do that so that professors become more engaged with students.”

One reason professors may be reluctant to switch to active learning is that it redefines their role in the classroom, says Simon Bates, academic director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning & Technology at the University of British Columbia.

“I think what it does in some people is challenge the authority of what professors are and their academic identities,” says Bates, who has visited numerous campuses to discuss active learning strategies.

To help faculty transition to active teaching, many schools provide online training, mentoring by professors, and learning communities to foster discussion of these pedagogical approaches. “What we want to do at universities is encourage active and collaborative learning and make it easier for faculty to do,” Finkelstein says. “Faculty have a million things pulling on them as priorities. The harder it is that you make collaborative learning, the less likely it will be adopted.”

Sherrie Negrea, an Ithaca, New York-based writer, is a frequent contributor to UB.


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