‘Spaces Matter’

Limited access to active learning spaces may disproportionately hurt historically excluded groups, and institutions should build more of these spaces in the name of equity, according to a new study. Where does higher ed stand on next-generation learning spaces?

September 16, 2022
A collage of photos showing students using active learning spaces, as described in the story.
An interactive lecture hall at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, surrounded by active learning spaces across the U.S.
(Rutgers University (main), Derek Bruff (outside))

Active learning, or instructional methods that actively engage students in their own learning, is on the rise. So, too, are physical spaces dedicated to this kind of teaching. These are positive developments from the perspective of groups such as the Association of American Universities and the American Association of Colleges and Universities, which promote high-impact practices that increase student engagement and deep learning. Yet the growth of active learning spaces remains incremental. And while instructors can and do use active learning when teaching in traditional classrooms, dedicated active learning spaces certainly afford more opportunities for innovation: polling students on answers to biology questions via their laptops or phones can work in a fixed-seat lecture hall, but asking them to do work in groups of five probably won’t.

A new study is therefore concerning—it found that limited access to active learning classrooms forced students to self-sort based on their social networks or their attitudes toward learning. The authors warn that limited access to active learning spaces may create a marginalizing force that pushes women, in particular, out of the sciences.

The solution? Invest in active learning spaces.

“These findings lead to a very concrete policy recommendation: increase access to active learning spaces,” says the study, led by Michael C. Ralph, a Ph.D. candidate in educational psychology at the University of Kansas and a lead researcher at Multistudio, a Kansas City, Mo.–based architectural design firm. “Active learning classroom access provides a concrete mechanism for addressing the societal debt owed to women students, which institutions should include as part of a more comprehensive effort to dismantling barriers to success for women.”

The Active Learning Spacescape

Ralph and his team are far from the first group of academics to call for more active learning spaces. Physics and engineering have long experimented with studio and collaborative design space concepts that have much in common with general purpose active learning classrooms. Redesigning learning spaces has been part of the AAU’s Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative, which launched in 2011, and active learning classrooms on some campuses predate that effort. Researchers at the University of Minnesota found by 2010, for instance, that students in new, technology-enhanced learning spaces exceeded final grade expectations relative to their ACT scores. The same researchers found that active learning spaces influenced how instructors taught, even when this wasn’t intentional.

In 2017, Educause identified active learning spaces as the year’s No. 1 strategic technology, with the group predicting that the then “experimental” trend would be “mainstream” by 2022.

Emily Miller, deputy vice president for institutional policy at the AAU, said that today, all AAU institutions have “invested in the redesign of learning spaces, and some have built entirely new buildings with an emphasis on active learning spaces.”

Still, the vast majority of college and university classrooms are not dedicated active learning spaces. There’s no national database tracking the development of such spaces, but it’s probably fair to say they’re not yet mainstream across academe.

Whether there are enough active learning classrooms is not only about how many students want to learn in them, but also about how many professors want to teach in them. And instructor demand for active learning spaces is inseparable from instructor buy-in to active learning pedagogies.

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Derek Bruff, outgoing director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching and author of the book Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching (West Virginia University Press, 2019), said, “Sometimes you have a really great classroom, but there are faculty in there who have no interest in adopting active learning strategies. And it’s actually more frustrating in that case for them, because it can be hard to lecture in some of these places, because there’s no middle of the room, or front.”

Bruff continued, “Part of this is matching [and] making the most of it. I’ve been doing faculty development around teaching for almost two decades, and most faculty benefit from having someone help them think through their teaching choices, particularly as they’re adopting new pedagogy. In part because we often teach as we were taught, we often don’t observe each other’s classrooms and get new ideas and new approaches. We can be a little insular.”

At the same time, nearly everyone has some basic familiarity with the active learning classroom, “though the last time you may have been in one was kindergarten.”

Anecdotally, some institutions report that they are keeping pace with instructor demand. Dave Wyrtzen, associate director of digital classroom services at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, said that the institution’s six general purpose active learning classrooms and three interactive lecture halls are usually enough to accommodate professors who want to use them. In cases of conflict, such as two professors requesting the same classroom at the same time, he said, “there is a bit of a screening process where we ask them for information about their use of active learning. And many of these people we know, because we’ve already worked with them, so priority would be given to the course that is using active learning effectively or has a plan to use active learning effectively.”

In general, however, Wyrtzen added, “if someone’s interested in doing it, we’re pretty eager to get them in the room, because we find that once you get in the room, you get inspired to try new things and develop your course in a positive way.”

Some institutions require participation in active learning workshops or pedagogical communities in order to teach in active learning spaces, though this isn’t the case at Rutgers. Required or not, virtually all experts say that instructor training and support are pieces of teaching in active learning spaces.

What Is an Active Learning Space, Anyway?

Active learning spaces vary in design. Within Rutgers’s classrooms, which accommodate 36 to 90 students, for instance, tables for nine are fixed in place around the room, but students are encouraged to move around with their chairs (the chair base has room for storage). Whiteboards wrap around the space. There’s an instructor station in the middle, allowing the professor to address the class as a whole and to visit with different groups around the room. Technology enables students to share images of their work with the class.

Miller, of the AAU, said active learning classrooms “often have very flexible designs that allow for a whole host of configurations,” while some even incorporate laboratory spaces. All “very much encourage student interaction and the ability to transition between the instructor providing some amount of instruction to smaller group discussions to working in groups or teams.”

In terms of size, Miller said she’s seen active learning spaces ranging from 45 student seats or fewer to up to 270 seats.

Much of the research on active learning and active learning spaces involves STEM courses. Experts say that active learning is beneficial across disciplines, however.

Bruff—who has taken photos of active learning spaces during his campus visits over the years—said his shorthand definition is that active learning spaces incorporate “vertical and horizontal collaboration spaces” and polycentric design. Translation: chairs and tables (horizontal) and whiteboards and screens (vertical), and a layout that doesn’t center the instructor.

Technology is a key feature of active learning classrooms, and students certainly need power and Wi-Fi for their devices. But extensive technological affordances aren’t always necessary. One 2017 study compared student performance in two introductory biology course sections—one taught in a “high-tech” classroom with screens at every table and one taught with just tables and whiteboards—and found no difference in student outcomes.

This finding has potential implications for institutions that may want to create active learning spaces but are put off by the costs of advanced audiovisual equipment. Bruff said that extensive technology may be necessary in some teaching contexts, but not in others, and that it can be helpful for institutions to think about active learning classroom development in “tiers,” from low tech to high tech.

An AAU-related pilot program at the University of Arizona, for example, involved converting pre-existing campus spaces—such as library rooms—into collaborative, active learning environments for students in large STEM courses. Furniture was rented or borrowed. Both students and faculty members reported being enthusiastic about these changes at the pilot’s end, even as initial costs were low.

Lisa K. Elfring, associate vice provost of instruction and assessment at Arizona, said recently that she and others involved in the pilot have since “capitalized on positive instructor and student feedback to continue building out active learning spaces across our campus.” This includes large, permanent spaces in the Albert B. Weaver Science-Engineering Library, in a previously underused gym and in the main library. (The university refers to this area of campus as the Student Success District.) A major collaborative learning and research facility, called the Commons, is underway, and a special committee now regularly assesses smaller classrooms for teaching needs and conversion opportunities.

Ralph, lead author the new paper on access to active learning spaces, said that institutions “can be thoughtful and creative in finding ways to make these supportive environments that don’t require exorbitant investments but instead are really thoughtful about how to afford autonomy and agency to instructors and students—so they can all get the most out of the time to spend together.”

On Equity

For their study, Ralph and his co-authors defined active learning by a consensus definition included in a widely read 2014 paper, one that linked active learning to increased student performance in science, engineering and math: “Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasizes higher-order thinking and often involves group work.” Ralph and his team also identified active learning spaces based on a pre-existing framework in which the physical learning space, technology and pedagogy all work together to enhance student learning.

The study design involved following a cohort of undergraduate students at an unspecified university through two back-to-back semesters of undergraduate organic chemistry, in 2018–19. The authors surveyed students about their decision-making priorities each semester as they selected between otherwise similar sections offered in a) a conventional lecture hall and b) active learning spaces. The authors also tracked students’ attitudes toward chemistry over time.

Researchers observed marked differences in how students self-sorted into active learning sections over time: during initial enrollment, students balanced practical concerns about course time and campus location with peer influence and their own attitudes about learning chemistry. In the second semester, practicality still mattered. But the importance of peer recommendations shifted.

This shift coincided with an apparent interaction between section enrollment and students’ attitudes toward learning chemistry. More specifically, the students who moved into the more active learning space in the second semester demonstrated more expert-like attitudes about learning chemistry, and those attitudes increased over time. (The measure of expertness here was a pre-existing survey tool that asked students about the underlying connections between chemistry concepts.)

Crucially, relatively more women than men wanted to enroll in the active learning spaces in both semesters. The vast majority of students who wanted to enroll in the active learning space but couldn’t due to space limitations were also women.

Ultimately, Ralph said, “some students want to be in the group that showed growing attitudes toward learning, and the lack of access has the greatest impact on women in our sample.”

Ralph’s new paper is a follow-up to an earlier study in which he and colleagues found that women and honors students tended to prefer active learning spaces. While Ralph’s analyses didn’t include race, due to sample size issues and related concerns about student privacy, other research has found that active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in STEM. Emerging research also suggests that there are nuances to the idea that active learning benefits everyone, and that space may play an important role in maximizing the positive effects of active learning across student groups.

“Our study and the larger body of literature that’s developing around active learning shows that students are finding value in active learning methods and spaces that support those active learning methods,” Ralph said. “We see that students’ attitudes develop toward expertise, we see higher learning gains and, broadly, we see opportunities to create a sense of community and belonging for students.”

Kelly Hogan, associate dean of instructional innovation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences, who called her own active learning classroom for 150 students a “game-changer,” said Ralph’s study “suggests that classroom design is one piece of the puzzle in systemically changing education to better include all learners and diversify our disciplines.”

As the research on intentionally designed active learning spaces continues to evolve, she said, “I would hope all administrators are raising funds to bring more of these spaces to their campuses.”

Re-Engaging Students

In addition to implications for equity, learning and collaborating with peers in active learning spaces may be key to increasing student engagement, which has taken a hit during COVID-19.

Miller, of the AAU, said it’s time to think about “how intentional and transparent we need to be with students about the curriculum and the pathway, to understand its purpose and for it to have meaning. Because for students to spend time on campus, they really want to understand the purpose and the meaning behind the courses that they are taking and the sequence of courses. So addressing that is important, and the engagement of students is important. How are you using that in-person time engaging them, having them working in a team environment with their peers and helping them deeply learn?”

Wyrtzen, of Rutgers, said there remains “a lot of suspicion that students are disengaged, or at least concern that they don’t want to be in the classroom. And active learning would certainly be good a good antidote to that. Because if you’re doing what you were doing when you were just lecturing the students online, students are really going to question why they’re even there.”

While the pandemic has challenged student engagement, Miller noted that it made many more faculty members familiar with recording lectures. This presents an opportunity for professors to “repurpose” their classroom time, including via the long-standing flipped-classroom model, in which lectures may be prerecorded and class time is spent on active learning.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the AAC&U, said that her organization continues to promote active learning strategies regardless of space and across modalities, “which was more critical than ever as campuses were forced to transition from face-to-face to remote learning.”

Yet there’s “no doubt that spaces matter when it comes to face-to-face active learning,” she continued. “Small group discussion, interactive learning, group projects and hands-on experiences can be facilitated by certain spaces.”

There is therefore “no question that more active learning spaces are needed across higher education. And these spaces must be accompanied by faculty training to leverage the attributes of those spaces.”

The trade-off could be the availability of seats, with active learning spaces generally serving a smaller number of students, Pasquerella said. “However, the research question regarding active versus passive learning has long been answered in favor of active learning as the best means of promoting student success in work, citizenship and life. Sometimes this means moving beyond the gates of the academy and applying learning in real-world settings in the community. Other times it involves working on diverse teams in the classroom on problems that matter to both the individual and society.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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