Learning Space Design in Action

© 2005 Phillip D. Long

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 40, no. 4 (July/August 2005): 60.


Introductory science courses need to merge lectures, recitations, and hands-on laboratory experience into a technologically and collaboratively rich experience for incoming freshmen. This mix of technology, pedagogy, and classroom design results in better learning. Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) at MIT (http://icampus.mit.edu/teal) is the latest iteration of this effective strategy. TEAL is a project of MIT iCampus (supported by Microsoft Research), the d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence, and the National Science Foundation.

The transition to such a different mode for teaching introductory physics was motivated by

  • the low attendance rates that characteristically plague such courses (at MIT, attendance rates were frequently 40% to 50%);
  • failure rates averaging 10% or greater;
  • recent data showing that pedagogy using "interactive engagement" methods results in higher learning gains than does the traditional lecture format and is usually accompanied by lower failure rates; and
  • the reintroduction of the lab experience (for the past thirty years, freshman physics at MIT did not have a laboratory component at all).

MIT is not the first to try this format. "Studio Physics" loosely denotes a format instituted in 1994 at Rennesaeler Polytechnic Institute by Jack Wilson. This pedagogy has been modified and elaborated on by a number of other projects, for example, North Carolina State University’s SCALE-UP Project (http://www.ncsu.edu/PER/scaleup.html), the multi-institutional Activity-Based Physics project (http://physics.dickinson.edu/~abp_web/abp_homepage.html), and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington (http://www.phys.washington.edu/groups/peg/curric.html). MIT has expanded on the work of others by adding a large component centered on active and passive visualizations of electromagnetic phenomena.

Key elements of TEAL include the following:

  • Takes place in a dedicated room (the "studio"), in which students sit in groups of nine, divided into teams of three at tables rather than desks; each team has a computer and space to do experiments
  • Uses twenty-minute "mini-lectures" interspersed with assessment questions and thought questions
  • Asks concept questions, which students discuss and then respond to using an electronic polling system with handheld voting keypads
  • Uses active learning through a wide variety of short experiments (often computer-based), visualizations, pencil-and-paper exercises, and discussion questions; the desktop experiments and computer-aided analysis of experimental data give the students direct experience with the basic phenomena
  • Assigns student teams based on assessments of physics knowledge by appointing high-, medium-, and low-scoring students to a team, facilitating peer instruction
  • Emphasizes small-group learning
  • Uses materials and methods derived from physics education research

It is hard to imagine a TEAL class without observing one. For that reason, a streaming video of a TEAL class in mechanics is available on the Web at http://icampus.mit.edu/teal (click on "TEAL in action").

An outline of the TEAL classroom from above
An outline of the TEAL classroom from above

The TEAL classroom from two perspectives
The TEAL classroom from two perspectives