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How Redesign and Faculty Training Boost the Use of Active Learning Classrooms

Case Study

min read

This case study shows how the transformation of just one traditional classroom can help jumpstart campus-wide conversations about active learning.

4 people meeting around a table
Credit: mentalmind / Shutterstock.com © 2022

As Innovative Learning Officer at my institution—Nazarbayev University, in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan—I have the responsibility of marrying pedagogy with technology and making all our faculty not only witness the happy events but also take part in them. Clearly, the bigger the role that you take in organizing and participating in an event, the more memories and lessons learned you will gain from it.

My "wedding services" begin either with requests from faculty about a concrete tool or teaching method or with the examination of what others in higher education are talking about. The case I am going to share here began in 2019 as the result of my reading the EDUCAUSE Horizon Report, which included the statistic that as of March 2019, 76% of U.S. colleges and universities provided active learning classrooms. In addition, EDUCAUSE identified active learning classrooms as #2 in its 2019 list of "Top 10 Strategic Technologies."Footnote1

My plan consisted of three stages:

  1. Identify a traditional classroom and redesign it into an active learning environment
  2. Design and deliver training for faculty to ensure efficient use of the classroom
  3. Guide faculty members in redesigning their courses in order to shift teaching from a traditional classroom to an active learning environment

Redesigning a Lecture Hall

Nazarbayev University (NU) was established in 2010 to become a "national brand" as a global-level, international research university. It is a traditional, campus-based university focusing on both teaching and research. The university has eight schools/centers that prepare experts in areas such as engineering and digital sciences, mining and geosciences, medicine, humanities and social sciences, education, public policy, and business. More than 6,000 students and 500 academics compose the campus community.

As noted, the campus design is traditional, with a prevalence of didactic, or instructor-centered, classrooms. This type of classroom has generally been accepted on campuses across the country. So it was for the first time, in 2021, that an existing traditional lecture hall with fixed seating was redesigned into a low-tech active learning classroom. The initial plan was to redesign three classrooms, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting budget cuts, only one classroom was approved for transformation. In the process of deciding which classroom to redesign, the major criteria were (1) the biggest classroom and (2) the classroom with highest visibility on campus to serve as a showcase and incentive for further transformations.

The following are some of the new features of the redesigned classroom:

  • Modular tables and mobile chairs to enable flexible use of space for various types of group activities
  • Three Polyvision whiteboards, which allow students to make presentations and hold discussions when necessary
  • Multiple power sockets around the room to promote a bring your own device approach.

The redesign included eliminating a tiered floor, allowing for both teacher-focused and student-centered layouts (see figure 1). The walls were decorated with vibrant color stripes to incentivize learning.Footnote2

Figure 1. Classroom 6.105 Before (left) and After (right)
Classroom on the left (before) is rows of chairs and everything is beige. Classroom on the right (after) is tables with chairs facing each other. The walls are white with red and blue accents.

Delivering Professional Development Training

The primary task in the second stage of the plan—delivering faculty training—was to design a professional development event focused on helping faculty learn how to adapt their pedagogy in the active learning environment so that they could take full advantage of the new classroom space. The training was designed as a program consisting of three 1.5-hour sessions delivered in an online synchronous format across a one-week period. Training information and instructions were distributed to the participants via an e-learning handbook.

During Day 1, participants were expected to develop and articulate a good knowledge and understanding of active learning, to differentiate between active learning strategies and techniques, and to identify benefits of and barriers to active learning pedagogy. In their conversations, participants agreed with the benefits of teaching in an active learning environment, but they mentioned that this shift would require extra time in order for them to be able to revise their current teaching practices.

During Day 2, participants were presented with a new classroom layout to envision and practice active learning strategies and techniques for implementation while teaching in this space. This exercise helped attendees start revisioning how their teaching would be impacted by a change in classroom affordances and layout. Some of them decided on the particular active learning techniques they planned to try first (e.g., jigsaw, gallery walks, minute papers). One participant even shared a plan to use active learning as a way to introduce new concepts through techniques such as peer instruction, minute papers, and lecture tutorials.

Finally, on Day 3, participants discussed the ways that the active learning classroom could support their teaching and enrich students' learning experiences through the preparation for (re)designing course/lesson units. Some attendees discussed the idea of introducing active learning in a traditional classroom. Interestingly, a few mentioned concern about university support, such as the extent to which the administration would allow risk-taking and failures as the result of course redesigns.Footnote3

Shifting to Active Learning

As a result of the training program, there is evidence that so far, two faculty members (out of twenty) followed through to redesign their courses and shifted their teaching to an active learning classroom. Also, one faculty member invited me to collaboratively design a similar program for Kazakh language teachers. In each of these cases, I regularly met with the faculty member to consult on their course redesign with the implementation of active learning strategies and techniques and supported their shift to the new space. To various degrees, other program participants mentioned their self-declared willingness to implement active learning, although I was not consulted on their shifts.

Two cases of active learning were from the same school, making it easier for me to arrange the consultations since similar materials could be shared specific to their disciplines. I set up a shared Google Drive folder where I would place materials for possible use and for guidance. On a weekly basis, we had conversations around the changes in syllabus, assessment, learning activities, and course pages on Moodle (our learning management system).

Conclusion and Further Plans

Active learning classrooms, which support various formats of teaching and learning, have proven their efficiency.Footnote4 Despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the pace of development for active learning classrooms, colleges and universities continue to create these spaces. However, infrastructure development does not always result in effective space usage or in improved learning experiences. Such redesigns need to move in tandem with faculty preparation.Footnote5 The training program I designed for one specific classroom has now been modified to focus not only on promoting the use of the active learning classroom but also on implementing active learning in any type of learning space.Footnote6

Discussions about active learning are a good way to enhance networking and collaboration both within and across each school and discipline. At Nazarbayev University, this one classroom transformation led to additional, needed campus conversations about the imperative of reconsidering learning environment design and usage overall.

Notes

  1. Bryan Alexander et al., EDUCAUSE Horizon Report: 2019 Higher Education Edition (Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE, 2019); D. Christopher Brooks and Mark McCormack, 2019 Higher Education's Trend Watch and Top 10 Strategic Technologies, research report (Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE, March 2019). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Summer Smith Taylor, "Effects of Studio Space on Teaching and Learning: Preliminary Findings from Two Case Studies," Innovative Higher Education 33 (2009). Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. For more details, see Aiman Khamitova, "Faculty Training as a Tool to Support Active Learning Classroom Usage" (doctoral dissertation, Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems, Florida State University, 2022). Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. See Robert J. Beichner, "The Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) Project," Bulletin of the American Physical Society, April 9, 2011; Keeley Webb Copridge, Suraj Uttamchandani, and Tracey Birdwell, "Faculty Reflections of Pedagogical Transformation in Active Learning Classrooms," Innovative Higher Education 46 (2021); Yehudit Judy Dori and John Belcher, "How Does Technology-Enabled Active Learning Affect Undergraduate Students' Understanding of Electromagnetism Concepts?" Journal of the Learning Sciences 14, no. 2 (2005); Melissa L. Rands and Ann M. Gansemer-Topf, "The Room Itself Is Active: How Classroom Design Impacts Student Engagement," Journal of Learning Spaces 6, no. 1 (2017). Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Tracey Birdwell and Suraj Uttamchandani, "Learning to Teach in Space: Design Principles for Faculty Development in Active Learning Classrooms," Journal of Learning Spaces 8, no. 1 (2019). Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. This 2-hour training module is available on request and is delivered to each department individually. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.

Aiman Khamitova is Innovative Learning Officer at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan.

© 2022 Aiman Khamitova. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.