University of Georgia Learning Center
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Designing for How We Learn: Classrooms

This series of articles on designing spaces for learning has focused on the central idea of “See + Hear + Do = Remember.” My last article focused on applying that mantra to large auditoria and lecture spaces and making them conducive to active learning. Now let’s look at applying those concepts to small and medium classrooms, where the concept of active learning is absolutely critical.

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Students at the University of Texas Southwest participate in a Team-Based Learning course.

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Generally, classrooms are sized in a building program based on a station size per student. For many classrooms built in the ’50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, this station size was often 12-15 square feet per student. That was also the era of tablet armchairs, facing the front, when students were to remain silent and soak up the pearls of wisdom dispensed by the illustrious professor. He would deliver his message from the front of the room, and the only technology was blackboard and chalk (with maybe an overhead projector by the ‘70s).

Today, the overwhelming majority of students bring an electronic device to class, and many use the device to take notes. Technology for the instructor includes a computer, projector, often several monitors and a whiteboard or blackboard. She delivers some conceptual discussion from the front, but then moves around the room as students are working together at an activity to master the concept they just saw and heard. Stationary tablet armchairs are passé; the room is often set up with tables and chairs, ideally flexible so the students can either face front or turn and work together in groups.

With the conversion to “active learning” mode, the station size per student must be able to accommodate flexibility in configuration; station size can range from 25-35 SF/student depending on the furniture and configurations desired. The designer has to take that space allocation and then turn it into a classroom shape that actually allows optimal sightlines.

When dimensioning a classroom or teaching space, the best rule of thumb to produce both good sightlines and efficient layout is as follows: the space needs to be slightly rectangular, but NOT long and narrow. If X = 1, then Y should = 1.2 ideally, and no more than 1.5. Screens should be as large as possible, and twice the height of the screen should be maintained between the screen and the first row of chairs (and eyes).

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I had a really enlightening conversation with an AV/IT consultant on a recent project, where I had planned a classroom with the above equation (Y = 1.2 * X). I had mandated that the long wall be the main teaching wall, and the consultant said he always wanted the short wall to be the teaching wall, because that had the best sightlines to the screen. This was an eye-opener for me; when I set the room as a teacher, the long wall is the teaching wall because that gets the most students close to the “front” — which is best for hearing. As long as the magic equation is maintained, we can get the best of both worlds — good sightlines AND good acoustics.

For the first few years of my career, I taught high school. I taught in a newly built school with classrooms that had appropriate dimensions and 35 tablet armchairs. Without knowing exactly why I did it, I always arranged the room as shown below:

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What I knew at the time was that this allowed me to see every student in the room and allowed them to see me. It also meant that, if someone in the back was not paying attention, I could wander closer to them. Without having to do anything else, just the sound of my voice getting a little louder made them pay attention. It also made it easier to see if someone was craning their neck trying to see someone else’s test paper.

What we know now is that proper attention to acoustics is crucial if students are to be able to hear and understand material that is presented orally (see Article #2, One Simple Mantra). Put simply, the more an instructor is able to mingle with her students, the more pedagogical tools she has at her disposal.

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Classroom lectures are often broken up by different activities that engage students.

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Within a classroom environment, a variety of methods can ensure student engagement. Short writing breaks during a lecture can help students to crystallize what they really get and where they’re still unsure. Peer explanation and self-explanation — when all learners put what they have learned into their own words — is an oral way of accomplishing the same goal. Using technology, the instructor can pose questions and have students vote, with software such as Poll Everywhere allowing everyone to see on the screen instantly if they’ve gotten it right.

Problem-solving, either alone or in groups, means using the concepts they’ve just learned. Getting stuck during the process helps their meta-cognitive understanding: do they really have enough understanding to solve the problem, or what else do they need to know? 

A quick word about tablet armchairs:  they are often still used in university settings, primarily because they are already there from the past. They are movable and reconfigurable. So the question, driven usually by budget, is why not use them for active learning? It is true that students can pull tablet armchairs around to get into groups. However, the tablet is, by its nature, a separator. Each student has his own surface, angled to make writing easier (remember how long they’ve been around.) So the ability to share information across a flat surface is not there. Students can’t put their laptop down flat to share with others.  Further, they are clunky and usually difficult to move, and thus are left untidy at the end of class. Once a university has engaged in a program to promote active learning classrooms, tablet armchairs can be an acceptable stop-gap, but there must be other ways for students to share information as they are working together.

Hands-on application of skills is another pedagogical tool. This has always been the primary idea behind science and engineering instructional labs. Students go to lecture to get the concepts, and then go to lab to apply them. In an upcoming post, I’ll explore how these lab spaces can also be designed using the mantra: See + Hear + Do = Remember.

Classrooms that are designed for active learning provide good sightlines and good acoustics. They contain flexible furniture that can be moved around and technology to allow sharing of information. They assume that the instructor will move about the room to monitor the group work the students are doing. These are the tools of the trade for active learning.

Read more from June's Designing for How We Learn series. 

  • How We Got Here
    June takes a look at what we have learned about "how we learn" over the last couple of decades and how that is informing how we think about space. 
  • One Simple Mantra
    "See + Hear + Do = Remember" is the mantra June applies when designing educational spaces. In this article, she explores each step in the process.
  • Lecture Halls
    Applying the "See + Hear + Do = Remember" framework to lecture halls requires some exploration into how they will be used. June dives into the details in this article.
  • Maker Spaces and Instructional Laboratories
    Maker spaces and instructional laboratories inherently support active learning. June examines how what we know today about how we learn has major implications for how we design these spaces.