What factors help active learning classrooms succeed?

A "premium" active learning classroom
A "premium" active learning classroom 

The idea that the space in which you do something, affects the thing you do is the basic premise behind active learning classrooms (ALCs). These are classroom spaces with features meant to promote and amplify the effects of active learning, including moveable furniture that can be reconfigured easily and a polycentric design where there is no obvious “front” to the room. I’ve been studying ALCs for a while now — it was the subject of my sabbatical at Steelcase in 2017-2018 and this paper on the subject that resulted. I’ve been teaching in an ALC since last year, and in my view, ALCs definitely live up to the hype.

But there’s quite a bit of that hype. Tangible and visually impressive, ALCs sometimes become the favorites of schools and universities who want to appear that they are making investments in innovative teaching. But once installed, they sit unused (or misused), like so many overhyped technologies before them and at about ten times the price.

Some schools install an ALC (or two or three of them) and encounter this unhappy result. Others do the same but reap a major return on the investment: scaling up their use, installing more, and entering a virtuous cycle that changes the culture of instruction on campus. What makes the difference between these two outcomes? That question is the topic of this research paper, which I’m reporting on today:

Beaudry, S. (2022). Zero to Go: The Factors that Lead to Growing Active Learning Classrooms. Journal of Learning Spaces, 11(1).

You can download the paper yourself here.

What is this study about?

Sharon Beaudry, the author, is a faculty member of management at Oregon Tech University as well as a trained lawyer and human resources professional. I know Sharon because she was recently Scholar-in-Residence at Steelcase, the position that was created for, and which I held during my sabbatical. She wrote this paper as her main project in that position.

Part of my work as Scholar-in-Residence was to help select recipients of Steelcase’s now-defunct Active Learning Center Grant program. Each year thousands of secondary and higher education institutions from throughout North America would apply for packages worth about $100,000 each to build an ALC. A dozen schools each (typically six higher education and six grade 6-12 schools) were selected.

The grant program therefore yielded a population of about 100 schools who had installed ALCs in the past and (as part of the deal) kept up a relationship with Steelcase. Prof. Beaudry’s work is a kind of longitudinal study, looking back at some of those grant recipients and attempting to isolate the cultural and administrative factors that differentiate between schools where ALCs really took off and those where they didn’t.

What did the author do?

Prof. Beaudry conducted semi-structured interviews with people from some of the past grant recipient schools. The scripted questions in her interview centered on:

  • The level of knowledge about active learning held by the grant stakeholders,
  • The institutional champions for ALCs at the school,
  • The planning, scheduling, and funding processes for ALCs,
  • Ties to student success and strategic planning, and
  • Cultural characteristics within the school organization.

In all, 34 individuals from 21 higher education institutions were interviewed for this study, including faculty, administration, and other institutional leaders. Of those institutions, 85% were public, with sizes ranging from 1500 students to over 20,000. The 20000+ student institutions accounted for 38% of the colleges. Similarly, there were 11 K12 schools interviewed, 82% of which were public, with 55% of those being middle schools and the rest high schools, with sizes ranging from 500 to 2000 students.

What did the study find?

Before receiving their grants, 81% of the higher education institutions had no active learning classrooms on their campus, and 19% had between 1 and 3. For K12 schools, those numbers were 55% with no ALCs, 33% with between 1-3, and one school that had more than 3. Therefore most of the schools in the grant recipient pool were starting from zero, or near zero, making it possible to think about the level of upscaling with ALCs by just looking at the absolute numbers of ALCs that were built at those schools in the years following the grant.

Prof. Beaudry lumped those schools into three groups:

  • Group A (28% of all institutions in the study) showed an average growth of 20 or more ALCs in the 3-5 year period following the grant and had plans to build more.
  • Group B (25% of institutions) showed an average growth of 10-20 ALCs in the 3-5 year period following the grant and possibly more to be planned.
  • Group C (47% of institutions) showed an average growth of 0-9 ALCs in the 3-5 year period following the grant and had no plans for more.

Keep in mind that ALCs are not cheap. A single Node chair from Steelcase, for example, costs north of 400USD; add 200USD if you want a desk surface attached to it, then multiply by 25 for one classroom. That’s just the chairs. (There's a discount for bulk orders, but it's still a lot of money.) This means that a school in “Group A” is making a major investment, at a level that is impossible to survive as an administrator unless quite a few things are going right, culturally and organizationally, at your school.

Prof. Beaudry found eleven main factors that distinguish the different groups from each other. Here are the five that resonated with me the most:

Active learning knowledge among stakeholders. All of the Group A schools reported that their institutional leaders (interpreted broadly but including the president, vice presidents, deans, etc.) had a high level of knowledge about active learning itself. For Group B this number was around 71% in higher ed and 75% in K12. Only 13% of Group C (combined in higher ed and K12) said their leaders had a high level of knowledge about active learning; 47% reported medium-level knowledge, and 40% said leaders had little knowledge. If you switch to administrative support staff such as teaching and learning center directors and instructional designers, 100% of Group A schools reported these people as having a high level of active learning knowledge; for Group B it was 50% (with 50% reporting “medium” level); for Group C it was about the same. Looking at faculty, 44% of Group A schools, 13% of Group B schools, and none of the Group C schools said their faculty had a high level of active learning knowledge. (However 88% of Group B and 67% of Group C said faculty had “medium” knowledge.)

Approach to training. Generally, the schools that report higher levels of scaling aren’t just installing more rooms, they are also providing more training on how to use them. And not just “more” training, but training that is strategic, structured, and multifaceted. Some of the examples were reported in the study include structured training around active learning pedagogies, used by 90% of the Group A and Group B schools but by only 34% of the Group C schools; offering financial incentives (a tactic used by 33% of the Group A and B higher ed institutions); and using an ALC in a public “grand opening” event or as the site for a workshop (done by 71% of all schools). And importantly, successful training tended to be outreach and not just preaching to the choir: 100% of the less-successful schools tended to focus “only on faculty that showed prior knowledge or interest in active learning methods”.

Approach to scheduling. The Group A and Group B schools had scheduling processes that took the intended use of the ALC into account, matching the space with instructors who intended to use active learning pedagogies. Group C schools did not, and as a result the ALC was often mismatched with the pedagogy being used in it — instructors using the room for passive lecturing and preventing those using active learning from being scheduled into the room. To make the scheduling of the ALC more intentional, Group A and B schools used room databases with photos and data about the rooms; employed scheduling coordinators who worked with the school’s teaching and learning center; had specific naming conventions for classrooms based on the pedagogy intended to be used in the room; and used priority scheduling for faculty who had completed active learning training.

Connection to student success. Higher education institutions with greater upscaling success tended to have higher reported rates of connecting the ALCs with student success outcomes: 86% of schools in Group A report that they had done so, 70% when combining Groups A and B. But in Group C, that number falls to 18%. (There’s no mention of what the “student success factors” are specifically; typically this means things like DFW rates, retention, and so on.) The numbers are about the same for K12 schools.

Institutional champions. Having individuals on campus who advocate for active learning generally, and ALCs specifically, was a common characteristic of successful ALC schools. In the higher ed Groups A and B, 100% of schools had a “cohesive team built out of the teaching & learning center” and 80% identified the director of their teaching and learning center as the main champion. In the same groups, 100% of the schools identified an “institutional leader” — the president, provost, or a dean or vice president, etc. — as a champion of active learning (not just ALCs, but the pedagogy itself). By contrast, only 36% of Group C schools identified their institutional leaders as active learning champions. At the same time, 54% of Group C schools said that their facilities staff were “significant blockers to scaling”, particularly noting that facilities staff have a particular focus on standardizing classrooms and are plugged into the financial and procurement part of the institution but relatively isolated from the academic and technology sides, and tend to make decisions within that isolation.

What does it all mean?

The biggest message I get from this study is that in order to have success with active learning classrooms, you can’t just build them — they have to be introduced as part of an ecosystem that touches almost all parts of the daily function of a university: faculty teaching, faculty development and support, facilities, and the Registrar’s Office to name a few. Without that ecosystem before you build an ALC, it seems hard to have success with students after it’s built. You’re more likely to have an expensive showcase that looks good but ultimately does not fulfill its main purpose: Promoting and amplifying active learning, and moving the culture of a campus toward active engagement in the classroom.

One of the most important pieces of that ecosystem is institutional leadership. I was struck by the repeated emphasis that institutional leaders in schools that upscaled ALCs successfully don’t just approve of ALCs and allow money to be spent on them: They are true believers who are highly knowledgeable about, and evangelists for, not just active learning spaces but active learning itself. This goes all the way up the organizational chart, and the chief executive of the institution is not exempt!

The greatest leadership responsibility in this area belongs, according to the interviewees, to the director of the teaching and learning center. It makes sense; teaching/learning center directors are situated in the space in between classroom instruction and upper administration, and as such they have a unique opportunity and responsibility to advocate, strongly, for both the spaces and for the pedagogy those spaces are supposed to house. If a school doesn’t have vigorous leadership from the teaching/learning center director on this, or if there’s no teaching/learning center at all, the prospects don’t look good.

Another part of the ecosystem that has to be in place is training and development. Again, you can’t just build the rooms; you also have to teach faculty how to use them, and help them understand the underlying pedagogical why. And since this takes time, there has to be some incentive for faculty — money is good, but reassigned time might be better, and priority scheduling doesn’t hurt either. Very importantly, this professional development package shouldn’t just be limited to the “coalition of the willing” who already have bought into active learning; remember that this was the tactic used by 100% of the Group C schools. Instead, ALCs should be thought of as the tip of the spear of a larger initiative to get even the diehard lecture-only faculty on board with active learning.

This presupposes something controversial: That the institution will take a stand on the issue that there is a preferred way to teach, namely active learning, and that the institution will be moving toward making active learning the default pedagogy at the institution. Putting this stake in the ground, and then investing not only in facilities but in professional development and faculty incentives to make it happen, again calls for vigorous, sustained leadership — at the top, and especially by the teaching/learning center director.

Elsewhere in the paper, Prof. Beaudry mentions that successful schools tended to tie their ALC activities to the institutions strategic plan. That’s smart, and a good way to convince faculty (and board of trustee members, etc.) that the “active learning as the default pedagogy” mission is the right move.

Finally, I was blown away by the statistic that only 18% of Group C schools bothered to tie their ALCs to metrics of student success. While leadership is critical, students are the most important component of any initiative in a university. While the 18% figure is shocking to me, it doesn’t surprise me at all to see such a steep dropoff in connections to student success from Group A to B to C. Very simply, if you leave student and their success out of the picture, your initiative isn’t likely to succeed and this goes for any initiative at all.

One last comment, about the view by some schools that facilities personnel are blockers: I work with our Facilities Services folks in my role in the President’s Office, and what the interviewees said about their facilities staff shouldn’t be taken to mean that these folks are anti-active learning or deliberately blocking progress. Ours certainly aren’t. They simply have a particular point of view on facilities and a specific set of constraints that we academic folks may not fully appreciate. I think it’s true what the interviewees said, that being more on the financial/procurement side of the organization, facilities staff sometimes work in isolation from the academic side. But the converse is also true — faculty tend to (in fact, almost always) work only on the academic side and have no idea how facilities staff work. It’s a call for more and better dialogue, and emphasizes the importance of having that “cohesive team built out of the teaching & learning center” that includes facilities, and gets things done and really moves the needle consistently.

Active learning classrooms can be one of two things: Either expensive window dressing that conceals a fundamentally stagnant teaching and learning culture at an institution, or a visible sign of a real commitment to active learning and therefore to student success that is a physical part of the university itself. The choice is up to each institution and its leadership. Thankfully Prof. Beaudry has shed some light on what makes a good choice that leads to better results down the road.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.