Introduction to TEL

Day 3: Active learning spaces

Post by Meredith Hinze (University of Melbourne) and Katie Freund

After considering the affordances of spaces, let’s look specifically at the “active learning” spaces which are appearing at more and more universities to see exactly how and why they are different.

A shift in pedagogy

Active learning has increasingly become the standard in higher education, which has challenged institutions to design learning spaces that align with active learning approaches (Rands and Gansemer- Topf 2017). “This spatial-educational transformation is implicitly underpinned by a socio-constructivist teaching and learning philosophy, where students experience social, dynamic, and engaging learning, and are positioned as active directors in their own knowledge construction.” (Acton 2018:1).  We discuss active learning and constructivism in a previous course, and also connect active learning and lecturing in this post.

The term “active” suggests that students want to engage with the content and material, participate in class discussions, and collaborate with each other (see Stanford, 2019). This understanding is important because it signals a much more significant change in pedagogy than space – but the right spaces still help!

Characteristics of active learning:

  • Less didactic, instructor-led teaching
  • Students are more involved in their learning
  • Encouraged to share thoughts and values
  • Instructional strategies like small group discussion, problem-based learning, simulations, peer questioning, authentic assessment tasks, journal writing (Rands and Gansemer-Topf 2017)

It’s often difficult to carry out pedagogical change with existing infrastructure that was designed for other styles of learning (van Merriënboer et al 2017), and new active learning spaces or buildings are being constructed. Here at ANU, the Kambri Precinct development includes the new Marie Reay Teaching Centre, which opened in February 2019. This building was designed to include custom-built active learning spaces, and does not include any lecture theatres or other, traditional classrooms.

Other recent examples include:

question markDiscussion question:

Let’s look at some active learning spaces, including some from the Marie Reay Centre. What are these rooms telling you about their “spatial pedagogy”?

Components of active learning spaces

There are four common design components for active learning spaces that make them different from some other types of spaces (Acton 2018):

  • Learner-centricity – spaces are student centred, designed to motivate, be comfortable, support wellbeing
  • Connectivity – ability to discuss, connect, social collaboration (such as allowing movement, shared social spaces, unstructured learning areas)
  • Flexibility – space can support multiple teaching and learning approaches, movable and adaptable furniture and fittings (such as writable walls and chairs with wheels)
  • Affordances – embedding technologies and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), technologies can provide more affordances for exploration and blended learning

The design of active learning spaces promotes activity and participation. They enable student centered learning, complex conversations, collaboration, inquiry and group work, through greater flexibility, connectivity and use of multiple technologies for students. The main purpose for these rooms are to breakout into project or discussion groups. For example students collaborate working together in groups for a short time, gathering ideas, references, media, etc and then present back to the whole class via the screens. In a sense, every group is the front of the room, and every group can take a turn in leading the class.

Translating these characteristics into spatial elements, means these spaces have larger flat floor spaces with moveable and flexible furniture, possibly high tables and stools, multiple screens and input points, power supply points, stable WIFI, handheld and lapel mics, room dividers or transparency curtains to split the room in half or create huddle groups etc. Tables are designed to form different sized groups, with no ‘head of the table’ dominance.

Often these spaces do not have front of room projection, and have a minimalist or non-fixed teaching point, with wireless keyboard and mouse. The teacher is no longer the centre of attention, but moving easily around the room, standing alongside students, and participating in student-directed discussions. The focus of these spaces is on interaction. Teachers move around the entire room switching from addressing the whole room, to speaking to groups privately. Collaborative rooms enable discussion and the interplay between table groups, whereas project groups foster creation around a device.

These spaces de-centralise power, are learner-centred, and encourage students to take a more active approach (and responsibility) to their learning.

An example from the University of Melbourne

Dr Guy Morrow from the Faculty of Arts describes how he uses active learning spaces to facilitate project based learning for his students in Arts and Cultural Management. In these spaces, he describes how his role as a teacher shifted significantly and the impact on student experience in the course.

Watch the video.

question markDiscussion Question

Have you ever taught in an active learning space? How was it similar or different to other spaces you have used? What opportunities or challenges did it present for you? What would your ideal active learning space look like?

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll explore learning activities that are designed to suit these types of spaces, and share some ideas around how to adapt your existing teaching to better suit active learning environments.



25 thoughts on “Day 3: Active learning spaces

  1. This year is my 5th year of flipping science. That is my content is delivered on-line with workshop/pracs being applications of this by students. This has been done in some years in STB-S2 (and sometimes less conducive spaces). What would my ideal space for these workshops be like?
    In addition to what is featured in the pictures in the day’s blog (personally, I liked the middle UMelb ones as they had external windows AND most importantly, roundish tables) I’d like to see the ability for students to share their work on their laptops/ipads using a wireless projector. I think of the tables as important engagement on the scale of a few students, a group – but I like to cap that with engagement of the whole class. To facilitate this I’d like students to show how they did the problems: (1) This is important experience (teaching is the ultimate “learning”) and, (2) it also helps students to know their cohort. Having a projector that can wirelessly connect to not only my iPad, but my students devices, would be really helpful.

    1. Edie, do you find the students have actually studied the online content, before the face-to-face session? My worry is they will just turn up not having done any work. So this semester I am setting the deadline for the online work, to just before the face-to-face session.

      pc: An alternative to sharing a screen is to get the content on the room’s PC, and then use a wireless keyboard with touch-pad to control this. But I tell the students that if all the technology fails, they have to be ready to just stand there, and talk.

      1. Tom, I’m using Moodle’s Lesson function for the first time to encourage, and somewhat monitor, student engagement with the content before the in-person sessions. Not only is there a mix of short and extended answer questions following the content, but the next section only becomes available upon completion of the current section. Will let you know how it goes.

      2. Hi Tom,

        Yes, they do the online content as they have to complete on-line quizzes (and the quizzes span easy to somewhat more difficult with multiple attempts allowed). The on-line quiz questions must be attempted at least once before the face-to-face session – and then in the face-to-face, they do yet more problems. In one of my courses, they also have assessed homework problems that are due 2 days after the face-to-face (and this “ups” compliance on-line due dates) So the penalty for not getting the on-line stuff done is a series of deadlines which have increasing contribution to their mark. My advice to make this work is
        (1) make the quizzes significant, so they come to workshop with questions about them and the absolute due date is either before or a few hours before the workshop .
        (2) make the workshop problems significant. I also do not give out solutions to these – so the students must come to work out the solutions and share them.

        The sharing of keyboards is an idea I hadn’t thought about. But it doesn’t allow students to share their work which they construct using different apps on their devices : Mathematica, Python, or simple table apps like Good Note. And, yes – chalk-board presentation is the fall back (and most choose this), but some like to show how they can do this with their apps. I myself would like to project some work I do with a particular group to the whole class using microphone and my own iPad while sitting at a particular group table. Its a way of having the whole class “spy” on a group working on a problem.

    2. Hi Edie,

      Thanks for sharing. I really like the UMelb setup too 🙂 I like how you mention engaging the whole class. Perhaps this is an area where the appropriate technology can make a real difference. As far as I’m aware, the collaborative spaces in the new teaching building can facilitate that by letting students share their work through an app where they can wirelessly project their own screen. I haven’t had the chance to test that but curious to see if anyone else had a go teaching in that space yet and whether this piece of technology is working well for them or not. Or alternatively, if anyone has experience engaging the class room through wireless tech or by other means?

  2. The ANU Marie Reay Centre rooms 3.05 and 4.02, at first glance, appear similar. They both have rows of rectangular tables for six students, three a side. Room 3.05 has white boards on the wall, with space to stand in front. 4.02 has electronic screens on the wall, one per desk, with the desk up against the wall. I assume 3.05 intended for more work as one large class, whereas in 4.02 students have their group work on individual screens. I suspect that in practice these screens will not be used, and both rooms will be used in much the same way. Hopefully the neat rows will be messed up in the first day.

    Melbourne University Arts West has octagonal (?) tables for six students (?). There are very small electronic screens and white-boards on the walls, which appear to have no relationship to the desks, and I can’t see what use these would be, unless the students are supposed to get up and stand around them. The room is presumably used for small group discussions.

    The Monash University “learning in the round” room has rectangular tables seating six, like spokes of a wheel. There are ceiling mounted electronic displays in the center. There is a hemispherical object on the floor below the screen, which might be a podium. The room is so large the screens would not be legible for those in the back row, and would be difficult to see for any students, sitting at right angles to them. I can’t image what practical use this room could be for education. It puts me in mind of Bentham’s Panopticon, a circular prison designed for mass surveillance.

    I have taught in active learning spaces. These contrasted with lecture theaters, by having flat floors and (mostly) movable furniture, and usually being smaller (but up to 330 students). These provided the opportunity for students to talk to each other, and work together, plus short presentations. Some of these spaces were not well equipped with A/V, were cramped, and inconveniently shaped.

    My ideal active learning space would be rectangular (4:3), with electronic screens and writing surfaces on all four walls. There would be rectangular tables for six students, on wheels, with flip tops. There would be WiFi, and A/V. It would be possible to give a lecture to hundreds of people, and then have the participants reconfigure the room for group work in a few minutes. The University of Canberra’s Inspire Center TEAL room is the closest to this I have seen anywhere.

    1. Hi Tom,

      It’s good to see you’ve investigated the different Marie Reay rooms and thought about potential uses for them. Thanks for sharing your insights! I’m curious to know why hope for the rows to be “messed up” in the first day 🙂 Do you have any ideas in mind on how the room could be arranged?

      1. Jen, I have only been in one Marie Reay room. I hope to see the others on Friday, but in the interim I was working from the photos provided in the notes.

        The tables look a bit too regimented for my taste. A real teaching room needs to be in a constant state of flux, rearranged for each teaching period, if not within periods. As an example, the tables might be put in a circle for a large discussion group, assembled into one big board room table for decision making, or flipped, and pushed out of the way, for a “stand-up” meeting (those are very trendy for software development group work).

        By the way, I found a brief description of the Monash University “Learning in the round” room. The strip around the circular wall apparently is one continuous white-board. There are consoles to present from near the wall and in the center:

        The curved object in the middle of the Monash room is a “map table”. The idea seems to be that students put documents on the table and cameras relay this to screens above.

        The only place I have seen a “map table” was on a warship twenty years ago, and even then it had been superseded by a wall mounted projection screen. I question the value of taking up space in a classroom with a big fixed bespoke table. A document camera would be far more useful (the students use these in ANU computer science for their demos).

  3. Whoops. Described my ideal learning space in Day 2’s comments. Monash’s “Learning in the Round” room seems like a close approximation.

    Slight tangent – I like how the seats in the Monash picture above, while not on wheels, come with storage space for bags, etc. This frees up so much space in the room, even if you rearrange the chairs. Such a simple, yet effective idea.

    1. Hi Bhavani,

      I hadn’t even noticed the storage spaces. Thanks for pointing that out! That’s a good point, we often miss some of the details like storage in room design. I imagine it will be so much more efficient for the students to be able to keep their bags within arm’s reach but also out of the way 🙂

    2. Hi Bhavani, I love the idea of the storage space! I am always tripping over bags etc! One of the things that I worry can get missed in the room design is sufficient desk space for the teacher’s notes, handouts, attendance sheets, devices, and so on. In a recent session I ran, I used my laptop, iPad, a clicker, and had notes as well and there was nowhere to put them except to take up one of the spots on the student desks.

  4. The spaces depicted, including the ANU Marie Reay Centre rooms, look a lot more learner-centric than most of the rooms on ANU campus pre-update. It’s great that each of the tables has close access to white board facilities and or screens so that these can be used during classes. Looking at all the spaces from a student point of view, they seem to tell the student that group work and, specifically, small group discussion, are going to feature throughout the class. Most of the spaces look like they would feel welcoming and user friendly, except (perhaps) the Monash space…maybe due to its size, or maybe because the central screens seem imposing…I’m not quite sure.

    The Melbourne Uni video was interesting. I like the idea that the third hour of the three hour seminar was used for group work and that the students have the opportunity to teach each other. I imagine that the space could be quite noisy, though, which might be distracting at times…or maybe not. I have worked in active learning spaces before, but not anything as well equipped as the spaces depicted here. The space I’m talking about was essentially an empty room, with a flat floor, which made working in small groups quite easy. The room had a good feel but could, at times, get too hot and the air conditioning was distractingly noisy. There was no wi-fi, which limited what students could do for presentations and if they wanted to look things up within the context of a small group discussion. I guess what makes part of the spaces depicted today so good for active learning is how flexibly they can be used overall, from movable furniture to technologies and screens that can be used in many ways.

  5. Hi Rebecca,

    Thanks for pointing out the noise factor, I wonder about the acoustics at Marie Reay, especially the larger rooms. Wow doing group work without wifi, something I can’t fathom anymore! It is interesting how we can be so tied to technology. Was there still any other ways your students could do some research in that setting?

  6. It would have been wonderful to have taught in spaces with desks and chairs with wheels but I am not a fan of curved or odd shaped desks (such as those in the Ethel Tory and Library computer labs). The awkward curves and angles always strain my arms so I much prefer rectangular or square desks.

    Like Katie, when teaching, I need a table to spread out all the materials and equipment so they can be accessed easily. It is not ideal if teachers are forced to have their backs to their students as they may miss subtle signs from students about whether they are engaged or keeping up.

  7. Having taught in Marie Reay 2.02 for the last six weeks, the setting although conducive for small group discussions (for eg. think pair share) with a follow up with the whole class… In reality though, getting students to actively participate is still challenging when the acoustics of the room is the way it is and there is no stopping/preventing really distracting displays near the bean bags area. There were a few instances of star jumps that got me worried that someone will get hurt. There are still follow up work that interrupts class discussions.

    Further, the collaborative space need to be supported by technology that works towards collaborative learning – this is still not the case in MR2.02.

    1. Rebecca, this is so interesting to hear! There is such an increasing movement towards glass, glass, glass in teaching spaces and I personally find it very disruptive and distracting, and I prefer to have a sense of privacy within a classroom as part of creating a safe space. I’m hoping that there is a “Marie Reay Phase 2” stage that will include frosting or privacy screens on some of that glass!
      Would love to hear more about your experiences with the technology and how it is not quite facilitating collaborative learning approaches?

      1. Katie – We have been advised that for MR2.02 that if we change the Room Configuration setting on the control panel from “Didactic” to anything else, the session will not record. So to the extent that we are supposed to “record”, currently it is a very fine balance of incorporating team based case study discussion that does not disrupt the didactic mode.

  8. At first glance number of words come to mind describing what the rooms are telling me: fun, group work, buzz, deliberate interaction, peer to peer learning, quality conversation.
    To me, the spatial pedagogy demonstrated by these rooms are about equality – equality between learners, and equality in the teacher-student relationship. A good teacher in this space becomes a guide on the side who is invested in facilitating quality interaction between students, who can personalise their guidance for each small group based on the dynamics and needs of the group. The choice of moveable furniture deconstructs the static traditional space and turns it into something more playful (as does the cool wallpaper!) and flexible around the assessment or tasks at hand, and less intimidating for students. White boards on the walls look ideal for group brainstorming, encourage use of the whole space (not just horizontal surfaces), and get people standing up – better for blood flow, concentration and confidence! As a learner, I would have been more engaged in the learning process, the materials being discussed and felt safer to participate with my peers if I’d experienced university learning spaces like these.

    I’ve had no opportunity to teach in spaces more recently designed for active learning like the Marie Reay centre. Library labs are designed for small group learning and I’m improving in my ability to build collaborative exercises into the design of library research sessions.
    Opportunities: The Hancock flex labs, where I have facilitated a number of undergrad library workshops, have small white boards around the room and a trainer machine off to the side of them room. I have made use of these by asking students to be a scribe for me and/or to write out their brainstorming/mind mapping process on the board. I have also found that with the trainer machine being less centrally located in the lab, students are more willing to ‘drive’ and show the group how they would use a database or navigate a website.
    Challenges: as the rooms are still designed around the PCs on stands which can hinder group interaction, it sometimes takes some persuading to get students to move out from behind the machines to have a discussion with a small group or the larger group. I can see this is where activities designed to activate learning can go some way to mitigating the physical limitations of a learning space.
    My ideal space….definitely it would have colour and natural light; space to sit and to stand including bean bags, capacity for visual expression and explanation of ideas – tablets, whiteboards etc – as well as verbal interaction; light weight furniture that is easy to move and reconfigure; capacity for a students’ devices to be connected in to the projector so that students have an option to demonstrate their work (or facilitate group discussion) from their own device to a large group without having to leave their seat.

    1. Hi Imogen, I loved your description of the ideal space– can we have that please!! When you get a chance to do some things in the Marie Reay building I’d love to hear if it meets your “ideal” requirements! I’ve found it a bit of a mixed bag myself!

      1. Hi Katie,
        Thanks for the feedback. One thing I missed was sound proofing!! he hehe When an opportunity comes to facilitate something in the MR Centre to see how things work in practice, I’ll definitely check in!

        1. Hi Imogen, soundproofing indeed! I’ve found that the rooms in MR are very soundproofed from the informal spaces on the same floor, but very NOT soundproofed between floors – we were running a workshop in 4.02 yesterday and could hear a choir singing and dancing in the room above. Very distracting!

          1. During OWeek Sem 2, 2019, I facilitated a couple of sessions in the MR Centre, Room 2.02 and have the following 3 observations to share:
            1. As a presenter, I LOVE the informality of the space. The something equalizing being on the flat floor in a big open space like that. I loved being able to wander amongst the tables and chat to each grouping during activities.
            2. In the first session I facilitated in the room, my (unconscious) assumption that being grouped around the tables, students would naturally interact with each other was quickly quashed. I adapted on the fly during the second interactive activity by giving students 1 minute to go around the table and share their favourite movie + why and to say what their research/courses are about. After that there was more buzz in the room. I didn’t need to do that in previous traditional tiered lecture venues where they sat directly alongside a friend/friends and were working together in 2-3s.
            3. The students towards one end of the room (the ‘back”) had their backs to me for some of the sessions to look at the screen closest to them. Initially that was a bit off putting, but afterwards, I realised it indicated a focus on the information being shared, rather than the facilitator. In my mind that’s a really good thing and demonstrates the way a learning space can radically enable learner centred-pedagogy by visibly placing the presenter as a collaborator/facilitator/guide who is far more accessible than the traditional model of the talking head/gatekeeper of knowledge being the focus.

  9. So I finally had a chance to get a workshop in the Marie Reay – whilst I was promised Floor Six (SuperFloor!), I ended up in 2.02, and whilst there were bugs* in getting the event to happen, the space itself is really interesting, but so hard to customise on the fly.

    The mobile cheesewedge white boards are super nifty, and I think there’s a real potential for these to be integrated into the table based group work, and that might make it a world easier to facilitate the “Back to the room” conversations. I ran the workshop, and had a chance to label up the key questions for the groups, on the board, and put those at the end of the table, so the teams could share their ideas. Going through a workshop, doing the activities, and then having the vertical boards for tracking ideas and presenting looks to be a useful feature.

    Cutting the room down to size was something I just couldn’t do in the lead time – that said, being able to see the projector screen at the back of the room as a foldback / stage monitor was excellent, and made presenting to the room more effective since I didn’t need to glance over the shoulder to monitor or projector screen
    (More venues need the foldback screens)

    So the space was good, there was actual space to move around, and there was a lot of pros to the venue when it was in action. The cons were all on the lead in problems. So I assume when I get command of one of these boxes in semester, it might be smoother sailing.

    That said, I think we need to have more consideration on bump-in/bump-out times for teaching spaces as we increase the level of props/dynamics/room changes and other set up requirements .

    Ideal space for this sort of thing? A Kambri that had been beta tested – like, on paper, it looks the business, until you realise that you can’t see the teaching screen from where you stand to present, there’s no space for physical assets, we’d do well with a bunch of k-mart cube shelves as storage for bags in class, because we’re only in there once a week, it’s not ‘our space’ so there’s no sense of space/place for the educators. Something like a green room, or a set of lockers, or a teacher lounge (card access controlled space) so getting to the venue ahead of time isn’t an awkward wait in the corridor. That sort of thing that says “We facilitate the passage of students in/out/through education, and we remembered there are educators, and some of the infrastructure is here for them”.

    That would be grand, because then we could start doing things like having libraries of T&L resources, and shared assets for educators to be able to go “Doing a workshop, flipped mode, need X objects, and we can install them at venue ahead of time for us to access on the day”

    Now I think about it, a super physical space on campus for teaching would incorporate space for educators as well as space for students. That’s the design philosophy I’d like for Marie Reay 2:The Quickening.

    * The Marie Reay deserves to be a better space than it currently is, and the bug hunting that’s afoot is phenomenal because there’s stuff that shouldn’t have made it to operational – not least of which is the building closing at 6pm. Since when do we shut the teaching shop at 6? ANUCBE26 is a 9.30-10pm close, and the supereducation space is offline just after tea time?

    1. I cannot wait for Marie Reay 2: The Quickening. Can we have that now??

      Your comment at the end about Marie Reay deserving to be a better space has really stuck out to me. There were a lot of goals and dreams for the space, but as you say, it really feels like we are all using a space that is still unfinished and in development. The spaciousness of the superfloor is one of my favourite aspects as well, with the room to really move around, reorganise, discuss, etc. But the chairs not having wheels really bothers me, especially when all the other rooms in the building do!

  10. I described my experience in an active learning space in Day 1… And unfortunately, I have no experience teaching at MR (or ANU in general!). So I’ll touch upon something else that stuck with me in this post.
    Dr Guy Morrow mentioned he feels a bit like a waiter, hovering around until his students need him. I have felt exactly the same! I found it a bit awkward at first: Don’t my students need me?; When’s a good time to cut in/help out/wrap things up? But you get over it when you hear/see how much your students enjoy the class.
    Another thing I had to be mindful of was making sure I touched base with all the groups. Some groups can really try to hog your time! When I had a lot of short collaborative activities, I would draw a diagram on my notecards and tick off who I had talked to 🙂 To mix groups, I would often use playing cards. They are really versatile! You can have students make groups per suit, rank, or design (I would mix different sets with different designs). And then you just have to work out how to arrange and rearrange the groups! You also have to work out who to talk to at which point – e.g. during activity X, talk to all “the Aces”; all “the hearts”; etc. You can also assign roles to students using playing cards; e.g. “the Kings” chair the discussion, “the twos” take notes, etc.
    As Dr Guy Morrow said, a lot of hard work goes in beforehand! Not just in designing the materials, but also in thinking about how you’ll “activate your learners”!

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