Introduction to TEL

Day 4: Designing for active learning spaces

Post by guest author Meredith Hinze from the University of Melbourne.

Today, we reframe our focus onto the activity based learning models and approaches that suit active learning environments. We will also consider how to design for active learning and “activate” learning when you’ve been timetabled in a standard classroom.

Designing involves planning the sequence of types of activities and interactions for student learning experiences. Consider the different modes of student engagement:

  • learner – teacher interaction
  • learner – learner interaction
  • learner – content interaction

The key to successful interactive activities is a lot of pre-planning, so that you can smoothly achieve the outcomes that you are hoping for. Consider the following when you start thinking about designing for active learning spaces:

  • What learning outcomes do you want students to have from sessions in active learning spaces?
  • How do you want students to learn? (collaboratively in pairs, small or large groups; individually; or using a T&L approach such as role play).
  • What sort of activities can you ask students to do in active learning spaces?

What are the types of learning or activities that ALS (active learning spaces) can facilitate?

Activities need to be educationally purposeful. The guiding principle is that class design shouldn’t be driven by the activity, but that the learning objectives and overall alignment to assessment should drive the choice of activity. (We discuss this in detail in a previous course.) Activities can be divided into low stake and high stake strategies. There are variants of the approaches and they are adaptable to different group sizes.

Low stakes (simple) active learning strategies can be used to engage students in face to face classes or online (using breakout rooms in Zoom, for example), such as:

  • Think-pair-share
  • Pyramid technique
  • Jigsaw technique
  • Buzz group
  • Mindmaps / concept mapping
  • Minute papers
  • Classroom response technologies

More complex high stakes activities, are larger in scope, requiring more structured planning and design include:

  • World café
  • Roll playing
  • Debates
  • Case studies
  • peer learning
  • project based learning
  • collaborative learning
  • experiential learning

The chart below gives a sense of where many of these activities fit in terms of complexity.

Chart showing active learning strategies in increasing complexity.

For details on these active learning models and which apply best for lectures and for seminars/tutorials, see:

Learning Designs for Active Learning Spaces

Whether you’re designing just one class or part of a class, find an approach that aligns most closely with your learning objectives. Careful consideration of the relationship between the affordances of the virtual LMS/online space and the physical classroom space can open up new opportunities for innovative teaching and active learning. When planning teaching and learning activities, it helps to plan out what both the teacher and students and doing.

The template below can be adapted to help plan your activity design.

Intended Learning Outcome Teaching and Learning Activity What the teacher does What the student does Resources /technology involved

Practical strategies and challenges when switching to active learning

Adapting an existing subject that has been taught in traditional lecture/tutorial mode to suit active learning spaces may involve timetable changes and significant remodelling of curriculum.

question markDiscussion Question:

Think about a lesson or bit of content that you might have traditionally offered didactically. How might you adapt this if you were in an active learning space? What types of activities might students do? What technology and timing would be involved? Post your activity designs to the Padlet wall and use the comments to give peer feedback.

Padlet Activity:

An example from the University of Melbourne

Watch this video case study from Dr David McInnis, Senior Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies, English and Theatre, Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne, and reflect on some of the practical considerations in remodelling curriculum and adapting teaching to active learning spaces. Dr McInnis has produced a series of videos of original interpretations of scenes from Shakespeare plays and uses these videos for activities designed across the pre-class, in-class and post-class continuum.







Image: Arts West, The University of Melbourne, large project room. Dr David McInnis, Senior Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies, English and Theatre, Faculty of Arts. In this class students are experiencing a 360’ video of the last scene of The Taming of the Shrew, collaborating on Padlet walls in small groups, and contributing to whole room discussion.

question markDiscussion question:

What are some of the challenges or issues you might face when redesigning your course to suit an active learning space? What practicalities or concerns do you have about this approach? Share your ideas in the comments.

Consider of the following issues and how they might impact your plans:

  • Class size
  • Time available in the session
  • Facilitation and dealing with groups
  • Using technology
  • Others?

A closing thought

Before we finish for today, have a think about the limitations of your own classrooms. What do you think about the capacity for re-imagining “active learning spaces” to stretch beyond the classroom? A case study of interest is the student mini festival as part of the Encounters with Writing capstone subject, coordinated by Dr Maria Tumarkin, Senior Lecturer, Creative Writing, at The University of Melbourne. The festival showcases the collaborative work of students, integrating their critical work into the festival, through creative installations, live performances, interactive elements and experiences. The students completely transform and reconceptualize the learning spaces in Arts West, taking over the building for the evening. Learning spaces are unrecognisable from their classroom identity and rooms are used and activated as a sequence of rooms. Think about how you perceive learning spaces and their limitations as we look at online and blended spaces in our fifth and final post for the course.

Further reading

12 thoughts on “Day 4: Designing for active learning spaces

  1. Couldn’t get Padlet to work, so have posted this here:

    This semester I am helping the ANU Masters of Computing students respond to job selection criteria*. This was previously a conventional presentation, followed by tutorial, and assignment due a few weeks later. Only about one quarter of the students attended the presentation, and only a few had draft work to show during the tutorial.

    This year the work is divided into two parts, with each flipped. The students have online readings, podcast, quiz, and forum activities, then a 50 minute workshop in the Marie Reay Teaching Centre.

    I have not given a lot of thought to the format of the live workshop. I am not sure how many students will attend, so this is an optional extra for an online lesson. I have prepared a generic format for both workshops (appended).
    Class size is a problem, as I don’t know if 3, or 300, students will turn up. To address this, I have asked them to book a seat in advance. Time available in the session is an issue, with the need to rearrange the furniture. I have budgeted ten minutes at the start and end for this, while announcements are made. Dealing with groups in a big room can be a problem, for which I have a very LOUD whistle. Things always go wrong with technology, so I tell students to bring copies of documents, and be ready to get up and talk without aids. Perhaps the biggest problem is students who expect a lecture, and think active learning is just a way for lecturers to avoid work.


    Workshop Format

    A fifty minute workshop will be held for each of the two topics.

    Please note this is not a lecture, it is a hands-on, face-to-face, on campus activity. Read the notes, and readings for topic, complete the quiz, post your answers to the forum, and start work on the assignment, before attending.

    Bring along your answers to the forum questions, and your draft for the next assignment. Students sit in groups of four to six. First discuss a topic as a group then select a representative to relate findings (or ask questions) of the whole room.

    Be prepared to express your view of the quality of the work of your fellow students. This is a less formal assessment than the numerical scale used for the forums, or the marking rubric for the assignments. There are no marks awarded for the workshops.

    “What do you react or respond to as you read it?
    How does it come over?” From Sadler, p. 60, 2013.

    Part 1, Announcements (10 minutes)

    General announcements while students set up the room.

    Part 2, General Questions (10 minutes)

    Students can ask for clarification on administrative, content and assessment questions. Groups first discuss the question and if they are not sure of the answer it can be put to the whole room.

    Part 3, Forum Questions (10 minutes)

    Discuss your answers to this week’s forum questions.

    Part 4, Assignment Master Class (10 minutes)

    Bring along your draft assignment, ask for feedback from your group. Be prepared to put it up on the big screen for group feedback.

    Part 5, Wrap-up (10 Minutes)

    Any concluding remarks by students and instructors.

    Note: WiFi and electronic display screens will usually be available. However, students should bring an off-line copy of their answers to the discussion forums, and draft assignment, as a backup.


    Sadler, D. R. (2013) ‘Opening up feedback: Teaching learners to see’. In Merry, S., Price, M., Carless, D., & Taras, M. (Eds.) Reconceptualising Feedback in Higher Education: developing dialogue with students. (Ch. 5, 54-63). London: Routledge.

    * Really I am teaching them reflection, and life long learning, but as they are about to graduate, the task is framed in terms of getting a job, as that will be the student’s priority.

    1. Hi Tom,

      Great to see that you’ve got a plan (and contingency plans) for your workshops! It will be interesting to see how they are going to go in the new teaching building. I like how you’re using props as solutions but I have my reservations about the use of a whistle though given that people closest to you might find it too loud compared to people far away from you. Have you tried other methods like blacking out all the screens or having a timer that isn’t as loud as a whistle but can go off for awhile to get attention in a large group setting?

      1. Jen, I found papers in the literature on the topic of “whistle pedagogy”. With hundreds of students all talking at once it is very hard to get their attention. Playing a tone or tune over the PA doesn’t seem to work, nor do the screens.

        Also having students in a group all looking at one screen I suggest helps group cohesion. If they are each looking at a separate screen they are then in their own world.

  2. Usually I coordinate and teach my own Drama courses, but this semester I am tutoring into a first year English course instead. I have worked with the lecturer before and she is very good at designing exercises that involve the students in active learning. One of the things she does is sets up a weekly journal writing activity which allows students to write about one aspect of a text (novel/play/poem) that they are studying for the course. The students have to bring their journals to class. They hand in their writing at the beginning of class and then each student is given an anonymous journal entry to read and comment on. In the past, the comments have been written on the paper handed in, then given back to the student who has written the journal entry.

    Having just attended Meredith’s masterclass on active learning, I’m thinking about how this activity could work in spaces like the kambri rooms, and how technologies could usefully be incorporated into the task. I suppose a variation of this could be getting students to work in groups, reading and analysing one journal entry and then writing comments using something like padlet. Just thinking about how this might link in…

    Intended Learning Outcome: develop skills in close reading and textual analysis
    Teaching and Learning Activity: group discussion and analysis of student journal entries
    What the teacher does: allocates journal entries to each group for analysis. Facilitates discussion.
    What the student does: reads text prior to class, writes journal entry analysing text, then in groups analyses the journal entry being discussed that week
    Resources /technology involved: Written journal entries, padlet or similar for making note of group discussion points

    A disadvantage of this approach could be that not all students would get feedback each week. However, the feedback received may be more constructive in that it has been offered by a group and not just one individual.

  3. Another challenge to active learning is group size and composition. I do feel that four is the ideal max number for a group. Any bigger and the shyest of the bunch is far less likely to say anything. When I was organising group work, sometimes it would be random but I would often compose groups of students that I thought would complement each other. However, this takes time and would be difficult to orchestrate for large cohorts.

    If students are at a rectangular table with 3 seated on each side, the person in the middle could block those on either side from being able to see each other properly so, if 6 are to be seated, then two on either side then one at either end would be preferable although not ideal if students have regularly turn around to see the screen. R

  4. That chart depicting Active learning strategies is really helpful especially to me as I try to balance a big-ish class (about 100 students) sitting in various configurations given technological boundaries in Marie Reay 2.02.

    Honestly, I am only comfortable testing out strategies in the simple end of the arrow as I get used to the configurations, challenges of encouraging discussion and sharing between students sitting alone away from others. I have also observed about 90% of students bringing their own device – so if we can get the wireless displays to record – student might be more willing to “share”.

  5. * What are some of the challenges or issues you might face when redesigning your course to suit an active learning space?

    Size and scalability gets me everytime. I build a course to my projected enrolment, suddenly there’s students everywhere, the activity doesn’t scale, the assessment doesn’t scale, and the course that had a queue because it looked so good on paper collapses under the failure of the teaching infrastructure. Or, I scale, and I prep for 40, and get 3, and it fails because there’s not enough people crewing the exercises.

    I was doing a bucketload of applied activity, with A3 sheets, sticky labels, content creation, student discussions, facilitation and it was puttering along really well, then nobody showed up in Week 8 because they all had exams for the other subjects, and the sequencing of the activities collapsed, there was no time to pack Week 8 and Week 10 into the same space and the iterative exercise keeled over.

    * What practicalities or concerns do you have about this approach?
    Consider of the following issues and how they might impact your plans:
    ] Class size: Commerce is a nightmare. Minimum tutorials sizes of 25-30, seminars of up to 110 (The time I was told I’d have a 60 seat horseshoe seminar room, and got the Hayden Allen Tank, which is :technically: a horseshoe space, just not a seminar space. It’s a cinema).

    Time available in the session: Had to change my undergrad seminar/workshops to a 2 hour window, since I simply can’t keep all of my enrolled students for 3 hours because timetabling runs compulsory classes over the top of my elective. Same happens for my 3hr postgraduate electives – courses starting/finishing over the top of my subject.

    Facilitation and dealing with groups: Group size/scale is a challenge, and I kept forgetting that a 10 minute discussion is really 20 minutes, 2 to explain, 10 to happen, 5 to debrief, 3 to get back attention spans on track.

    Using technology: We do not have people who are inherently active on the useful social media platforms. Twitter for classroom backchannel failed because most of the room didn’t use twitter, and a slice of the v. active participants were prohibited from having social media by their employers. Gov’t policy is fun. There was also the time I tried livestreaming a lecture, and the livestream machine was the first to get kicked off the wifi because all the students in the lecture theatre logged into the livestream (FOMO), we ran out of wifi space. Plus teaching, and broadcasting, and trying to moderate the chat, and trying to facilitate the room is not a solo campaign worth the XP.

    Others? Timetable clashes meaning that the students can only attend a portion of a session, and consequently, one group loses their people, or many people have to cut out, or we get someone arriving 2/3rds of the way through the exercise and can’t join in. We don’t have a clean and clear set of boundaries around the teaching space as “our space, our time” over here in marketing.

    I spend a lot of my T&L prep time taping the subject back together because it didn’t survive contact with the student’s reality, and yet I see the same designs working in other disciplinary areas, and I can’t help but wonder what’s the cohort difference that enables 80-100% attendance in one area, and 10-20% attendance in another?

    1. My design expectations and planning not matching the reality of a workshop or class is the #storyofmylife! In relation to your last two points about timetable clashes and attendance – I wonder how this is going to work with the new iLeap project, which is supposed to design for all the aspects you mention in terms of creating active and engaging classes?
      If there are still all these practical issues with technology, clashes, spaces, then the design challenges grow exponentially!

  6. I find it difficult to contribute in a meaningful way to this discussion as I am not teaching at the moment and have never really taught groups of more than 35 students…
    I can definitely relate to some of the challenges that Tom and Stephen outlined, e.g. how variation in class sizes can impact your plans. But I don’t think I experienced this to the same extent as they have. My classes were always capped at 35 students.
    I have at times taught very small groups, of only 5 or so students. That might seem like a luxury to those of you who teach 100+ students, but I found it quite a challenge! You want to give students some alone time to ‘buzz/brainstorm’, but that’s hard to do (and feels awkward) when there’s that few people in the room. Pyramid and jigsaw activities don’t work either… A different challenge than the ones described above, but a challenge nonetheless!

  7. First learning activity: I posted didactic vs active learning in the Padlet.
    Second discussion question:
    Some of the challenges I encounter are students’ lack of digital skills or exposure to research tools and databases which impact on the capacity to fully engage in the proposed activities (overwhelm with tech creating a barrier to learning). Another challenge in redesigning for active learning spaces is that some students may not feel comfortable in a less formal setting or with receiving input from peers as the mechanism to evaluate and analyse their search process (as opposed to silent evaluation while a demonstration is taking place or with feedback from a facilitator). Both of these scenarios can reduce the effectiveness of the learning outcomes for the individual and the group. I have also taught very small groups and in that context the interactive approach can feel very forced – ie the use of quizzes/voting/Padlet is redundant. In my limited experience, the way I conceptualise how learners might respond to an active learning space may not correspond with the reality! Perhaps there’s comfort for some students in knowing that the traditional lecture theatre generally requires less of participants in terms of input and engagement? 🙂

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