Day 2: The educational environment. How do we create an environment that is conducive to learning?

Post written by guest authors Alexandra Webb, Lillian Smyth and Kat Esteves, ANU Medical School.


Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’ (1632) visually demonstrates 3 important considerations when designing your educational environment to ensure it is conducive to student learning.

1. It matters how your learning environment is arranged.

We can see here that the instructor has aligned the cadaver such that the students can compare it to the textbook illustrations at the front of the class with ease. We know from the literature that spatial predictability guides attention and can facilitate learning (Benitez & Smith, 2012), so this is good practice.


2. Active learning does not require an interactive task.

While the surgeons are not depicted doing anything, there is more to active learning than activity (Smith and Cardaciotto, 2011). It appears the instructor is encouraging active recall of the materials from prior theory lessons, which enhances learning compared to passive review (Rowland, 2014)


3. Errors can enhance learning.

While the forearm is, in fact, depicted incorrectly in places (IJpma et al., 2006), the evidence indicates an approach that embraces errors, rather than admonishing them, leads to a more conducive learning environment.


Let’s discuss these 3 principles a little further and explore how we can apply them to our own educational environments.

Principle 1: Using a spatially predictable environment to guide attention

Studies suggest that people respond faster and more efficiently when they know where in space something is going to occur (Beck et al., 2014; Do Carmo Blanco & Allen, 2018). Therefore, it is believed that providing students with information presented in predictable patterns (e.g. pictures, text, important messages) improves learning. This can be achieved by providing clear and explicit formatting of digital resources such as presentations, learning management system sites, websites and any other digital resources so that titles, images, text, important messages etc. are clearly and consistently organised. Providing information and resources in predictable locations enables students to focus their neural resources on learning rather than identifying and processing a new environment.

The ANU Coffee Courses Designing Online Learning Environments and Learning spaces present helpful guides on how to do this.

This may also apply to the organisation of physical learning environments such as the arrangement of furniture, technologies and resources within a classroom such that consistent and predictable arrangement reduces the demands on student attention and facilitates more focused learning.


Principle 2: An active rather than passive learning environment

Research suggests that whilst students feel as if they learn more during traditional lectures that involve passive listening, they actually learn more when participating in active learning approaches (Michael, 2006). Learning is hard work and students can misinterpret the effort involved in active learning as being a sign of inadequate learning compared to a passive learning experience which requires less effort (Owens et al., 2020).

There are numerous strategies that can be used in the classroom to create an active learning environment and at the same time stimulate active recall (coming up on Day 4). Here are just a few examples:

  • Minute papers – Designed to take a minute to check students’ understanding of key concepts/topics or stimulate students to contemplate a topic prior to discussion.
  • Mind-mapping – an activity designed to challenge students to visually represent and organise complex content
  • Team-based learning – Students prepare before class and then spend the majority of class time solving problems together, via a readiness assurance process of readings, tests, mini-lectures, and then application exercises


question mark Discussion:

What active learning strategies have you designed to employ in your course(s)? Have you had to modify your active learning strategies in the transition from face-to-face to remote learning during the Covid pandemic? If so, how have you achieved this?


Resources to explore more active learning strategies

ANU Coffee Courses:

Active Learning Strategies – Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning
Active Learning – Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching
Active Learning – Leicester Learning Institute


Principle 3: An environment that embraces errors to improve learning

We have all received advice such as ‘learn from your mistakes’. Whilst none of us like to make mistakes, research informs us that a basic principle of learning is to use feedback from mistakes to improve future performance. Deliberately practicing the things we find difficult and make mistakes at, as opposed to practising the things we find easy, helps us to gain ‘meta-awareness’ of our skills and advance from novice to expert. The more a student struggles, and sometimes fails, when learning the more likely they will be to recall, transfer and apply that knowledge or skill in future learning. So it is important to create educational environments that provide opportunities for students to make mistakes and learn from them in a supported atmosphere. For example, quizzes and problem-solving activities using audience response systems create a safe space for students to participate, make errors and learn from them whilst remaining anonymous.

Consider the language you use to communicate to students your expectations about making mistakes. Compare the language used by two different teachers (reproduced from page 3 Culture of Error by Doug Lemov):

Happy Face
“I’m so glad you made that mistake,” Bob said to the class, calling them together to reteach. “It’s going to help me to help you.” Message: the mistake is normal, valuable in a way, and a source of insight. Bob is not bothered by the mistakes but communicates that he expects them and that when they happen, he wants to know about them.

Sad Face
“Guys, I should not be seeing people with –2x and +2x in the same equation. You know by now to combine like terms.” In that case, students will quickly learn that if they are making mistakes, they are likely to be a source of disappointment to their teacher. As a result, students are likely to respond by trying to conceal their errors. That doesn’t mean they   combine like terms any better, just that when they struggle, the teacher won’t find out about it.

Vectors from TukTukDesign, downloaded from Pixabay.


The ANU Coffee Course Feedback for Learning provides guidance on providing effective feedback.


question mark Discussion:

In your experience as a teacher and/or learner, are there any strategies you have found useful for creating an effective learning environment?



Benitez, V. L., & Smith, L. B. (2012). Predictable locations aid early object name learning. Cognition125(3), 339-352.

Smith, C.V., & Cardaciotto, L. (2011). Is Active Learning Like Broccoli? Student Perceptions of Active Learning in Large Lecture Classes. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, v11 n1 p53-61.

Rowland, C. A. (2014). The effect of testing versus restudy on retention: A meta-analytic review of the testing effect. Psychological Bulletin, 140(6), 1432–1463.

IJpma F.F., van de Graaf R.C., Nicolai J.P., Meek M.F. (2006). The anatomy lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt (1632): a comparison of the painting with a dissected left forearm of a Dutch male cadaver. J Hand Surg Am. 2006;31(6):882-891.

Beck, M. R., Hong, S. L., van Lamsweerde, A. E., & Ericson, J. M. (2014). The effects of incidentally learned temporal and spatial predictability on response times and visual fixations during target detection and discrimination. PLoS One9(4), e94539.

Do Carmo Blanco, N., & Allen, J. J. (2018). Guidance of spatial attention during associative learning: Contributions of predictability and intention to learn. Psychophysiology55(8), e13077.

Michael, J. (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works?. Advances in physiology education. 30(4), 159-167

Owens, D. C., Sadler, T. D., Barlow, A. T., & Smith-Walters, C. (2020). Student motivation from and resistance to active learning rooted in essential science practices. Research in Science Education50(1), 253-277.




15 thoughts on “Day 2: The educational environment. How do we create an environment that is conducive to learning?

  1. To get students more active I usually have a short quiz and discussion questions for each unit of learning (typically a week’s worth). The same discussion questions are then used for the live group workshop. I haven’t had to modify my active learning strategies for COVID-19, as last year I had designed in an online contingency in case students could not get to class. All I had to do si substitute a video conference for the flat floor classroom.

    On Saturday I was helping out at an ANU hackerthon on fighting pandemics. For this I prepared a ten minute presentation with four slides. The last slide had four questions for participants. It was only a small group so we did this all together rather than breaking up into groups. Remo Conference was being used for part of the hackerthon, which has an interesting visual interface (click on my name for a screenshot).

    1. Thank you Tom for sharing how you integrate active learning strategies in your classroom. Do you give students the answers/feedback to the short quiz and discussion questions – or this happens in the subsequent group workshop?

      1. Louise, students get the answers to the quiz questions at the end of the quiz. If they get the answer wrong they also get a pointed to were to revise in the notes. This is using the Module Quiz module with automated marking, and is nothing special.

        In the past I have had students provide each other with feedback on the forum questions and a mark (0, 1 or 2). Then summary feedback to the class at the end of the week. But this year I have tried to involve the student’s tutor more, so leave individual feedback to them. See the tutor’s guide for the course, linked to my name on this post.

  2. As a teacher I find it difficult to find a suitable tone to use to correct student errors, verbally and even more so online. I could not bring myself to say something like “I’m so glad you made that mistake,” as I worry the students think I am patronizing or sarcastic. With more experience in teaching I have tended to say less in tutorials and workshops, trying to let students discuss without interruption from me. This is the “dark cockpit” approach, from aircraft cockpit design. The idea is to remove distractions, with an alert only when something critical is going wrong (click on my name for a reference). With asynchronous discussion I can send one student a prompt privately and leave it to them to get the discussion back on track, so I don’t interrupt the group. With face to face forums and synchronous audio discussion I use the text chat forum for this to an individual, or the entire group.

    1. I agree Tom, it is important to do this in a way that feels natural – and this will be different for everyone. And there are many different ways as a teacher we can seek to achieve an environment that is conducive to learning and learning from mistakes, not just via verbal cues. It is really helpful to hear your experience of managing student small group discussions and strategies to minimise disruption of their discussions. That resonates with a lot of people’s experiences managing Zoom breakout rooms during the Covid crisis.

  3. I really like this idea of fostering a growth mindset when it comes to learning. It’s something I struggled with as a student myself. I spent my formative years in a learning environment where it was really important to succeed and failure was usually viewed as a disappointment… it took a long time for me to transition out of that mindset and I can’t say I’m completely out of it yet… but as an educator, I have certainly found that normalising mistakes and making that explicit in a classroom had tremendous benefits.

    I used to really struggle to get students to see and correct mistakes, especially in maths contexts. I quickly realised that repeatedly asking them show working out wasn’t getting through, even after I gave instructions and compiled guides. The game changer was when I compiled fake answers (based on real student answers from previous years) and asked students to grade them and discuss why they graded them as such. Students became really frustrated with answers that showed no working out but was close to being the right final answer. They would also challenge one another when they assigned different grades to the same answer. I have repeated this with assignments and essays. It didn’t matter so much the format or what grades the students assigned but what was really key was the discussions we engaged in. Creating a space where students could step into the shoes of the marker seemed to be very helpful to their learning. It gave us the opportunity to explicitly discuss the details that would otherwise be glossed over.

    1. Thank you Jen for sharing this approach. Great to also hear your process of reflection – adopting a new strategy – and observing the results. Sometimes in the busy-ness of academic life it can seem ‘easier’ to stick to the same way of delivering teaching and learning. Your story provides great encouragement on the benefits of pausing, reflecting and trying something new!

    2. Hi Jen, I loved your comment on a couple of levels. Firstly, the value that comes from shifting our approach from fear based learning with a focus on the right answer or outcome to a growth mindset that includes and normalises failure as an opportunity to stretch and grow. Secondly, the active learning that comes from being able to identify and recognise errors from ‘the other’ perspective so you don’t fall into the same trap. Thanks for sharing.

  4. This is the excellent approach Jen. Students often think that lecturing or marking is easy and question why they need to follow specified guidelines. By turning the tables and let them experience the role of the instructor, they can look at students’ work differently and hopefully understand the processes better.
    Regarding mistakes and encouraging students, I do actually tell the students from the first lecture/session on that they should not be afraid of giving incorrect answers, as this helps me to identify problems and allow me to stop and go back to rectify any misunderstandings. Depending on the cohort, sometimes I’m using the audience response quizzes, but other times, I’m able to engage students in open discussions, and we can freely discuss any unclear points or misunderstanding. In the online environment, I provided students with case studies in advance, so they could start to analyse the problem before our F2F meeting, or presented the problem in the session and then divided the group into smaller teams who were given 10-15 minutes in separate break-out room on Zoom to discuss the problem and solutions. I ‘visited’ those rooms to check in and see if they were going ok, but often appeared with no sound and camera on, so that I don’t disrupt their work. The teams also knew that they were able to come back to the main room to ask questions if they needed. After the allocated time, I closed the rooms and everyone returned to discuss the problems and solutions together. I tried to leave it to the students to lead the discussion and I only ask questions to clarify specific points. This seemed to work well, and students were engaged in the process. Although, I find it hard to identify struggling students in this online environment, which worries me, as I feel I can’t help those who most need it. Any suggestions?

    1. Thank you Krisztina for sharing your strategies for creating an effective learning environment – and adapting that during Covid. Have you found there are any other factors in the classroom that inhibit students from feeling that they have the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them?

  5. Thanks Jen for a great idea and sharing your experience! I try to encourage my students to work through tutorial problems prior to class (even if they can’t complete or make mistakes) as it puts them in the ‘drivers’ seat actively working through problems rather than passively taking in answers. So that having incomplete and incorrect answers is all part of the process that helps us to learn. But i love the idea of given them a past answers, bot the mark, but also if it’s an incorrect answer to find the mistakes in too – I think that critical analysis is a very important skill!

  6. It’s interesting that this article starts with a discussion of the spatial arrangement of a learning environment. This is the thing I find myself missing the most about the classroom now that we’re doing all our teaching online. Many of the activities and objectives can be managed online, but as I teach discussion-based classes, I find myself really missing the physical set-up of the room, the connection of direct eye contact, the ways students can cluster together for small group discussions and then being to come together in a circle for a larger group activity… Of course, Zoom has break-out rooms, but you can only interact with one group at a time, rather than flitting around the room and getting a sense for the whole class and where some extra assistance might be needed. I’m not sure we could ever replace the dynamic interactivity of in-person contact. Am I being too pessimistic?

    1. Hi Gemma, I agree, I feel the same sense of disconnect in a virtual environment. When participants are in breakout rooms, I can’t see them and it’s strange to have to go into each room to interact… I feel cut off.

      MS Teams now has a “together mode” where you can put all the participants in a virtual room together rather than have them as separate entities with individual backgrounds. Here’s a video explanation: https://youtu.be/MGsNmYKgeTA

      It’s not quite the same but I can imagine a future where we can all occupy virtual rooms together (perhaps in a VR/AR simulated environment) that more closely mimics real life interactions. It would certainly help with long-distance education and make classes more accessible to everyone… I think that’s the silver lining of all this, a push towards using technology to transform learning in positive ways.

  7. Hi Louise Krisztina and Dana,
    Thanks for sharing your insights! Louise, I absolutely agree that reflection is key… just a shame that we often don’t have time to do as much of it as we would like… but it’s so great to have Coffee Courses like this one where we have a place to reflect, share and discuss 🙂 Dana, thanks for sharing your experience, I’m currently in the process of thinking about how to move more content out of class and this reminds me to focus on active learning when it comes to asynchronously delivered material… perhaps thinking more about how to turn content into problems…

    Krisztina, I really like the ways you’re using Zoom to your advantage. I like the student-centred focus of your activities and allowing time for them to discuss problems in small groups. I often find that I struggle to allocate the right amount of time for small group discussions and I’m learning to be mindful of that 🙂 Wrt to identifying struggling students in the online environment, we have found that engaging in the chat window of Zoom to be really helpful in drawing out conversations from students who might otherwise not have spoken up in the main group. This is a bit hard to maintain though as you need an extra facilitator to really monitor and engage in the chats and even post additional questions. If you don’t have that other person, assigning students as the co-facilitators might be a good way to go. They can take turns being in charge of drawing up specific topics even. We have also had success giving students co-host rights so they can move between groups when needed 🙂

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