Designing the Active Learning Classroom

Transforming the educational landscape in Iceland

Despite the proliferation of work on active learning recently, why is it that many of our teaching facilities are still laid out in traditional lecture style with a focal point at the front of the room and students sat in rows facing it? Recent research conducted by Ásta Margrét Ásmundsdóttir and Auðbjörg Björnsdóttir at the University of Akureyri (UNAK) in Iceland may provide some answers. UNAK was established in 1987 and is now considered to be a leading university in the field of flexible learning.

When Ásta began teaching a first year Chemistry course however, the situation did not look rosy. Attendance rates were low, student retention was weak and student satisfaction was far below expectations. Teaching staff felt that more support was required for students in applying their knowledge to solving novel problems. Something had to change.

Ásta’s idea was to experiment with a flipped classroom approach. Students were asked to complete preparatory tasks outside of the teaching room. This could mean watching lectures, demonstrations or looking at examples that would be useful for the assignment completed in the teaching session. On arrival, rather than seating students in rows, they were asked to work in collaborative learning groups of between 3 and 5 to solve one of four problems, a task which meant changing the layout of the room from this:

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to this:

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Designing such an active learning teaching space was not without its difficulties and for Ásta with support from the Centre of Teaching and Learning were Auðbjörg is the director. One of the main obstacles in the beginning was that support staff and some faculty members would always return the new learning spaces back to more lecture based spaces.  So the first thing was to get both administration and faculty staff on board in maintaining the new learning spaces rather than reverting them back to more lecture based spaces. By the very nature of the activities that take place within it, the room becomes noisier and mastery of the technology used becomes an issue. However, with persistence the results of the new teaching regime began to be realized.

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Student feedback demonstrated the overwhelmingly positive effect the active learning classroom had had on everything from engagement with the instructor to understanding of course material. The benefits also extended to student’s satisfaction in terms of group collaboration and interaction with others, suggesting the benefits of Active Learning Classrooms may also have social benefits such as increasing the sense of inclusion felt by students in the learning environment.

So, where to next for this project? UNAK are now experimenting with the use of robots as a tool for enabling distance students to attend group sessions, something which I am sure we will hear more about in future Active Learning Network blogs!

For more information on Ásta´s and Auðbjörg’s learning spaces work, please contact: audbjorg@unak.is



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