RIOT: The Classrooms of Your Dreams

One of the advantages of a Learning Commons in PCL is the opportunity to design classrooms from the ground up, rather than trying to make existing rooms work for our purposes.  This RIOT is practical in nature as I’ve been asked to provide some firm numbers (square footage, number of rooms, etc.) before Thanksgiving for potential classrooms.  I’ve done quite a bit of reading and looking at what other libraries have done and have summarized a few of the many resources I’ve consulted to inform our conversation.

What are people saying about learning spaces?
EDUCAUSE ELI recently (2013) published a list as part of the 7 Things series called 7 Things You Should Know About Collaborative Learning Spaces.  It is an excellent overview of best practices for collaborative learning spaces, which is what our classrooms should be to reflect 21st century teaching and learning.   Its short enough to read quickly and summarizes what I read in numerous articles and book chapters about designing learning spaces.  Here are a few highlights.  Collaborative learning spaces are flexible and accommodate a variety of teaching styles from group work to lecture to flipped classrooms, although student-centered rather than lecture is the preferred model.   That means you can move the furniture around.  It is set up so that “an instructor has the ability to lead the class from anywhere in the room.”  They are technology rich and have numerous screens and whiteboards yet they also support BYOD (bring your own device) with strong wireless and flexible furnishings.  They are, in short, active learning classrooms.  Some examples, where some assessment has also been done, include SCALEUP from NCSU (very large, active learning classrooms), TEAL at MIT, and ALCs at Minnesota (more on that below).

How do you design one?
There are a lot of suggestions about how to design effective learning spaces. I really liked this straightforward approach taken at IU-Bloomington and explained in this 2008 LOEX proceeding, Function Before Form: Designing the Ideal Library Classroom, by Carrie Donovan and Diane Dallis.  I found the two most appealing features of their process to be their mandate to think big at first and be realistic later, and their emphasis on function first – what do you want to do in that space, how do you teach or do you want to teach, what are your outcomes for your students?  Just as in instructional design, if you begin with what you want to accomplish and work backwards, you can design the best approach to get there.  As they put it, “Throughout the Instructional Space Committee’s process for library classroom design, we focused on effective teaching styles and good pedagogical practices before thinking about classroom setup and configuration.”  They also provided an example of what an ideal library session might look like so they could design the form/classroom based on this ideal/function.  “An ideal instruction session might start with a demonstration or discussion, then progress to group work where students work in pairs or small groups to solve a problem with the instructor circulating among the students to answer questions as needed, and end with students sharing what they learned while the instructor synthesizes the main points of the session.”

How do you know it works?
While there is a lot of work out there about how to design learning spaces and create user-centered classrooms, there is less empirical research about the impact of these practices on student learning.  D. Christopher Brooks of the University of Minnesota did a research study and published the results in two articles:  “Space Matters: The Impact of Formal Learning Environments on Student Learning” in the British Journal of Educational Technology and “Space and Consequences: the Impact of Different Formal Learning Spaces on Instructor and Student Behavior” in the Journal of Learning Spaces.  He worked with one faculty member who was teaching  two sections of the same course – one in a traditional, lecture-style classroom and one in an Active Learning Classroom (ALC).  The content and approach taken by the faculty member was the same – only the learning environment differed.  The results of this study showed that students in the ALC learned more than those in the traditional classroom.  In fact, students in the ALC had lower ACT scores, a good predictor of success, yet they outperformed their peers with higher ACT scores in the traditional classroom.  Brooks wanted to know why and was able to find out, to some extent, what was happening through coding and analyzing observational data.  He found that in the traditional classroom, the instructor lectured more than in the ALC, and consulted with students less.  There are a lot of other interesting and more complex findings in the second article,  but the bottom line is that the space impacted student learning.

Our situation:
We currently don’t have enough classroom bandwidth in PCL and we expect it to get even tighter with the loss of the classroom in Engineering.  I ran some statistics for 2012 and here is what I found:

  • Average number of attendees at an instruction session in PCL:  24.39
  • Median and mode = 18
  • Average number of attendees at an instruction session in Engineering: 20.76
  • Median and mode = 15

Some other considerations not represented by these numbers are that, at least in LIS, we frequently teach multiple discussion sections for large format UGS courses since we don’t have active learning classrooms to accommodate larger classes; and we sometimes have to go to a lecture hall and do demo rather than active learning.  I know we are not alone in this situation.

Questions for you:
1.  What do you love about our classrooms?

2.  What do you find challenging or constraining?

3.  What does your ideal classroom look like?

4.  There is a lot of information out there about classrooms for undergraduate student learning.  How does this differ for graduate students?

5.   What size classrooms would work best for you?

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