Active Learning Series, Part 1: Active classrooms are attracting students

September 29, 2021

College campuses are changing. The images from yesteryear of students sitting row-after-row in cavernous lecture halls are being supplanted by creative approaches to more invigorating, collaborative or active spaces. In 2017, the Association of American Universities published data disclosing the on-going efforts from institutions to realign and redesign spaces in pursuit of the Vision and Change framework, an initiative promoting the use of teaching and learning practices in undergraduate STEM courses consistent with current research. These changes are being implemented more slowly than other parts of the Association’s initiatives, and that means we need to get the most impact possible from each space update.

Our team decided to examine how some of these initial space modifications are being received by students, and if the early patterns might provide insights for more effective future designs. In collaboration with researchers at the University of Kansas, we examined a scenario where students had the choice of learning in either a recently designed active learning classroom or a historic lecture hall. We classified the spaces based on David Radcliffe’s Pedagogy, Space, and Technology (PST) framework, which let us identify the most important ways the learning spaces were different from one another.

This comparison was powerful because it used a quasi-experimental design – meaning the comparison groups had many of the characteristics of an experiment, even though the groups had organized naturally and not because of anything the researchers had done. They had the same instructor, the same curriculum, and we even confirmed each group had the same day-to-day teaching approach using a validated observation protocol (COPUS)… the only difference was when and where the class meeting was scheduled.

Figure 1: Examples of a new active learning space and a lecture theatre space at the study campus.

The Results

We found the characteristics of students who chose the active learning classroom were different from those who chose the lecture-theater. Honor students represented nearly 50% of students who chose the collaborative environment compared to 13% in the lecture hall. Students who chose the active learning space excelled throughout the semester, earned a significantly higher grade in the course and had less than half the fail/withdraw rate of students in the lecture-theater. We also noticed the group in the collaborative space was composed of a higher percentage of women. We looked at historical data from the university, and the trend of seeing primarily women in the active learning space had been consistent for the past 4 semesters (Figure 2). The difference in enrollment between sections suggests understanding why there are more women in the active learning classroom could reveal opportunities to make STEM education a more inclusive and welcoming experience.

Figure 2: Percentage of women students enrolled in each of two class sections. The paired bar graph shows a steady pattern of approximately 10% higher representation of women in the active learning space in semesters from fall 2016 to spring 2018.

Our next step was to ask that very question – how were students choosing their section of this class? We found students who chose the active learning space did so because they wanted to learn in the re-imagined environment!

Figure 3: The average score for the importance of “the type of classroom” in student enrollment choices between the two study classroom types.

We predicted students choosing a redesigned space would place more importance on their learning space, generally. However, we also found the differences went beyond the direct consideration of space alone. Students in the active learning classroom also reported placing a higher value on the recommendations of friends and peers compared to the students who chose the lecture-theater space (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The average score for the importance of word-of-mouth from “friend & peer recommendations” in student enrollment choices between the two study classroom types.

These results show students are recommending the active learning spaces that anticipate and support engaging, collaborative instructional practices. Students are more engaged with one another, sharing the benefits of these spaces among their communities and peers. We also believe these collaborative approaches can create more inclusive spaces that support women as they pursue degrees and careers in STEM. This study was limited by having only a single measurement in time, but it confirmed the research tools and differences between spaces. We are building from this work with a subsequent study that is looking at how students engage with these spaces over the course of multiple semesters, and that working paper is currently under development.

Forward-thinking investments in campus facility redesign which embrace the power of cooperation and problem-solving can sustain faculty efforts to meet the needs of the next generation of students. Collaborative spaces attract students, support them as they continue to achieve academically, and recruit the next semester’s students through the excitement they generate among the student body.

This study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Learning Environments Research and was also honored with an EDRA CORE Merit Certification.

Related Posts

This was Part 1 of our Active Learning Series. Read more in this series by clicking below.

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