Active Learning Series, Part 2: Choosing Active Learning Spaces in Higher Education

August 18, 2022

Active learning in higher education represents an exciting opportunity to increase student engagement, promote critical thinking, and improve learning. While instructors may have planned their course to incorporate active learning, there is a barrier when the classrooms are designed for yesterday’s lectures instead of today’s active learning! Our previous studies have shown that word-of-mouth leads to more enrollment in active learning classrooms, but we wanted to know the impacts of repeatedly asking students to choose between spaces with more or less supporting amenities for active learning.

To study these longer-term impacts, our team followed a group of almost 200 undergraduate students over a full academic year to see the way they chose classes and how their attitudes toward learning evolved. Working in collaboration with researchers at the University of Kansas, we asked students how they chose their classrooms and how they viewed learning in both the fall and spring semesters. The results showed big changes happen after students have had some experience in active learning spaces.

The Results

Students in the study began the academic year with almost no experience in active learning classrooms, so they were primarily making their class choices based on time and location. However, we found that the students who were also listening to input from their friends were more likely to enroll in the active learning space. This was no surprise, but things changed after students spent a semester learning from their instructor in the spaces.

Once students had experience with the course and the classrooms, there was a big shift in their choices. The students who chose the active learning classroom were not relying on their peers any more than anyone else, but their attitudes toward learning were now more expert-like than the students in the lecture space. We saw the same results across multiple parts of their thinking, including discipline-specific topics, their general pursuit of conceptual connections between topics, and their personal interest in the course material outside of class. In every case, the students who chose the active learning spaces thought about their subject more like experts in the field.


The Movers

We also found that the students who moved between classrooms after the first semester are students who exhibited important changes in their attitudes toward learning. The students who moved out of the active learning classroom consistently showed less developed attitudes toward learning, with both lower scores and consistent decreases over time. We also saw the opposite effect for students who moved into the active learning environment – they had some of the highest attitude scores, and showed consistent increases. The individual effect sizes were small, but the consistency of effects indicated something important was happening for these students!

Implications for Gender Equity

The connection between the active learning spaces and student perceptions of their learning represents an opportunity to create a more equitable higher education, because our data also showed that the students who were most seeking to move into the active learning spaces were women. Some students reported they wanted to enroll in the active learning classroom, but were unable due to limited capacity/seats. These students were overwhelmingly women – nearly 100% in the spring.

These findings tell us institutions have an exciting opportunity to pursue more engaging, effective approaches to instruction by expanding their space type offerings to support faculty in using active learning. This approach can improve instructors’ ability to innovate in the classroom, while simultaneously creating spaces that improve access to the learning experiences for women. In turn, these collaborative spaces will help them feel welcome, supported, and productive.

This study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Active Learning in Higher Education.

Related Posts

This was Part 2 of our Active Learning Series. Read more in this series by clicking below.

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