An LSC Guide Essay: University of Minnesota

The University of Minnesota’s Active Learning Classrooms

During each class period at the University of Minnesota today, our Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs) can accommodate 1179 students, who learn subjects from biology and chemistry, to environmental sciences and calculus, in team-based, technology-enriched environments. Within a year of opening our ALC-focused building, half of all undergraduates at the University of Minnesota had taken at least one class in an ALC. A freshman entering the University today is likely to have multiple classes in these spaces.

ALCs create student-centered spaces that support innovative active learning strategies, allowing instructors and students to develop more effective teaching and learning strategies, including cooperative problem solving, computer simulations, discussion, interactive drama, peer review, interactive lectures, and physical models. The ALCs are available for group and individual work before and after scheduled class time. Reflecting student preferences, the ALCs have quickly become one of the most sought after and heavily used student study spaces on campus, as well as for national conferences, workshops, and seminars.

To maximize flexibility, the ALCs use reconfigurable low-profile flooring with internal power and cable management that enables easy access for reconfiguring and wiring in the room. Demountable wall systems that meet the acoustic performance criteria in the university’s classroom standards allow the rooms to be reconfigured, saving renovation costs over the life cycle of the building. ALCs can be “flexed” on a semester basis to meet changing room size or teaching requirements.

ALC Pilot Project:

Our commitment to ALCs began in 2006 when the Office of Classroom Management explored ways to build flexible classrooms that would enable learner-centered teaching approaches. Inspired by North Carolina’s SCALE-UP program and MIT’s TEAL classrooms, we designed two pilot “Active Learning Classrooms” where we could test the viability of new construction technologies, facilitate of approval by university building code officials, enable faculty to experiment with teaching strategies that would be enabled in an active learning classroom.

By fall 2007, we had remodeled a 35-person fixed-bench classroom to produce a 45-person ALC (EE/CSci 2-260). In addition, we merges two existing general classrooms and a computer lab to produce a 117-person ALC (BioSci 64). Funding was obtained by combining planned life cycle, replacement, technology upgrade, and other funds. The ALC pilots were intended to stimulate interest in innovative classroom design, to demonstrate flexible classroom construction techniques, and to allow assessment of learning outcomes. For more information on the two rooms following renovation, watch UMN’s quicktime video.

The ALCs feature large, round tables that seat nine students each in teams of three. Three switchable laptop connections at the table allow the students to select which laptop displays on the adjacent 50-inch wall-mounted LCD. The instructor at the podium can select any table display for projection on the room’s large dual display screens as well as selecting any specific display on the large projection and student screens from an instructor station. These rooms also feature a 360-degree glass marker board around the circumference of the classroom. Both ALCs are covered by the University of Minnesota’s campus-wide wireless network.

The pilot classrooms stimulated lively discussion on campus regarding student-centered learning versus lecture-style teaching. Some faculty members were strongly in favor of retaining large lecture halls and did not embrace the changes that ALCs represent. But pilot research in the first two ALCs indicated that most students and faculty members with experience in the rooms responded positively to them. These reactions included an overall enhancement of the student learning experience, a reduction in perceived psychological distance between instructor and students and among students, and praise for the role of the round tables in the ALCs.

Science Teaching & Student Services (STSS):

The university responded in a way that underscored its commitment to changes in teaching and learning, by including the ALCs in the new Science Teaching & Student Services (STSS) building, which opened in fall 2010. With overlooks of the Mississippi River at one of the most heavily-traveled areas on the east bank campus, the STSS building houses technology-rich general purpose classrooms, a range of academic and business student services, as well as study spaces on every floor. The building can seat 1,639 students in 17 classrooms, among which are 10 ALCs. These rooms, in combination with the pilot ALCs, mean that the University of Minnesota has made one of the largest investments in new learning spaces of any university in the country.

After the STSS building was opened, two controlled comparison studies were conducted in order to examine the contribution of ALCs to students’ academic engagement and learning outcomes. In these studies, faculty members taught two sections of the same class, one in a traditional classroom and one in an ALC, using the same syllabus, materials, instructional methods, and assessments. Findings from both studies indicated that, after controlling for all relevant demographic and aptitude-related variables, the ALCs improved students’ engagement in the learning process; helped students to outperform final grade expectations, resulting in improved learning outcomes; and affected teaching-learning activities even when the instructor attempted to hold these activities constant.

A third comparison study investigated the question whether the type of pedagogy used in the ALCs matters to student learning. In this study, a faculty member taught the same course twice in an ALC, using the same syllabus, materials, and assessments. The first iteration of the class was largely expository and lecture-based, while in the second iteration the instructor took advantage of the room’s layout and technology by incorporating more active learning techniques into the class. After controlling for numerous demographic variables, students in the second iteration of the course were found to have outperformed those in the first. (See for details.)