Video: Northwestern’s Active Learning Spaces

The buzz in the room was palpable. A percussive cacophony of over 80 instructors, learning designers, and University administrators clacking away at their laptops and chattering amongst themselves ping-ponged off the purposefully unadorned cement walls of The Garage. They came for one reason: to join a community of like-minded colleagues interested in or already applying the pedagogical approach quickly becoming de rigueur at Northwestern – active learning. 

“I was doing active learning before I knew to call it that,” said Professor Tracy Hodgson, a panelist at the Innovation in Teaching Series event that convened this diverse group of educators. The wave of nodding heads in response signaled that she was clearly not the only one.

Active learning is short-hand to summarize the “process whereby students engage in activities such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content” (UMich). In layman’s terms, the classroom experience is far less about lecture and more about modelling what happens when students go to work in their chosen field. Group work and collaboration is favored over contemplative note-taking.

Northwestern’s Active Learning Spaces

To support this shift, the University has applied the theory behind its practice to classroom design. All of the classrooms in the recently upgraded Kresge Centennial Hall, as well a number of rooms across both the Evanston and Chicago campuses – even spaces in the Shepard residential hall – are designed to be “active learning environments.”

Another Innovation Series panelist, David Broz, an architect with the Gensler design firm that consulted on the setup of The Garage, pointed out how much “design choices open minds for collaboration.” He contextualized this comment by pointing out that the plain concrete walls of The Garage were deliberately chosen to cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit of the place—give students a blank slate both creatively and environmentally from which to start their endeavors.

In the classroom, active learning design usually means the incorporation of one or a number of the following elements: individual white boards, a collaborative software like Solstice that allows anyone to share their screen to the class, special chairs that allow for flexible room layouts. While these elements may seem like an insignificant change, the results can pay big dividends.

Victoria Getis, a third panelist at The Garage event, gave everyone a compelling reason to give these approaches a try: “Research shows that students learn more deeply if you use active learning techniques in an active learning classroom; more-so than any other approach.” And that’s not hyperbole. Science Magazine published a 2014 study by Northwestern McCormick faculty members that found “undergraduate students in classes with traditional stand-and-deliver lectures are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that use more stimulating, so-called active learning methods.”

The real success of the panel event at The Garage was to illuminate the prevalence of this approach at Northwestern to all those in attendance and in the 23 countries across the globe that tuned in to the live webcast. “Try something small,” Getis and Hodgson recommended in their concluding remarks. “Through applying active learning approaches to your material, students can tackle more intense, difficult material than they think they can handle.”

If you’re interested, Northwestern Faculty Support Services and the Learning Spaces Technology Support group have an open house scheduled for the Tuesday after Spring Break, March 28th, from noon to 3pm in Kresge 2-380. You’ll see a demo of Solstice, and talk with peers about what worked and what didn’t work as they apply these new approaches. Be sure to also save the date for the upcoming TEACHxpert talk by Derek Bruff, director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, on April 25 to hear about Vanderbilt’s experience in adopting active learning.