Feature Series – Teaching in an Active Learning Environment

The style of classroom popularly known as an active learning environment continues to grow in popularity at Northwestern. As the number of active learning rooms increases on campus, more and more students and instructors are taking advantage of the opportunities provided by these cooperative learning spaces to encourage collaboration and peer teaching.

To really understand how active learning rooms are being utilized across campus, Digital Learning has partnered with three Weinberg faculty members who are teaching in an active learning environment this quarter to tell us the ways in which it has influenced their style of instruction.

First up is Professor Robin Soffer and her Business Institutions 301 class. Taught in the newly renovated active learning classroom at 560 Lincoln St, Business Institutions is a large accounting class that meets twice a week for 80-minute sessions. It previously occupied a traditional classroom that did not provide the flexibility that Prof. Soffer was looking for. A friendly chat with Brad Zakarin, Director of Residential Academic Initiatives for Northwestern, pointed her toward the space in 560 Lincoln—a move that has freed her from that confining space to allow her pedagogy to match what is available with the room.

I caught up with Prof. Soffer before a recent class to talk with her about her experience so far:

What made you interested in teaching in an active learning environment?

Before I taught in an active learning space I still tried to teach with an active learning approach because, frankly, you need to work to make this course exciting. I would have the students work in groups and do active learning kinds of things but it wasn't physically set up to support that so students would end up sitting on the floor and I would try to squeeze through the rows to try and work with the groups—it was challenging.

In what ways has the 560 Lincoln classroom influenced how you run the class?

A really good thing about the 560 space is that it’s flexible. A lot of the work we do in my class is in teams so I've got the room setup for six students at each table so they can work together facing each other and do little mini cases or exercises, but it also works if they need to do something on their own. Having the option for students to work on something and then put it up on screen with Solstice also makes it way more fun for them and frees us to do more things.

Another benefit is that I can walk all over the room when I'm talking. I like to move around. I don't just have to stand at the front tethered to the podium. Students have mentioned that this makes them feel more comfortable speaking up if they're not so far away from me. I also like to sit at one of the tables when students are reporting so it makes me feel like more a part of the community.

How did you encourage a comfort level in the students to use the technology and amenities available to them in the room?

I started in the beginning using more of the movable whiteboards and then, after we got to know each other a little bit, I showed them how to use Solstice. It's really easy in this room; it works really well. We then do an exercise that is way easier using Excel so each team at each table will do their calculations and analysis and then we use Solstice to display everybody's answers at the same time. They get a kick out of it. But I'm glad I waited and didn't do it the first day because it can be overwhelming when everything is new.

We also do an exercise where we manufacture something in class and the space works out really well for that. It’s doable in a traditional classroom, but it’s not nearly as conducive to trying something different. 

What do you feel like is the biggest benefit to you in teaching in this room?

Actually, it’s more what’s beyond the room itself.  The students and I use the lounge space outside the classroom before and after class to meet or just hang out and visit. It’s a nice, neutral place to meet.

In the mornings I don’t go to my office, I sit in the lounge here and work. One day before class one of my students saw me here and came up to me and said, “Do you mind if I sit with you? I’m just going to work.” And it’s really nice, you know! He would never have come to my office and just ask to work together. We visited a little, we each did our thing; it was great. I think it would be really nice if there were more spaces on campus where faculty and students could just visit.


Active Learning Classroom at 560 Lincoln St
Active Learning Classroom at 560 Lincoln St
Active Learning Classroom at 560 Lincoln St
Active Learning Classroom at 560 Lincoln St
Active Learning Classroom at 560 Lincoln St
Active Learning Classroom at 560 Lincoln St