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 increase 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 space for the first time this quarter to tell their story – how they starting teaching in an active learning space and how it has influenced their style of instruction.

Next up is Professor Kevin Boyle and his History 398 class being taught in Willard Hall. Willard Hall is the newest renovation in a series envisioned by Northwestern’s Housing Master Plan, and follows the precedent set by the success of Shepard Hall. In addition to housing 260 students, Willard Hall also includes Northwestern’s second Engagement Center – a public space inside the building which includes a classroom, seminar room, and various other amenities.

Professor Boyle holds his class in the Willard Seminar Room (B06). It’s a year-long class for seniors writing their theses. You may wonder: what kind of innovation can happen in a class designed primarily to advise on the development of a research paper? Read on to find out!

How did you come to teach in an active learning room in Willard?  

In the fall I taught in a classroom on the third floor of University Hall. I really wanted to have a space for the 13 students that felt informal like a seminar room and even though we could move the desks or the seats around, it just didn’t feel like the right setting. So I contacted Brad Zakarin [Director of Residential Academic Initiatives for Northwestern] and he said, “Oh yeah, we've got a space that would be great for this.” When he showed it to me I thought, “Yeah, this is exactly what I want.” It's a seminar room with a big table that everyone can sit around to help create that sense of community you want in a seminar.

Has teaching in an active learning room changed the way you approach the class?

Well, I never would’ve anticipated this but it’s actually the inverse of the room that’s made a difference. A lot of what we do in our class sessions this quarter is peer review. The students do a lot of writing and talking in small, set groups about each other's work.

The first day that we had class I said, “Okay, it's time for peer review.” And the students immediately asked if they could leave the room; it’s got this huge, gorgeous lounge area right outside it. So that's what they've done ever since—when we go into the peer review part of the class, most of them get up and leave and they go outside into these conversation spaces.

Teaching in Willard is way more relaxing because in that other room in University Hall, all we could do was move the seats. There was one group in each corner of the room and it just felt noisy and crowded. Here they spread out over the lounge area and have a chance to have real conversations with each other without feeling like anyone else is listening in.

Students work collaboratively outside the classroom in the Engagement Center lounge

Students work collaboratively outside the classroom in the Engagement Center lounge

Are you planning on using this room or another like it in the future?

I would love to! I also serve as the Associate Chair of the History Department and, at the moment, that means I'm in charge of scheduling. After I first started teaching in this room, I had a couple of my colleagues who’ve had rooms they weren't really happy with come by and they we’re really impressed so now they’ll also be teaching in this space.

Next quarter we’ll be offering at least three different history courses here so if you’re a student who happens to be living in Willard Hall, you’ll have the entire classroom experience for these history courses without ever leaving the building. That's a really cool thing because it starts to integrate the intellectual side of the University with the living side of the University.

What else has teaching in an active learning environment impressed upon you?

I think I've realized that an active learning classroom has a lot of different components to it. It's not just about the technology. I’m not as far removed as you can get but I'm pretty far removed from anyone who is particularly adept at technology, and I if I could tell any one thing to my fellow instructors it would be that it's really not that hard to figure out. If I can figure it out, you can figure it out.

It's much better to be in a space that gives you the flexibility. You don't have to use everything for every class. There can be things you never touch. I teach a different course which I love to use another active learning room for that’s research based, which is kind of hard to do on a quarter system. We focus everyone on one event and work through the material as a group. I would so love to have a classroom where there's 15 of us in the room and we're all looking at the same documents, analyzing the same material, and sharing screens where we can overlay information. You really are able to do all sorts of interesting things with an active learning classroom.

The bottom line is: don't be scared. Having access to a variety of resources in the room is really a benefit. Use what you want and you'll figure it out.