Premier Active Learning Environment Launches at Feinberg

The room is remarkably silent. Remarkable because nearly every chair in the 165-seat classroom is occupied. All of the second-year medical students present are simultaneously contemplating the probability of a diagnosis posited by their instructor, internally debating whether or not they agree and how to convince those at their table of the same. A short but lively discussion follows.

“Look how everyone agrees it’s staph,” remarks one student to his group above the chatter. “Not table two,” responds the person to his left as everyone turns to view a screen on the adjacent wall. 

This scene, and others very much like it, are now an everyday experience for students at the Feinberg School of Medicine, as the premier active learning space on Northwestern’s Chicago campus has come online. Located in the McGaw Medical Center, the 4,800+ square-foot classroom is the result of years of development by the Office of Medical Education and Northwestern Information Technology’s Trevor Musolf, lead AV systems engineer, to strike the right balance between students, technology, and pedagogy.

“We've been doing active learning since we started our new curriculum in 2012,” said Patricia Garcia, MD, MPH, associate dean at Feinberg. “And what we noticed was that you can't have collaborative learning in a tiered classroom. We tried for seven years, and it is virtually impossible. Our regular alternative, large conference rooms are generally not equipped to run collaborative sessions; screens are limited and the acoustics are often poor. So, the question for us was, how do you put 200 students into groups and allow them both the space to work together and as a part of the entire class?”

BYOD – Bring Your Own Device

For room design considerations, the first order of business was tackling a problem that had been a thorn in the side of the curriculum team for years—creating an environment that not only worked with any device but also allowed the instructor to interact seamlessly within it.

“We tried many different platforms before coming up with a system that would allow for the faculty facilitator to see what each group was doing and build upon it on the fly,” said Dr. Garcia. “It takes the right technology to enable that sort of thing to happen, and that's where partnerships come in. It’s important to find both internal partners like Northwestern IT and also external vendors who are willing to tweak their software until you land on the solution that enables your vision.”

That vision is best played out in scenarios like the differential diagnosis. As teams use a device of their choice at their table to input an answer, an instructor can then pull up the team’s screen on their own, use a tablet pen to make live comments and suggestions, and then easily switch between all of the teams in the room.

Mic Check; One, Two

Another major design consideration centered on room acoustics.

“Enabling students across this very large room to talk to each other, the instructor, and other tables is a key feature,” said Trevor Musolf, lead for the Northwestern IT design team. “Previously, handheld microphones had to be passed around, which was a bit cumbersome, so we moved the mics into the ceiling and created targeted zones based on table placement. Now, students at each table have the ability to respond in their normal speaking voice and be heard by the other room sections when the air walls are open.”

Ceiling mics
Ceiling-mounted microphones allow students to talk at a normal volume and be heard across the large classroom. 

The Big Ah-Ha! Moment – Table Design

Barriers to the effectiveness of a learning space that emphasize technology to facilitate interaction are not always technology-related, as the design team discovered. They come in all shapes and sizes—but mostly, round.   

“Part of the challenge of designing a large active learning space is not technical at all,” said Dr. Garcia, “but rather table size and shape. A round table was initially alluring to us, but there's too much wasted space. That's why we settled on rectangular tables. Though even then, the standard rectangular tables we saw were too wide. So we mocked up cardboard tables of various sizes until we settled on the specially-sized ones in the room today that we feel best facilitate students working together.”

Table design
Specially-sized rectangular tables were chosen for their optimal spacing for collaborative work. 

Where To From Here

Having the ability to increase touch-points for each student group, both with their instructor and peers, has not gone unnoticed. David Salzman, MD, MEd, director of simulation for undergraduate medical education, notes, “Our students have overwhelmingly expressed that the room has a positive effect on their learning experience. Students specifically appreciated the ease of hearing their peers from across the room, using the large screens for collaboration, and that the technology was straightforward. They feel it is fun, exciting, and a great way to work collaboratively. Several students have expressed that the room feels like a learning space ‘of their own.’ The room itself is a statement to the students that we are committed to creating an engaging and interactive learning experience.” ​

While Dr. Garcia agrees that the new McGaw space is a big step in the right direction for the medical school, she still sees opportunities for the future.

“I think we're at a good midway point. This new setup enables us to design and create class sessions that captivate and engage students, and bring them together to apply their knowledge and solve problems. However, we also want it to be useful for a faculty member who’s going to come in and do a traditional lecture-based presentation with some basic interactivity. Our hope is that once faculty teach in this space, they’ll see the potential and adapt their planning for a classroom experience that fully embraces all that they can do within it.” 

Kristy Wolniak, MD, Ph.D., director of Phase 1 medical student curriculum, also shares that sentiment, “We encourage our faculty to develop interactive sessions, however it is challenging for even the most experienced educators to engage such a large group of students at the same time. This room makes it possible. Early feedback from multiple faculty members who have used the new room has stated that it has inspired them to create content to more actively engage the students. Hearing this sentiment is so gratifying and lets us know that the space is having the intended effect.” 

“Working with Dr. Garcia and her colleagues in designing the technology for the McGaw active learning classroom has provided a wonderful learning opportunity for our staff,” said Peggy McCready, EdD, associate vice president of Northwestern IT Services and Support. “Northwestern has a vibrant active learning community of practice, who without a doubt, will be looking forward to learning more about Dr. Garcia’s work with the Feinberg School of Medicine. McGaw is now the largest active learning classroom we have, and I suspect there will be even more demand for classrooms of this type and size as we look to advancing support for active learning across a number of different disciplines.”


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