Designing Classroom Spaces to Promote Active Teaching and Student Learning

Steven Volk, February 24, 2013

Whether stated or implied, a tight link exists between classroom design and learning theory. For planning reasons, we tend to organize our classrooms (leaving labs and studios out of the question for the moment) on the basis of class size. The largest spaces in Oberlin (King 106 and 306; West Lecture Hall, Craig, Hallock, Severance 108, Warner, etc.) are designed for large numbers of students; the King, Peters, Bibbins, Severance, and Science Center classrooms (e.g. K337) will hold 20-60 students; and the “seminar” rooms around campus are designed for less than 20 students. The pedagogical implication of this are unspoken: “linear” classrooms are designed around lecture or other presentations; “horizontal” classrooms allow for class discussion.


King 106, Oberlin College

Many faculty engage in concerted guerrilla attempts to subvert the design of the classroom to which they are assigned: schlepping chairs from rows to circles; reconfiguring desks; allowing smaller groups to spill out into the hallways to find congenial discussion space. The large amphitheater spaces most deeply resist these seditious desires. I was defeated in my attempts to do anything other than lecture in King 306, although some faculty will have their students wheel around in their (fixed) seats to talk with those behind them; many will allow students to sit on the desks in a desperate attempt to promote discussion.

At the end of the day, though, we must admit that a large number of our classroom spaces were designed with student bodies, not student learning, in mind. They have been upgraded (at great cost and with much staff dedication and support) to provide access to technology, drapes have been changed, carpets added, desks swapped out. But a simple truth remains: except for the smaller seminar rooms, our classrooms are designed to have a “front” (from which point the teacher controls the technology console and the front black or white board/s), and faces out on the rows of chairs. Even seminar rooms are hard to re-purpose to allow small group discussions.


Nancy Dye Lecture Hall, Oberlin College

What we know about how students learn has been developing over the past generation. Based on the research findings of some influential studies [e.g. John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney, R. Cocking, eds., How People Learn; John Seely Brown, “Growing Up Digital: How the Web Changes Work, Education, and the Ways People Learn,” Change (March/April 2000); Theodore J. Marchese, “The New Conversations about Learning Insights from Neuroscience and Anthropology, Cognitive Science and Work-Place Studies,” AAHE Conference on Assessment and Quality, Assessing Impact: Evidence and Actions (1997), etc.], we can say with some confidence that deeper learning experiences (i.e., those that are at the higher end of Bloom’s taxonomy) occur when learning is social, active, contextual, engaging, and student-owned (see Colleen Carmean and Jeremy Haefner, “Mind over Matter. Transforming Course Management Systems into Effective Learning Environments,” EDUCAUSE Review (Nov/Dec 2002), p. 29).

I have full confidence that Oberlin teachers will make the most out of the classroom geographies they are assigned to create a learning environment which can provide these experiences. But it is hard to be fighting our furniture all the time.


Lena Dunham (Oberlin ’08) – Tiny Furniture

As much as I try to make 100- and 200-level classes (from 20-50 students) student-centered, I often feel trapped behind the technology console: I’m a (supposed) “sage” who is quite consciously trying to get off the stage, but there I am, in front.  Further, what we know of “universal design,” is that design (whether of buildings, classrooms, or course instruction) should take everyone into account from the ground up, not “accommodate” to special needs. Our classrooms, as currently configured, don’t take our students’ different learning styles into account. Again, we do our best to “accommodate,” to make it work. But shouldn’t we be designing for student learning from the beginning?

The more I think about this, the more I wonder what it would be like to have a classroom that was capable of supporting what we know about how students learn. What if Oberlin faculty  had a fully flexible classroom space, with modular furniture (both chairs and tables on casters), and tables that could hold 6-7 students, that could be shifted easily to meet the demands of a particular class session, with decentralized computing and networking (where there were flat-screens in 3 of the room’s corners and white/black boards on at least three walls)? (Photos of two examples, from Brown and the University of Minnesota, Rochester, are below.)

Helpfully, researchers at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo tried just such an experiment to evaluate the impact of  a variety of factors in a classroom design on student learning and engagement. You can find the full results of the study (Stern Neill and Rebecca Etheridge, “Flexible Learning Spaces: The Integration of Pedagogy, Physical Design, and Instructional Technology”) as a pdf on the web or in Blackboard. They conclude that “student-centered approaches to learning require a physical space that adapts to learner demands. Using modular furniture and accessible information technology better supports alternative approaches to teaching and learning. As instruction moves toward co-creation of the learning experience, the flexible, networked classroom provides an appropriate physical setting. Investment in flexible learning space design supports students and faculty and reinforces institutional commitment to educational excellence”(p. 7).

So here’s what I propose: Select 3-4 classrooms around the campus (King, Peters, the Science Center and Bibbins) to be fitted with modular furniture, accessible information technology,  three-wall displays (flat screens and white/black boards). All faculty who are interested in more active, experimental pedagogy can request the rooms while (for the purpose of evaluation), they will also be assigned to other faculty. Enlist some of the faculty with good experience in experimental research design to modify the Cal Poly experiment to our own needs and environment, and then rigorously assess the impact of classroom design on student learning.

Let me know what you think and what other ideas you may have on this subject or ideas for changes on campus that can positively impact student learning.

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