Why has Mason invested in these spaces for faculty and students?
These various learning environments have been created so that faculty who are integrating more active learning strategies — hands-on activities such as simulations, project-based and problem-focused assignments, and/or inquiry-based learning — have a classroom space that facilitates these goals. Whether you are having students work individually, in teams, or both, these rooms are designed to support your course design.
The rooms are informed by principles for good practice in undergraduate education (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). That is, these classrooms encourage active learning, faculty and student interaction, and opportunities for students to learn from each other. Learning is “on display” in these classrooms, making what is being learned – and how learning develops – more visible to both students and faculty.
What’s the role of the instructor when teaching in these rooms?
Faculty may see their roles shift as they take full advantage of these learning spaces. Whereas traditional classrooms that have a distinct “front” of the room with a large lectern invite a more teacher-centered approach, such as lecturing, these classrooms are designed to facilitate faculty moving easily about the room while students are engaged in hands-on activities. They are designed with a more student-centered mission in mind, one that gives students opportunities for discovery as they build their knowledge around a topic or issue. The role of the instructor becomes one of designing learning activities to stimulate student exploration and learning.
What are faculty and students saying about teaching and learning in these rooms?
Feedback from faculty suggests that in many cases teaching in these classrooms has encouraged them to think more broadly about the possibilities for creating community and student engagement. Some faculty have reported that they believe their student engagement is higher, on average, compared to traditional classrooms. About half of students who are taking classes in these rooms report feeling more connected to their instructor and to their peers, compared to traditional classrooms.
What works? Received wisdom from your Mason faculty colleagues
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- To help students understand and work in the active learning classrooms, communicate with them in advance of the semester about what the classroom is like and how you’ll use it to enhance their learning. Provide a welcome letter or video that previews the room, its key features, and your reasons and approaches for teaching in it. Reinforce these ideas during the semester by making it clear how an activity has been designed to support their learning.
- Get students up and moving around the room from the first day. For rooms with moveable furniture, let students experience a few of the seating configurations that you’re likely to use early on. Consider communicating why you’ve used a particular seating arrangement, or ask students to make connections between the space/room configuration and the activities or approaches to learning.
- Have students work on the white boards and do low-stakes work with the technology (if applicable) early in the semester—during the first day and week—so that they become comfortable with the resources in the room and willing to experiment with them. Students quickly fall into patterns of behavior, so what you do in the first few meetings helps manage expectations.
- Some students will resist publicly solving problems—and making mistakes— especially on the white boards. Explicitly discuss this concern, and assure your students that you will all make mistakes and that it’s part of the nature of the course. Having low-stakes activities early and often, providing scenarios or problems in which most or all students are likely to make mistakes, and building in processes that helps them see how they learned from those errors are all strategies to address this. Model expected behavior and attitudes for your students: when something doesn’t go as you planned (because not everything will!), let your students see you handle the situation with humor or ease and learn from it.
- Consider developing cues to let students know that you are shifting from one activity to another during the class. For example, some faculty start or stop a piece of music, use the screens to project an image (e.g., a timer), or adjust the lights to signal the start or stop of group work.
- It is important to recognize that you can’t do everything. Some activities may take more time than they would in a traditional classroom and some faculty found that they had to reduce content or the number of assignments throughout the semester. Given this, strive get as much as possible from each learning activity that you design. Be clear about what you want to accomplish for any activity, exercise, or assignment, and focus in on those goals while planning. Be wary of fun activities or other course elements that don’t have maximum impact for student achievement of learning goals.
- The technology in some of these classrooms is a great tool to help your students meet the learning goals and objectives, but it shouldn’t drive your pedagogy. It’s okay to not always use all of the technology or to adopt some of it over time.
- Detailed activity design and carefully written directions are important. Students can be helped by being brought “behind the scene” to see how the activities connect to their learning and relate to broader course goals.
- The classroom environment will feel chaotic sometimes, and students are reliant on each other when faculty (and teaching assistants, if applicable) are working with other groups. Prepare carefully written instructions that articulate the process in brief but detailed steps; stop when needed to help students make connections back to the activity’s learning objectives.
- Designing effective class activities simultaneously requires careful pre-planning, structure, and flexibility. Striking this balance is tricky—be patient with yourself and your students. Short lectures can be valuable to reinforce an idea and make connections after completing a group assignment. They can also help to clarify areas and concepts that you observed presented difficulties for your students. It can be eye-opening to pull up a chair and sit in on a group activity. Not only will it help you get a sense of what it feels like to be a student in this environment, it is also a terrific opportunity to learn where your activity is clear and where it remains murky for students. In fact, seeking regular feedback from students using a variety of Classroom Assessment Techniques will increase your success in these spaces.
- The pacing of activities and class sessions requires careful pre-planning. Not all groups or students will work at the same pace, so its important to have something extra planned. This can range from providing multiple, increasingly difficult problems; providing reflection or follow-up activities as groups finish; letting early completers work together on their own projects; or asking early completers to use a structured process to assist other groups.
- With longer class periods, it can be difficult for students to sustain mental intensity throughout the class period. Work to have a mix of activities and intensity levels. Start or end activities with individual thinking or reflection. When energy lags, get students out of their seats, working with other groups or on the whiteboards.
- Plan to circulate around the room to provide instruction; use student work as models and instruction within a group or table.
- Formal testing can be difficult in spaces without a clear front facing focal point. It can be challenging to monitor a class during a test and some seating arrangements may be distracting for students. Instructors have used different test forms, staggered test times, and moved to online tests to streamline the testing process and minimize possibilities for cheating. A technique that some faculty find very valuable is to have students take an individual test, followed immediately by a group test over the same material. Faculty have reported that it facilitates students’ learning and builds a sense of community and positive interdependence within student groups.
- Since faculty-student connection can increase learning motivation and help faculty assess the learning needs and progress of individual students, plan ways to connect with students and encourage them to connect with each other from the first day. Successful strategies that faculty have used include: having name tags or table tents to learn students’ names early, conducting student skills and knowledge inventories, soliciting regular feedback, and requiring students to meet with them for faculty-student conferences or check-ins.
- Be prepared for different types of classroom dynamics depending on the course size. This is nearly always the case, of course, but if you are teaching in a larger classroom designed for active learning you may feel a different kind of connection to students than you would in a large lecture-based, or even smaller active learning based, course. When faculty successfully design team-based learning experiences with strong peer support, they sometimes report feeling less connected to students.
- Consider your learning goals and the mix of students in your class when forming groups. It may be appropriate to group students by interest area, by a shared project topic, or by diverse skills or abilities. For example, mixing majors and non-majors together, or identifying students who are strong leaders during the first several weeks and dispersing them throughout groups for the rest of the semester. The Strengths Finder Assessment, free to Mason students, faculty, and staff, might be useful for creating groups with a mix of strengths that my benefit group dynamics.
- Choose groups of three to five students for most activities, though larger groups may be desirable for more complex, semester long projects.
- Be sensitive to students who don’t work well in groups. This experience may be difficult for them, but it is possible to build in reflective times. Some instructors have advocated a “quiet table.” Building in moments for writing and reflection can be meaningful for all students. Paying careful attention to group dynamics is critical to make sure that students who are quiet are not excluded in the excitement of an active, noisy classroom. Some students with documented disabilities might be concerned about adjusting to this type of learning environment; it is valuable to discuss this up front with students in order to make a plan for their success.
- Student accountability is essential. When writing instructions, be explicit about expectations for results and write-ups of group work. Consider asking groups to assign roles to individual students, or devise other processes for holding students accountable for active participation. Use online spaces for public display of notes, shared problem-solving, and/or reflections on class activities and students’ learning.
- One assumption in active learning is that students will be using class time to do activities that build on out-of-class preparation, such as completing readings, viewing short videos, and/or analyzing digital resources. It is essential to figure out ways to encourage students to prepare for class so that they can productively participate in the classroom activity. Taking short quizzes, writing brief summaries of the material, sharing key insights and questions, or discussing the material in pairs during the first few minutes of class have all been successful strategies for faculty.
- Individual accountability within the group is also vital. Various kinds of peer assessments can be helpful, whether individual students’ input to the group, self-reported analysis and evidence of contributions to group work, and/or assignments with both individual and group input. Observing groups during class, visiting groups, and soliciting input from seemingly disengaged students can help, as can assigned roles (e.g., leader, recorder, skeptic, editor, etc.) that vary by activity and take into account students’ strengths and interests.
- For faculty teaching in the Active Learning with Technology (ALT) classroom, group or table dynamics can have a big impact on students’ learning attitudes and experiences, given the collaborative nature of the learning environment. Some faculty were surprised by the effect that cliques or table identity had on a student’s receptiveness to the class. They found that grouping students intentionally and strategically helped mitigate these effects. For example, faculty can intentionally change up groups for an individual activity or changing groups a few times throughout the semester.
- Use the limited time you speak to the entire class wisely. Clarify instructions, make connections, and set the stage for the next activity, realizing that it is sometimes difficult (and disruptive) to stop the entire class once they are ‘launched’ on an exercise. Consider using Blackboard, email, or another digital tool to communicate important information.
- The following video captures faculty and student experiences teaching and learning in our Active Learning with Technology (ALT) classroom. While this room offers enhanced technology features, many of the faculty and student experiences captured here are relevant for all of our signature learning spaces.
Mason-specific resources for using digital tools and teaching online:
Collaborative Learning HUB (CLUB): Located on the 3rd floor of the Johnson Center (walk in help with anything technology/online related)
One Button Studio: Located in Gateway Library in the Johnson Center (super easy-to-use “one button” recording studio for you or your students to record presentations, demonstrations, etc. – all you need is a flash drive; no technology expertise needed!)
Assistive Technology Initiative (ATI): Located in the Aquia building, room 238 (help creating digital materials that are accessible to all students)
Digital Learning (hybrid & online) Faculty Support: Provides support to faculty, whether new to or experienced with teaching digitally-enhanced courses, through offering instructional design support and sharing best practices for online and hybrid classes