nside wilfrid laurier university’s pastel-painted Dr. Alvin
Woods Building, a boxy structure on the school’s Waterloo campus that’s home to numerous classrooms and offices, resides what
everyone calls the “green room.” It’s a classroom with a tad more
fashion sense than your usual institutional space, with bright
green walls that match the fabric on the chairs. The chairs, on
wheels, are clustered around round tables, each of which is kitted
up with a laptop and a pod that can project one’s work to a nearby
screen, or all the room’s screens. Between those many screens are
whiteboards on each of the four walls. The podium stands sort of at
the front, but it hardly seems to matter, since only some students
actually face that direction.
“This room gives us permission to teach differently,” says Gavin Brockett,
associate professor of history and religion and culture at Laurier. He’s used
the green room, which accommodates 40, ever since it opened in 2012. Its
arrival coincided with something of a crisis for him in teaching: he was
seeing attendance in his classes drop to as low as 40 percent by midterm
and was ready to try new techniques to get his students more engaged.
In the green room, Dr. Brockett has had his students do presentations
on 16th Century Mediterranean pirates, as well as group projects via
videoconferencing with students in Turkey. While it takes more time for
him to prep his classes and requires a level of creative thinking he purports to find difficult (“I’m a history professor. I’m out of my league”), he
keeps at it. “It’s much more fun to have students show up.” And they do:
his midterm attendance rate has soared to upwards of 90 percent, he says.
For Dr. Brockett, this space facilitated a move towards a student-cen-
tred teaching style. Many professors elsewhere are promoting active learn-
group work or attempting to get discussions going in large, acoustically
challenged lecture halls can be frustrating. “I don’t care how good you
are, it’s hard to get groups of six working together in a lecture hall,” says
Andrew Leger, an associate professor and educational developer with the
Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queen’s University.
one of the pioneers to ponder classroom design is Robert Beichner, now
Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Physics at North Carolina State University. In the early 1990s, he taught a unique group at
NCSU: 36 first-year engineering students who learned in a single classroom while their physics, math, chemistry and engineering professors rotated through. “We used every single research-based teaching method we
could come up with,” including group work and internet-based projects,
says Dr. Beichner, who taught the physics component. A year later, the
university increased the class size to 100, forcing Dr. Beichner and the
others to innovate to accommodate the larger group.
In 1995, the school renovated a classroom under Dr. Beichner’s newly
created SCALE-UP (Student-Centred Active Learning Environment with
Upside-down Pedagogies) protocol. Today, NCSU is in the fourth iteration of such classrooms and Dr. Beichner has a couple decades of data
showing what works best. For instance, seven-foot round tables seem
ideal, but D-shaped ones are okay for small rooms; chairs should be on
wheels, with no arms, and the optimal space between tables is five feet.
Students should have access to screen sharing from laptops and whiteboards on walls or on desks.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology – experiencing a 40 percent
attendance rate by end of term in many classes and a 10 percent failure rate
– adapted SCALE-UP using input from Microsoft Research to create a tech-rich classroom for 150 students in 2000. The University of Minnesota
looked to both schools and built two classrooms in 2007. Now, Dr. Beichner says the Midwestern school has become a national leader, with a third
of its students taking a class in an active-learning classroom each year.
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ACTIVE LEARNING AND ENGAGEMENT