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Active Learning Spaces

Why does space matter?

Redesign of room A360 in Watsonville Center

Watsonville Room A360

  • Creating a vision for teaching and learning space development is critical to any design project.
    • base the vision on pedagogical principles, and include broad representation across relevant services (faculty, students, IT, facilities, student services)
  • The vision should be based on the fact that active learning improves student performance.

Active learning means that the mind is actively engaged. Its defining characterisic is that students are dynamic participants in their learning and that they are reflecting on and monitoring both the processes and the results of their learning (Barkley, 2010).

Students in courses with interactive engagement achieved a gain of ~2 standard deviations higher than traditional courses (Hake, 1998).

There is an “enormous wealth of research supporting the benefits of active learning in helping students master difficult subjects” (Michael, 2006).

Increased enthusiasm for learning in both students and instructors (Thaman et al., 2013).

  • Understand that space impacts perception. It creates expectations of behavior, suggests how to act, and communicates what is valued. The following link is an interesting commentary by Edward Nuhfer on color, carpet, light, and furniture. Some Aspects of an Ideal Classroom

Space planning is a collaborative process with student learning at the center.

Shift the focus from the physical requirements of a classroom space to identifying what elements of a space could support teaching practices and student learning. (see diagram below)

diagram of student learning at the center of all space design

When assessing design, use these three general targets to measure the impact of learning spaces on learning: academic engagement, teaching methods, and use of learning spaces. Article written by Sawyer Hunley and Molly Schaller, University of Dayton, for EDUCASE book, Learning Spaces, 2006.

Goals of developing an active learning classroom space.

active collaborative learning space

  1. Develop effective pedagogical and technological support models for instructors.
  2. Develop an integrated approach to instructor support involving all relevant pedagogical and technical support units (IT, TLC, Facilities, Division Office).
  3. Generate knowledge about teaching and learning in active learning classrooms based largely on instructor and student experiences.
    Check out Teaching in Active Learning Spaces and 10 of the Most Engaging Uses of Instructional Technology
  4. Identify best practices that may be applied to other teaching and learning contexts.


Principles for Designing Teaching and Learning Spaces [pdf] and the Seven Principles for Classroom Design: The Learning Space Rating System

active collaborative learning space

Design considerations include layout, furniture, technology, acoustics, lighting, and color. Non-negotiable features include:

  • lots of writing surfaces
  • basic presentation technology
  • lots of wifi (connectivity for student devices)
  • flexible furniture and flexibility to move around the room
  • long term operational support
  • on-going faculty development

active collaborative learning space


large lecture format








Promotes active engagement with content

Work surfaces for notebooks, laptops, textbooks

Comfortable furniture; varied furniture to support different types of tasks and preferences

Access to infrastructure; access to resources, multiple sources and screens

Designed to avoid distraction from outside and inside sources

Appropriate lighting for individual work

Intentional use of color to promote focus

Promotes peer engagement

Promote F2F communication Individuals can move about easily; unobstructed sightlines

Flexible seating; intentional use of furniture of different heights and shapes

Shared workspaces

Sound zones for simultaneous conversation; appropriate amplification

Different lighting patterns for different activities (e.g. labs)

Use color to define groups’ use of space

Promotes interaction with faculty

Easy access to all students

Podium doesn’t interfere with sightlines, movement and interaction

Screen sharing; ability to control classroom tech away from podium

Sound zones for simultaneous conversation; appropriate amplification

Lighting supports multiple types of teaching tasks

Colors distinguish purpose

Active Learning Classroom Design Examples

large class
Large lecture (104 seats)
Two rows tier, fixed table, movable chairs, writable walls, multi-screen, videoconferencing, wireless screen sharing, student microphones

collaborative furniture layout
Collaborative class (72 seats)
Fixed round tables and movable chairs, writable walls, multi-sources technology, central podium, natural and daylighting, table colors to match writable glass

active-collaborative classroom
Active-collaborative class (24 seats)
Fixed round tables and movable chairs, writable walls, multiple‐sources and screens, central podium, natural light

Example of what can be done when columns are present.
Active learning class (80 seats)
Fixed Y tables, counter height, movable chairs, writable walls, multi-sources, screen sharing



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