Investing in a World-class Environment

What does the College need to invest in to provide a “world-class” environment for teaching and learning? When the College administration designates funds for upgrades to classrooms, faculty and sometimes students are invited to view samples of classroom furniture or technology, and provide feedback on the potential purchases. In general, faculty members are asked whether they think the options and layout possibilities are what they were interested in having in classrooms. This approach helps ensure that most of the faculty members who use the selected design features are at least satisfied with the intended improvements — indirect evidence of the impact. But is there any evidence that choices of furniture, layout and technology influence what happens in the classroom, that is, how faculty teach and students learn?

At this point there is a small but growing and consistent body of research on the impact of classroom design on direct outcomes. Most research still relies heavily on student and faculty perceptions of the influence of classroom design, but a few studies are suggestive of the role design may play beyond perception and this research points to features that may have a positive impact. One interesting series of studies has been taking place at the University of Minnesota (e.g., see Whiteside et al., 2010). Researchers there are looking at their university’s investment in active learning classrooms in comparison to traditional classrooms. Active learning classrooms are intended to promote student engagement in learning as opposed to students passively receiving information. At Community College of Philadelphia, the faculty surveys that were issued for several years showed an increase over time in faculty respondents stating that they were doing more group work during class time — one technique associated with active learning. Does the layout of the classroom and the technology available accommodate this shift in teaching? And, is it possible that classroom design could accelerate a trend at the College that is consistent with research on the positive impact of teaching for active learning? In the University of Minnesota studies, active learning classrooms have large circular tables seating up to nine students, the instructor podium is located among the student tables, three laptop computers connect to LCD screens, and 360-degree marker boards sit along the periphery of the rooms.

By comparison, the traditional classrooms have seating in rows, the instructor podium at the front of the classroom, whiteboards, overhead projectors and VCR/DVD players. In summary, the researchers did find that students associated the active learning classrooms with fostering collaboration, and faculty and students were positive about the layout and technology — indirect support for the active learning environment. The more interesting finding, though, was related to the students’ grade outcomes. Students selected the section of the course they enrolled in as opposed to being randomly assigned to the section, so the researchers compared students in the classes on multiple demographic variables to increase the probability that the two groups were comparable at the start of the semester. The only significant difference they found initially was that students who enrolled in the traditional classroom had higher ACT scores — a variable positively correlated with grades. As expected, the ACT scores predicted grade outcomes for the students in the traditional classroom; but the students in the active learning classroom had grades that were higher than expected, and not significantly different from their higher ACT scoring peers in the traditional classroom. Also, even though the same instructor taught both sections of the course, he lectured more when in the traditional classroom, moved around the classroom less, and engaged with students less often than when he was in the active learning classroom.

Studies at other institutions support the finding that active learning classrooms may be related to better student learning outcomes. For example, Determan et al. (2015) described their active learning classroom as having round tables for up to six students, tables and chairs on casters to increase the opportunity for mobility, wall-mounted monitors controlled by personal devices, mobile whiteboards for each student group, and whiteboards on the walls. The traditional classroom had seating in rows, computers located in each desk that were controlled by the instructor, a single whiteboard and a podium in the front of the room. The researchers did report on student and instructor perceptions, but also looked at how students performed in the classes compared to expectations based on their GPAs. Students in the active learning classroom performed better than predicted while students in the traditional classroom performed worse than predicted. A potential caution was identified in the study. Students in the active learning classroom were more often “disengaged” from the class. That is, they were more often engaging in activities during class time that had nothing to do with the class. The researchers attribute this finding to the greater opportunities students had to use technology unrelated to classroom material.

The research on the relationship between classroom features and student learning outcomes is small but growing. Interest in the topic is such that since 2011 there is a peer reviewed Journal of Learning Spaces. The research shows that design in and of itself influences teaching and learning. It suggests that faculty may use more active learning approaches when the design accommodates that approach. Likewise, attempting to use active learning in a classroom that is not designed for that approach may be more of an impediment. As the College creates the next facilities plan, there is an important opportunity to design classrooms that are world class based on evidence of the impact on student learning outcomes and for us to assess the impact on teaching and learning beyond perception at our own institution. Classroom design is one more element that contributes to student success.

Dr. Judith Gay



Determan, J., Akers, M.A., Williams, I., Hohmann, C., and Martin-Dunlop, C. (2015). Learning space design for the ethnically diverse undergraduate classroom. Society for College and University Planning.

Whiteside, A.L., Brooks, D.C., and Walker, J.D. (2010). Making the case for space: Three years of empirical research on learning environments. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 33(3).