Educators are always looking for ways to enhance learning in the classroom, and a new classroom design may just offer the opportunity to do that.
Three instructors at George Mason University's School of Business, have been utilizing new active learning classrooms. Rather than the traditional lecture-style seating where all chairs are placed in rows facing the front of the room, these new active learning classrooms are equipped with movable furniture and multiple whiteboards and screens throughout the rooms.
Paige Wolf, assistant dean of graduate programs, Cheryl Druehl, associate professor of operations management, and Anne Magro, associate professor of accounting, have been experimenting with various teaching configurations in these special rooms.
Wolf says that one of the benefits of the active learning classrooms is breaking students and faculty out of their comfort zones. "Students can't hide. They feel responsible for participating. It encourages them to stay on task, and not get distracted on Facebook or other websites."
Currently, there are only a small number of active learning classrooms at Mason. Two of these rooms are in Robinson Hall B. The Meese Room, in Mason Hall, has also been designed as an active learning classroom, and there are two active learning classrooms with technology-enhanced features in Exploratory Hall and Innovation Hall. Watch a video about one of the active learning classrooms.
For instructors and students, the moveable furniture means limitless classroom configurations are available—rounds, rows facing the board/screen, rows facing middle with screens behind, squares/rectangles (seminar style), U-shaped, and more. The rooms can accommodate a diverse array of instructor needs and learning activities.
These configurations enable separation into pairs or groups, allowing for convenient discussion and problem-solving among small groups and enable faculty to easily walk around and listen to groups. In addition, the whiteboards around the room allow students to record their thoughts and conclusions from their group work, a favorite feature among students.
"I really liked the room in Robinson and would like to teach in it every semester," says Druehl. "It encouraged me to think about interactive ways to transmit material, beyond case discussions."
So is this the wave of the future?
Wolf says there is a movement in higher education toward more flexible seating options in classrooms as opposed to fixed rows, and it looks like Mason is on board too.
According to Kimberly Eby, associate provost for faculty development and director for the Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence at Mason, there are six classrooms on campus that will be getting a complete redesign to explore different kinds of classroom configurations, most in support of the active learning classroom model.
"It is an exciting project for us! It is the first large-scale renovation project to be completed in alignment with the university's strategic plan initiative on innovative learning," says Laura Manno, an architect and planner at Mason.
Two of the upgraded classrooms will use convertible computer tables, which allow rooms to be used both as computer classrooms with computers provided and as non-computer classrooms where Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is supported. Another room will offer round tables that can be split apart, and two rooms will have individual tables that can be moved together to accommodate groups of different sizes.
A sixth room will have bullet tables—tables with six seats around three sides and a large monitor on the fourth side. "It's like you are sitting in a 'U' with a monitor on one side. This supports more collaborative teams and groups. It's great for cases and groups," says Eby.
Mason is also revamping an underused computer lab into a "computer commons." It will provide computer stations, two bullet tables, a range of lounge furniture for students to collaborate, and breakout stations that students can reserve to work in groups.
"Someday I hope we get to the point that most classrooms at Mason are designed to encourage and facilitate active learning and the traditional classroom with seats in a row are the exception," Magro says.