Education research over the past decade has demonstrated that classroom layout and overall design can have a profound effect on student learning—it’s no longer a question of if the learning environment affects learning outcomes but how and how much it affects learning outcomes.
In an often-cited, powerful study published in the journal Building and the Environment, the UK-based architecture firm Nightingale Associates teamed up with the University of Salford to conduct a year-long pilot program from the fall of 2012 to the summer of 2013. The goal: to determine how classroom design impacts student learning. The research team collected data from 751 students in 34 classrooms at 7 primary schools, each with different learning environments and a variety of age groups.
What they discovered was eye-opening but, for most teachers, not surprising. When controlled for all other variables, classroom layout and design accounts for a 25% impact, positive or negative, on student achievement, and the learning environment has the greatest influence on younger learners. Overall, the difference between the best and the worst classroom designs represented in the study was a solid year’s worth of academic progress.
Due to this study, and others like it, administrators, teachers, parents, and students have begun advocating for classroom environments that reflect the needs of the 21st-century student, supporting active learning and promoting collaboration, hands-on creation (or project-based learning), and communication. Sounds good. But how do you do it?
Classroom Layout Tips: Designing for Active Learning
When you hear active learning, what do you picture? For most of us, the phrase evokes idealized images of students gathered around interactive learning stations, fully engaged and sharing the joy of discovery together. Or a bright, colorful classroom where students drive the day’s lesson and participate fully, using the space and the classroom technology as the backdrop for their own curiosity.
Then reality sets in. Time concerns, classroom management, budget constraints. You’ve read the research, and you know that you should encourage a more collaborative, active classroom. But all of these factors can drive a wedge between the classroom that you want to create and the one you feel you are able to manage.
Don’t worry. Classroom design experts all agree—start small, build your repertoire, do what you can. Even small classroom changes can have a big impact. Here are some of our favorite tips we’ve gathered for encouraging active learning through classroom design:
Stay Flexible. In the UK study referenced above, the researchers found that of all of the factors they tested for, only six design parameters had a significant impact on student learning. One of these six parameters is flexibility, or how easily teachers can rearrange the classroom layout to support the learning goal for that day. It turns out that a rigid classroom layout, where desks are always arranged in rows facing the teacher have a negative effect on learning outcomes. This remains true, even for high-tech classrooms with fixed interactive whiteboards as opposed to mobile interactive panels.
Other studies support these findings. The Learning Space Rating System (LSRS) lists the “reconfigurability of the room” as one of the seven core principles for good classroom design. Similarly, after a comprehensive classroom redesign project, the University of Oklahoma pared down their must-haves for active learning to a couple of elements, including maximum flexibility and the ability for students to capture their work. The upshot: movability matters. Of course, our mobile and convertible stands for our Clear Touch Interactive Panels make classroom flexibility simple. But even if you have a low-tech classroom, or an immobile interactive whiteboard, you can find ways to make sure your classroom configuration supports student learning through learning stations for early finishers, roundtable discussions, or angled rows that encourage face-to-face interaction between students. Anything that gets students out of their seats and moving around promotes a more collaborative classroom.
Aim for Interactivity. The main problem with the traditional, inflexible classroom set-up is that it doesn’t encourage interactivity among the students, or between the students and the teacher. If you’re a teacher, you already know this. A few students at the front of the classroom actively participate while most of the students are, at best, passive listeners. At worst, completely disengaged.
The LSRS suggests that tools and technology that support “distributed interactivity” are critical for maintaining a quality learning environment. In other words, all students should be able to chime in and have access to the teacher, other students, and the lesson. Our smart, interactive panels with mobile connectivity to multiple devices lower the entry point for more reserved students and allow everyone to get involved.
Give Students a Choice. One of the best ways to promote active learning in the classroom is through student choice. We all know that students learn in different ways. Teachers who allow students to present their learning in different ways encourage students to take ownership of their education. Depending on the age of student you teach, asking for students to submit project proposals is a good way to give students a choice while also putting the responsibility on them to manage their learning. Our comprehensive educational software suite offers students many different ways to learn, and to present their learning.
Choice can also play an important in creating a successful classroom environment that promotes active learning. In the same way that choice makes students take ownership of their learning, it also makes students take ownership of their learning environment. Many schools are reporting great results from allowing students to collaborate and decide how their classroom should look and function—from classroom layout to color scheme and decor. Consider making a classroom design project part of your beginning of the year curriculum and see how students respond.
Be Patient. A collaborative classroom layout isn’t a magic bullet that will instantly solve all of your teaching challenges—it is merely another means you have at your disposal to make learning more challenging, and rewarding, for your students. Have some patience with yourself and with your students as you try out new configurations and lesson plans. Allow yourself some time to grow into a more active classroom. Often, teachers find that students don’t know how to act when they are first introduced to a collaborative classroom layout, so be sure to spend plenty of time getting students oriented and explaining how the process will work. Having student buy-in from the beginning is important for the long-term success of your classroom.