Active-Learning Classroom blends old and new to promote student learning ​

​After successful two-year pilot program, more faculty to use the Eads classroom

At first glance, the Active-Learning Classroom (ALC) on the lower level of Eads Hall looks more like an inviting group-study lounge than a classroom.

The ALC opened in fall 2012 in Eads 016 as a pilot program funded by a grant from the Washington University in St. Louis Annual Fund. The program is jointly sponsored by the College of Arts & Sciences and The Teaching Center.

The classroom is a highly flexible space that facilitates collaborative group work as well as class discussions. It was designed to promote new pedagogies for student learning and to encourage student collaboration.

“I’m a believer in active learning,” said Joan Strassmann, PhD, the Charles Rebstock Professor of Biology in Arts & Sciences, who teaches her “Behavioral Ecology” course in the Active-Learning Classroom.

The spacious classroom is furnished with nine oval wood tables that seat six on comfortable wheeled chairs. The tables line the perimeter of the room, surrounding the instructor’s console near the center.

Each student station is equipped with a 46-inch plasma flat-screen monitor and six ports for wireless tablet computers or students’ laptop computers. Two large projection screens on opposite walls enable display of documents and images to the entire class.

The classroom does not rely solely on advanced technology. Each student station has an old-school blackboard on which students can solve equations, draw diagrams and make notes.

When low-tech paper is the best medium, students can use pages from extra-large sticky-note pads. The ALC design balances the use of technology and traditional learning tools to allow students to use the most appropriate combinations of tools to enhance their learning.

In the open center of the room, students can roll their chairs in to transition from small-group work to whole-class discussions at the instructor’s discretion.

Alison M. Redden, PhD, a lecturer in chemistry in Arts & Sciences, leads a class in the Active-Learning Classroom in the lower level of Eads Hall.

Current courses include “General Chemistry” subsections (Chem 111 and 112); “Introduction to Ecology” (Biol 381), “Phage Bioinformatics” (Biol 192); “Behavioral Ecology” (Biol 372); “Seminar in Academic Mentoring” (GeSt 275); “Practical Applications of Academic Mentoring in Mathematics” (GeSt 250); and the Humanities Digital Workshop, a joint summer project of Arts & Sciences Computing and Olin Library.

“General Chemistry” subsections and “Introduction to Ecology” combine small-group work (including problem solving) with mini-lectures. “Seminar in Academic Mentoring” and “Practical Applications of Academic Mentoring in Mathematics” are discussion-based courses that combine regular small-group work (including critiquing videos of Peer-Led Team Learning sessions) with larger class discussions. “Behavioral Ecology” and “Phage Bioinformatics” are project-based courses.

“If you have a project-based course, the classroom works very well,” Strassmann said.

Her “Behavioral Ecology” students work in groups on separate projects, then author peer-reviewed Wikipedia entries on their project subjects. The course can be followed on the Wikipedia Education pages.

The entire course, including syllabus and assignments, is available to any professor in the world who wants to teach it.

This type of classroom “is definitely a new experience for most of us,” said senior Kelly Young in the “Behavorial Ecology” class. “We spend most of our time doing group work or interactive assignments. A lot of the material is enhanced through group work.

“Instead of memorizing facts,” Young said, “we apply what we learn into projects and Wikipedia assignments. My favorite feature of the classroom is the casual attitude and how it helps promote interaction with peers, instructors and TAs.”

Strassmann’s teaching assistant, Boahemaa Adu-Oppong, a PhD candidate in biology, agrees that the classroom makes student interaction easier. “Students ask me all kinds of questions after the videos are over,” she said. “They don’t have to wait to come up to me afterwards — we can discuss the material right there and then.”

Learning how to use Active-Learning Classroom

The two-year pilot program has been so successful that the use of the ALC will expand, and Frey expects to increase the number of active-learning classrooms throughout the Danforth Campus as funding permits.

Frey will co-conduct a session on the ALC during the daylong Jan. 9 i teach symposium, which brings together WUSTL faculty from across disciplines to share insights and ideas on teaching and learning.

Frey, along with Megan Daschbach, PhD, a lecturer in chemistry and director of the Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) program, and Eleanor Pardini, PhD, a lecturer and assistant director of environmental studies, will present “Redesigning Learning Spaces: The Active-Learning Classroom in Arts & Sciences.”

Participants in this interactive session will meet in the ALC and try out the classroom’s flexible technology and furniture as they learn about how the features of the room have been used in a chemistry course using Process-Oriented Guided-Inquiry Learning; a discussion-based PLTL course; and an “Introduction to Ecology” course in which interactive lecture is the primary method.

Participants also will learn about insights drawn from surveys of faculty and students who have used the room.

For more information about the i teach symposium or to register, visit here.